Yankees smart to look at Niese as a reliever, but they should keep an open mind about starting

(Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
(Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

The Yankees made what will likely be their final free agent signing before Opening Day this weekend, inking veteran southpaw Jon Niese to a minor league contract. He pitched with a bad knee for much of last season and it showed in his numbers. A healthy Niese — he passed his physical yesterday, so he’s healthy — could be a nice little pickup. The minor league deal means there’s no risk anyway.

Niese, who is still only 30 and will spend the entire 2017 season at that age, has been a starting pitcher most of his career, though he’s also pitched in relief. The Mets used him out of the bullpen during the 2015 postseason, and last year the Pirates moved him into a relief role because he pitched so poorly as a starter they had no other choice. Point is, Niese has experience as a starter and reliever, and versatility is always appreciated.

The Yankees, however, are looking at Niese strictly as a bullpen option in Spring Training, Joe Girardi confirmed yesterday. Despite the wide open fourth and fifth starter spots, the veteran Niese isn’t a consideration for the rotation. That surprised me. Here’s what Girardi said, via George King:

“(The bullpen is) how we envision using him,’’ Girardi said. “He’s one of those guys, if he’s in the bullpen, he can do left on left or he can give you distance. As of right now, we aren’t looking at him as a starter. We have the five guys vying for the two spots. We would look at him more long and short.’’

On one hand, I’m glad the Yankees are sticking with the youth movement and prioritizing the young pitchers in the rotation race. On the other hand, why wouldn’t you at least see what Niese looks like in Spring Training games before ruling him out for a starting job? What if he comes out firing BBs with a healthy knee and forces the issue? No one thought Bartolo Colon would throw well in Spring Training 2011, then his first pitch was 95 mph.

Ultimately, Girardi’s words don’t matter that much. They don’t lock the Yankees into anything. If Niese comes out and looks fantastic in camp, the Yankees always have the option of re-evaluating things and looking at him as a starting pitcher. Plans change. For what it’s worth, Niese is willing to do whatever. “I’m here to pitch to the best of my ability and make the team … Whatever the role, I want to make the ballclub,” he said to King.

I’m excited to see the young pitchers this year — and let’s be realistic, all those guys will get chances this season, that’s the way the pitching cookie often crumbles — though I also think the Yankees should keep an open mind about using Niese as a starter. If he’s healthy, he could be pretty useful in that role given his ground ball tendencies. Also, he is only 30, so if he has success as a starter, the Yankees could look to keep him around in 2018 (and beyond?).

Furthermore, the young guys are all going to be on some sort of workload limit. I don’t know what the exact innings number will be — Luis Cessa let the kids with 147.1 innings in 2016 — but the number definitely exists. For all of them. The Yankees will have to monitor their workloads all summer, and not everyone will be able to follow the 2015 Luis Severino blueprint. Niese could help manage those workloads by making spot starts and whatnot.

My guess is Niese is going to be have to blow people away to get rotation duty at any point this year. If you’re expecting him and the kids to give you similar production, the kids should be the priority. And they will be with the Yankees. I’m pretty sure about that. I do think the Yankees should keep an open mind about Niese as a starter this year, but for now, looking at him as a bullpen option is an okay move. Development of the young arms is more important long-term.

Bryan Mitchell: Starter or reliever?

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

There are rarely real battles for important rosters spots in Yankees Spring Training. Sure, there’s usually a race for the utility infielder spot or the last spot in the bullpen, but we don’t often see a significant role up for grabs. However, from the outside looking in, it appears that the competition for the No. 4 and 5 spots in the rotation is an honest-to-goodness competition.

As Mike wrote last Wednesday, how that battle shapes up could very well shape the Yankees’ bullpen. After all, you have more than two guys fighting for just two spots. That brings me to Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell very likely would have played a larger role — initially in the bullpen — for the 2016 Yankees if he didn’t injure his toe towards the end of the camp. He ultimately made just five appearances, all starts coming in September. Now he could see himself on the outside looking in at a rotation spot to begin the year.

Mitchell in a lot of ways seems like an afterthought, but he’s a pitcher with some real talent. After all, pitchers with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and power curveball don’t grow on trees. (He has a third pitch but more on that later). While he has a 4.52 ERA in 65 2/3 big-league innings, he’s shown enough stuff and performance to make me believe he can be viable MLB pitcher. The question becomes: Is he a starter or a reliever?

Case for Mitchell the reliever

Mitchell, who will turn 26 on April 19, only really has one season with bullpen experience, that being his 2015 campaign, in which he split time between Triple A and the majors. In 29 2/3 innings, Mitchell struck out 29 batters but had an ugly 6.37 ERA. That doesn’t tell the whole story. Through Aug. 17, Mitchell had a 3.86 ERA over 21 innings (15 1/3 in relief) and had been effective, particularly in low-leverage multiple-inning outings.

His Aug. 11 game was his best. Coming into the 12th inning of a tied game on the road, Mitchell marched through the Indians order, struck out five, allowed two hits and two walks (one intentional) but worked himself out of trouble and kept Cleveland off the board. It was a gutsy performance by a rookie thrown into a tough situation.

And then it all fell apart his next appearance. Asked to make a spot start on Aug 17, Mitchell took a line drive from Eduardo Nunez off the face in the second inning. He somehow only missed 11 days, but his performance cratered afterward, allowing 12 runs in his last 10 appearances. He walked over a batter an inning and gave a glimpse of where his game can go wrong.

Still, though, Mitchell showed a lot before his broken nose. He can clearly give the team length, something they will need out of the bullpen with their current rotation, and he had cut down on his walks for the most part, something that has always been an issue for him. MLB.com gave his control a 40 grade prior to the 2015 season while ranking him 14th among Yankees prospects. However, they were pretty positive on his raw talent, saying he had “some of the best stuff” in the system and saying that he “should be able to carve up hitters” with his fastball and curveball.

That’s where the crux of the “Mitchell should be a reliever” argument lies. Both his fastball and curveball are plus pitches and he would be able to shorten his repertoire in the bullpen, cutting out his ineffective changeup. His fastball has hit 98 in the bullpen. If he can set hitters up with his fastball, his curveball can be a nice one-two punch as his out pitch.

It’s easy to make a lot of Adam Warren comparisons here, probably too easy. Warren is a definite success story for the Yankees while Mitchell hasn’t proven himself yet. For 2017, Mitchell would be more likely to emulate 2013 Warren than 2014-15 Warren. That means his value in relief is likely to be maximized by his ability to produce multiple quality innings rather than needing high leverage situations that Warren excelled in over the 2014-15 seasons. The Yankees seem to be taken care of at the moment in the backend of the ‘pen.

Case for Mitchell the starter

Why does Mitchell work in the rotation? Beyond a fastball that still sits in the mid-90s throughout his starts (dips to 94.6 third time through the order), Mitchell has developed his cutter as a more effective secondary pitch. He still uses his four-seamer 43 percent of the time, but he actually used his cutter more often than his curveball (24.7 to 21.4 percent) in 2016. His curveball was still his out-pitch, but Mitchell utilized his cutter as a swing-and-miss secondary pitch more often as the opposing lineup turned over.

The sample size is key to note: We have only 65 2/3 major league innings of data from Mitchell, about 55 percent as a starter and the rest as a reliever. His cutter, which was his best pitch by wRC+ against in 2016, showed improvement statistically from year over year in that sample, a sign that Mitchell might be more than just a two-pitch pitcher. However, it could easily be noise rather than a major breakthrough. We need to see a full season of him in the majors before you draw any real conclusions on his cutter.

If you tend to believe the 2016 number more than anything, Mitchell can be a viable back-end starter. He had two scoreless outings (with seven walks in 12 innings), two less than stellar starts and one quality start where he took the loss. The five games were against the Blue Jays (2x), Red Sox (2x) and Dodgers, so he had to face some stiff competition along the way.

Conclusion?

When I began this exercise, I thought Mitchell was best suited for relief. Part of that is definitely the Cleveland game from 2015 sticking in my mind. I still lean that way, but I’m certainly curious as to what he would do at the end of the rotation. Is his cutter a real solid weapon or is that reading too much into too few data points? Remains to be seen.

Make no mistake: Mitchell isn’t a future ace. Yet in all but the best of rotations, the No. 4 and 5 pitchers are going to have some major warts. For Mitchell, it’s his control. If he sticks as a starter, he’ll have to conquer the ability to throw strikes more consistently. Even if that doesn’t happen, Mitchell has the makings of a strong reliever who can help make up for the Yankees’ lack of length from their starters.

The mental side of Michael Pineda’s two-strike, two-out issues

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Aside from Dellin Betances, arguably no pitcher in the Yankees organization has better raw stuff than Michael Pineda. He sits in the mid-90s with his cutter even after shoulder surgery, and his slider is allergic to bats. Pineda ranked seventh among the 73 qualified starters with a 27.4% strikeout rate last season. He was fifth with a 10.61 K/9. That speaks to the sheer quality of his stuff.

And that’s a big reason why Pineda is so frustrating. His cutter/slider combination is so obviously excellent, yet the results don’t match. He’s more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe. Shaky command definitely explains some of the disconnect between his stuff and results. A nasty slider is no good when you hang it right out over the plate, something Pineda did far too often last season.

There is also a mental component to pitching, and while I hate focusing on it — bad results means he’s stupid, right? (as if a clubhouse can be confused for a Mensa meeting) — it is definitely part of the game. Focus is important, especially for a pitcher when things start to go south. Pineda had some big time problems with two strikes and two outs last year, and at one point pitching coach Larry Rothschild said it was a matter of focus.

“I need to have better focus when I’m pitching. I need to finish after I get two outs. When I get two outs or two strikes, I need to finish,” said Pineda to George King earlier this week. “(Rothschild) always tells me, ‘You have a good fastball, a good slider and good changeup. You need to focus, especially with two outs.'”

Looking at Pineda’s career overall, his issues with two strikes and two outs are limited to last season. He had no such trouble in those situations in his previous big league seasons. Here are the numbers (Pineda didn’t pitch in MLB in 2012 or 2013 due to his shoulder surgery):

Two Strikes Two Outs
2011 .136/.203/.210 (59 OPS+) .233/.298/.316 (77 OPS+)
2014 .176/.200/.239 (73 OPS+) .176/.186/.318 (48 OPS+)
2015 .202/.244/.349 (86 OPS+) .227/.263/.362 (76 OPS+)
2016 .187/.246/.286 (104 OPS+) .325/.383/.598 (172 OPS+)
MLB AVG .176/.246/.276 (100 OPS+) .241/.319/.395 (100 OPS+)

OPS+ provides important context. Pineda held hitters to a .187/.246/.286 batting line with two strikes last year and wow that sounds great, except the league average was .176/.246/.276. A guy with Pineda’s slider should not be league average in two-strike counts. He should perform like, well, the 2011-15 versions of Pineda. That guy had no trouble with two strikes or two outs.

Now just because Pineda had no trouble with two strikes and two outs in the past does not necessarily mean last year’s issues were a fluke. Confidence is important, and if his confidence took a hit last season, it could still need to be rebuilt this year. Something like this could snowball pretty easily. Get two quick outs, then a bloop falls in, and all of a sudden it’s “here we go again.”

“It’s hard to look at the (stats) with the stuff he has. We continue to remind him to finish innings. Two-out runs seem harder to recover from than solo homers (earlier in the inning),” said Joe Girardi to King. Rothschild added Pineda “tried harder to do more” to close out innings.

I can definitely buy that. There were times last season when Pineda seemed to try so hard to execute a perfect two-strike pitch — rather than just focusing on making a quality pitch — that he messed up and hung it out over the plate. Not every pitch needs to be perfect, especially when the hitter is on the defensive with two strikes. How do you get Pineda out of that mode? Damned if I know. That’s up to Girardi, Rothschild, and Pineda to figure out.

Last season Pineda allowed 52 of his 98 runs with two outs, or 53%. That is completely and totally bonkers. The league average is 36%. Pineda with a league average number of two-outs runs allowed would have had a 3.99 ERA in 2016, not a 4.82 ERA. That’s a huge difference! We’re talking about getting that one last out here. Get the out and the threat is over. Its impact can be enormous.

Because Pineda’s problems with two outs and two strikes were limited to last season, I’m hopeful he can get over them going forward. That doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done on the mental side. Of course there is. This problem won’t fix itself. Getting over the hump is a win-win. The Yankees will get a more effective Pineda in 2017 and Pineda will put himself in a good position heading into free agency after the season.

The Yankees could follow the 2015 Luis Severino blueprint with James Kaprielian in 2017

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Luis Severino and James Kaprielian, two of the best young pitchers in the Yankees organization, are looking to rebuild value this season. Severino had big league success in 2015 before struggling big time as a starter in 2016. Kaprielian, meanwhile, was sidelined for most of the 2016 regular season by a pretty significant elbow issue. Both are talented and looking to rebound this summer.

When the Yankees selected Kaprielian with their first round pick two years ago, he was billed as a quick moving college starter who could possibly reach the big leagues late in 2016. It didn’t happen because of the elbow injury, but the Yankees brought him to Spring Training as a non-roster player last year, which was the first time in at least a decade they brought their first round pick to big league camp for his first pro season. They were eager to see him.

Severino, on the other hand, was the rare fast moving international amateur free agent. He went from the rookie Gulf Coast League to the big leagues in two calendar years. That’s pretty incredible. Were the Yankees perhaps overly aggressive with him? Yeah, I think that’s possible, but when Severino was blowing hitters away as thoroughly as he was, it’s tough to hold him back. And after he was called up in 2015, it sure looked like a smart move.

There is again talk Kaprielian, despite the injury, could reach MLB later this year. Obviously staying healthy is the primary goal. If he only makes it to Triple-A this year, so be it. That’ll put him in position to help in 2018 and that’s perfectly fine. Staying healthy is priority No. 1 here. If Kaprielian does that, it’ll be a successful season regardless of whether he actually makes it to the Bronx at some point.

The Yankees surely are at least planning for the possibility of Kaprielian reaching MLB this year though, right? Of course they are. They consider just about everything, just like they did two years ago, when Severino was a potential  second half call-up candidate. The team put together a plan to make that happen, and if it came to fruition, great! If not, they’ll adjust. Thankfully it worked it out.

The 2015 Severino plan could apply to 2017 Kaprielian. What plan is that, you ask? As a young pitcher with a workload limit, the Yankees conserved Severino’s innings early in the season so they could turn him loose in the second half. Brian Cashman admitted that was the plan and I wrote an entire post about it. Here is Severino’s workload by level in 2015:

IP per Start Pitches per Start
Double-A 4.8 75.5
Triple-A 5.6 88.3
MLB 5.7 93.1

Severino had one disaster start in the big leagues (2.1 IP, 6 R) that is skewing the results a bit. Remove that start and he averaged six innings and 95.3 pitches per start in MLB in 2015. Point is, the Yankees started Severino slow and gradually increased his workload as the season progressed. That way he didn’t hit his workload limit in, say, early-September.

The Yankees could follow the same blueprint with Kaprielian this year. In fact, earlier this week Kaprielian told Jack Curry he anticipates being on an innings limit early in this season, though the team hasn’t told him their plans yet. Chances are they haven’t made a final decision. There are two benefits to this:

  1. Conserving innings so Kaprielian won’t hit his workload limit at an inopportune time later in the season, which we just discussed.
  2. Easing Kaprielian back into things after the elbow issue. He was healthy enough to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and that’s great, but he Yankees don’t want to push him too much, too soon.

We’ve seen plenty of clubs run into problems with their young starters in recent years. There’s the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown in 2012. Others have had starts skipped or been moved to the bullpen in September. That sort of thing. There really is no easy way to control workloads. It’s a headache. A necessary evil.

Conserving innings in the minors like the Yankees did with Severino in 2015 and could do again with Kaprielian in 2017 works because it happens in the minors. Limiting a starter to, say, five innings and 75 pitches each time out for two months doesn’t really work at the big league level. Not when you’re trying to win games. In Double-A though? Who cares. It’s about development.

The key difference between Severino then and Kaprielian now is the fact Severino opened the 2015 season at Double-A. Kaprielian will likely begin this coming season at High-A. I don’t think that’s a huge deal though. Maybe that means Kaprielian won’t make his MLB debut in August like Severino in 2015. The plan still works though. Limit his innings early — Kaprielian should carve up High-A ball, he might be there long — and turn him loose later.

Now that I think about it, it’s entirely possible the Yankees will use the 2015 Severino plan with several minor leaguers in 2017. I thought of Kaprielian first because he’s the organization’s top pitching prospect. But what about Chance Adams and Jordan Montgomery? They’ll be on some sort of workload limit this year too. Limiting their Triple-A innings in April and May potentially buys them more big league time in August and September.

Like it or not, workload limits are part of baseball now. Teams spend a lot of money on these kids — the Yankees gave Kaprielian a $2.65M bonus two years ago — and they want to protect their investments, and make sure they get as much out of them as possible. Keeping Kaprielian healthy this year is the top priority, but it is possible he will reach the big leagues, and if he does, the Yankees want to be ready. They don’t want to have to shut him down early.

The spring rotation competition could have a domino effect on the Opening Day bullpen

Luis and Luis. (Presswire)
Luis and Luis. (Presswire)

Over these next seven weeks or so, the Yankees are going to hold a massive rotation competition in Spring Training. They’ve held fake competitions in previous springs, we’ve seen plenty of those, but this one is legit. There are two spots open behind Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda, and no shortage of candidates. Here’s the approximate fourth and fifth starter pecking order:

  1. Luis Severino
  2. Luis Cessa
  3. Chad Green
  4. Bryan Mitchell
  5. Dietrich Enns
  6. Jordan Montgomery
  7. Chance Adams

The Yankees insist Adam Warren will compete for a rotation spot as well, though I have a hard time believing the soon-to-be 30-year-old Warren will be given a rotation spot over a kid in his mid-20s, especially since Warren is so valuable in relief. I suppose Ronald Herrera could be given the chance to win a rotation spot, though it seems unlikely. Generally speaking, that’s the pecking order.

This rotation competition comes with two questions. One, who wins the two spots? That’s the obvious question. And two, what happens to the guys who don’t win the rotation spots? In cases of Adams, Enns, and Montgomery (and Herrera), the answer is clear. They’ll go to Triple-A Scranton to bide their time. Warren, if he is truly involved in this rotation competition, will slide back in to the bullpen.

The top four guys is where it gets murky. It’s easy to assume the two competition losers will go to Triple-A — all four of them have options remaining (Mitchell has one, the other three have two) — and simply wait their turn. The Yankees aren’t going to get through the season using only five starters, so it’s only a matter of time until the two competition losers wind up in the rotation. That’s baseball.

That said, the answer is never that simple. The Yankees also have two open bullpen spots at the moment, and we can’t rule out the two rotation competition losers winding up in the Opening Day bullpen. They’ve done this before. The Yankees did it in 2014 with Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno, and they did it last year with Cessa. They would have done it with Mitchell too last year had he not suffered that fluke toe injury at the end of camp.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Severino and Cessa win the fourth and fifth starter’s spots. Severino has the most upside of the rotation candidates and Cessa had the most success as a starter last year. Sound good? Doesn’t matter, really, it’s only a hypothetical. In that case, the Opening Day pitching staff could shake out like so:

Rotation: Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, Severino, Cessa
Bullpen: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, Warren, Green, Mitchell

If the Yankees believe Green and Mitchell give them a better chance to win than other bullpen candidates like, say, Jonathan Holder and Ben Heller, that very well could be the Opening Day pitching staff. I know I’m not alone in thinking the rotation competition losers could win up in the bullpen. Bryan Hoch suggested something similar recently as well.

Now, is this a good idea, using the sixth and seventh starters as relievers? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer. Montgomery, Enns, Adams, and Herrera give the Yankees some decent Triple-A pitching depth should they need an emergency spot starter. Also, as we saw with Cessa last year, the team could always send one of the starters they stick in the bullpen back down to Triple-A to get stretched out.

One thing to keep in mind: the Yankees are short on innings eaters. Last season AL starters averaged 5.69 innings per start. Tanaka averaged 6.43 innings per start, 12th highest in baseball. Sabathia was at 5.97 innings per start but noticeably lost effectiveness after 80-85 pitches or so. Pineda averaged 5.48 innings per start, third lowest among the 71 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Joe Girardi doesn’t trust him and had an increasingly short leash late in the season.

The two kids, whether it’s Severino and Cessa or Green and Mitchell, probably won’t be counted on to chew up innings and save the bullpen. We saw Girardi pull Cessa after five or six innings several times last season even though his pitch count was manageable, and there are reasons for that. He didn’t want him to go through the lineup a third time, because that’s usually when the opposing team does the most damage against the starter.

With Tanaka the only reliable source of innings, having multiple relievers who can throw multiple innings wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The Yankees don’t have to employ a true tandem starter system, though on the days the starter goes five and fly, it’ll be nice to have a reliever who can go three innings, if necessary. Putting the two rotation competition losers in the bullpen would give the team those multiple long men to help cover a rotation not known to pitch deep into games.

Opening Day is still nearly two months away (groan) and a lot can and will change between now and then. With any luck, everyone will get through camp healthy and the Yankees will be in position to decide whether to send their extraneous starters to Triple-A or use them in relief. That would be a nice problem to have. The rotation competition will be a big story this spring, and there’s a pretty good chance it will overlap with the bullpen competition as well.

Three pitchers and a contract year

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

The Yankees’ 2017 rotation is on the precipice of change.

The main reason anyone would state that is due to the rebuild/transition and the newfound reliance on young arms. The Yankees will be handing as many as two spots in the 2017 rotation to younger pitchers like Luis Severino or Chad Green, and there are some strong pitching prospects on the way in 2018 and beyond.

Perhaps the biggest potential change will be with the three veteran starters. In an intriguing twist, all three — Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia — are in contract seasons of one form or another. However, each faces a different kind of contract year as each step into a crucial season which could decide the next stage of their careers.

The Opt-out

When the Yankees signed Tanaka in 2014, the opt-out at the end of the 2017 season was a long way away. Now, as has been discussed, it will be a major storyline for this entire season.

How could it not be? Tanaka has been undoubtedly the Yankees’ best starter for the last three seasons and will presumably be that again this year. He has established himself as one of the best starters in the American League and just had his most impressive season in terms of combined performance and health. Sure, he may give up one too many home runs every once in a while, but he is a force on the mound and we now know he can get through 200 innings (or 199 2/3 innings, but who’s counting?). The photo above is of him fielding because he’s a strong fielder, a smaller but important aspect of his game.

Tanaka will be 28 years old for the entire 2017 season and turns 29 on Nov. 1, just in time for free agency. For a pitcher in his prime, that is just about the perfect time to hit the market, particularly one that has so few solid starters making it there. Here’s the issue: His elbow could tear at any moment. He has made it through the last two seasons just fine, but it’s a concern for every Yankees fan that Tanaka’s elbow is too fragile to be worth another long-term commitment.

If Tanaka uses his opt-out, he would have to undergo a physical with any team he signs with and that would include a peek at his ole UCL to see whether it is holding up. Is that worth the risk for him? Probably. Most pitchers have some wear and tear with the ligament and it’s not likely to be that much different. He’ll still get a long-term commitment from someone, quite possibly the Yankees, if he stays healthy in 2017, a big if for a pitcher with a partial UCL tear.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

One more year?

Believe it or not, Sabathia is about to begin his ninth season with the Yankees and his next win will make it so he has more wins with the Yanks than he did with Indians. We are now five seasons removed from his last All-Star appearance and it’s pretty clear the CC of old is not the CC of now. The 36-year-old lefty with eight 200-inning seasons doesn’t seem all that likely to post another one.

The good news is that he’s coming off his best season since that All-Star season in 2012. Shocking to many, he was actually an above-average pitcher for 180 innings in 2017, taking a page out of the Andy Pettitte book of aging gracefully. Using a cutter like his former teammate, Sabathia has regained the ability to get righties out at a decent enough clip after a few years of the platoon advantage destroying him. He’s actually effective and can get through six innings against the toughest of lineups in the AL East.

Similar to Pettitte, Sabathia is on the downside of his career and could be done at any moment. Guys don’t usually go out on top and some just fall apart without a moment’s notice. He’s going year-to-year and whether there is a spot in the rotation for him depends on his ability to keep up his 2016 numbers and hold off the prospects for another year. If CC can provide another year of 30 starts and an ERA around 4.00, he’d be worth another one-year deal, right? He’d have to settle for well less than his current $25 million salary, but that’s to be expected.

Sabathia was raised on the west coast, so perhaps he’d be inclined to go back to the opposite coast in free agency, but he’s lived in the New York area for nearly a decade now and seems to enjoy to his current digs. Another solid season and it’s not hard to see him in pinstripes for his age-37 season as well.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The question mark

OK, so what do we expect out of Pineda in 2017? It’s really tough to pin down exactly what the 6-foot-7 righty can provide in his fourth season with the Yankees. Last year, he was the third best out of these three veterans (is it fair to call Pineda a vet now?) with a 4.82 ERA, but his 3.79 FIP was quite solid. In fact, it was his second straight season lagging well behind his FIP (4.37 ERA, 3.34 FIP in 2015).

Basically, Pineda is a sabermetric nightmare. The guy who strikes out opponents at an extremely high clip (best K per 9 in the American League last year) and doesn’t walk many is exactly what teams desire in their starters and what has led to his low FIP. Yet Pineda can’t seem to turn his sterling peripherals into, you know, actual performance. He’ll have games like this one or this one where he puts everything together and is the ace many thought he could be back in 2012. Or he’ll give up hit after hit with shaky command and be pulled five runs into a loss.

It’s not like he doesn’t have the stuff. His fastball-slider combo can be downright unhittable when he’s going. 16 strikeouts unhittable. And his peripherals will have many believing he can turn around his high BABIP numbers and become elite like he was for eight starts in 2014. That turnaround might have to come in another uniform if he can’t pull it off this season.

If the Yankees sell this season – an unlikely possibility with the Steinbrenners not wanting to do so in back-to-back years – Pineda could be nice chip for the Yankees and fetch a couple prospects, even if they’re at a lower level as with the Ivan Nova trade. The most likely scenario is that Pineda is in the Yankees’ rotation all season, for worse or for better.

So what does his future look like? Like Tanaka, he’ll be 28 for the entire 2017 campaign before turning 29 next offseason. Unlike his righty counterpart, he’s looking for his first long-term contract. He’ll earn $7.4 million and will have made over $15 million in his career through the end of this season. However, he certainly will be searching for a long-term deal. He’ll be one of the better pitchers hitting the market, particularly for a team thinking they can turn his strikeout-walk ratio into gold. If he pitches similarly to his 2015-16, he’ll still likely be in line for at least a 3-year, $30 million deal on his lowest end. The pitching market is a seller’s market.

One way or another, this will likely be the last time we see Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia headline a Yankees rotation. That’s not to say it can’t happen in 2018, but a lot of things would have to break right. Sabathia could be staring down the last season of his career. Tanaka could be heading for greener pastures or for a surgeon’s table. And how do you solve a problem like Pineda?

Last season became the final year of the old guard among the hitters with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann, among others, playing their final games as Yankees. I don’t think there will be an overhaul quite like that in the rotation, but as with the stable of prospects on their way from Scranton, it’ll be fascinating to watch how the veterans perform with all eyes on them.

The Other Guys: The 4th and 5th Starter Candidates

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
Severino. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Barring any late offseason moves, here are the names we know for sure we’ll see in the Yankee rotation in 2017:

  1. Masahiro Tanaka
  2. Michael Pineda
  3. C.C. Sabathia

That’s it. Having only three sure thing starters doesn’t seem like a way to go about competing for the division title. (Yeah, it is supposed to be a rebuilding year but they still go out on the field to win, y’know?) Brian Cashman is very much aware. The smart money says he has inquired around the league for starting pitching and looked at FA options as well.

However, he has been careful. In a January 20 press conference, Cashman remarked he did not pull the trigger on opportunities that would have been “costly to the franchise.” My guess is a lot of teams have been asking for names like Gleyber Torres, Justus Sheffield, James Kaprielian, Clint Frazier, etc. As much as they would like to accumulate as many wins as possible, this is not really a period to “go for it all.” The Red Sox, however, are in position to do so. They just had a very dominant regular season and pushed to become an even better team by trading for Chris Sale.

Here are the names that I think will get starting opportunities for the Yankees this season: Luis Severino, Chad Green, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chance Adams, Jordan Montgomery, and Dietrich Enns. Let’s lay out the pecking order of those seven names.

1. Luis Severino

It’s an easy choice. Despite being youngest of the four pitchers with ML experience, Severino has logged the most ML innings in the list. He also was the highest-regarded pitcher as a prospect, ranking no. 35 in Baseball America’s top 100 list in 2015.

After tearing through minors and having a good ML stint in 2015, Severino struggled throughout 2016, marking a 5.83 ERA in 71.0 IP. He was very ineffective as a starter, allowing a .976 OPS against in 11 starts. That would’ve ranked fifth among all hitters, by the way (behind Joey Votto and ahead of Freddie Freeman). The Yanks put him in the bullpen for the most of the second half and he dominated, allowing only .367 OPS against (.105/.209/.158 slash line).

Many wondered whether Severino is destined to be a bullpen arm. Not only did the 2016 results indicate such but also several experts aren’t big fans of his build and delivery. However, Sevy is still very young. He will get his shot to prove himself as a rotation arm. It’s notable that Severino has spent some time with Pedro Martinez this offseason to correct that flaws that haunted him last year (per Brendan Kuty of NJ.com).

“My fastball was all the way over here,” Severino told NJ Advance Media, showing wider-than-normal release point.

“But my changeup was over here,” he said, his arm dropping even lower. “My slider was over here and then sometimes over here.”

A new focus where he lets go of the ball and an effort to transform his body have Severino believing he’ll fulfill the potential the Yankees saw during his fast rise in 2015, the 22-year-old said Saturday.

Given that Severino’s biggest problems have to do with fastball command, tweaking his release point with one of the best ever shouldn’t hurt. Pedro also was a wizard with the changeup and other secondary pitches back in his day, so one would hope that Severino was able to soak up as much wisdom as possible. I’m no pitching coach but it seems like Sevy has been aware of his own flaws and looked to find solutions. He’s got a real good arm and he’s going through struggles that young pitchers in ML normally experience. It’s a roll of the dice on what he will become, so for now, we just have to #TrustTheProcess.

If Sevy still ends up becoming a good bullpen arm long-term, that is still a pretty successful outcome (given on how hard it is to succeed in MLB). However, I’d like to see the Yankees try him out as a starter while youth is very much on his side.

2. Luis Cessa

Cessa. (Mike Carlson/Getty)
Cessa. (Mike Carlson/Getty)

This would have been trickier to decide had Chad Green not suffered an arm injury to close out 2016. After a few cup of coffee earlier in the season, Cessa was called up to MLB for good in August, making nine starts with mixed results.

As a starter, Cessa had a 4.01 ERA in 51.2 IP. He showed pretty nice control by only walking eight, but he allowed 11 home runs during that span. He’s not a ground ball guy and he’s pitching at YS3. He’s bound to be tagged for some HR in 2017 as well, unless he changes his approach dramatically. For now, he’s got nice velocity on a fastball that, well, he should probably stop throwing to the upper part of the zone.

Here is are his fastball zone percentages last year. This is how often he threw a fastball in these spots:

luis-cessa1

And here is how the hitters slugged against the pitch in those locations:

luis-cessa2

As you can see, Cessa located (or mis-located) his fastball to the upper part of the zone quite frequently. That’s also where hitters put up a 1.294 SLG%. Not ideal. That’s the classic “good control but bad command” problem. He can keep it in the zone but not be precise about it.

A good thing about Cessa is that he’s a young guy. Not Sevy-level young but young enough to learn a few tricks and improve his game. He’s not really a guy with a clear “out pitch,” but his slider has a potential, generating a 64% ground ball rate. If he wants to stick to rotation long-term, this season will be very telling. Cessa is probably not as valued as Severino, so he’ll have to show consistency and improvement to lock up a spot. But because he was able to finish the season healthy and gave a relatively solid showing, I believe he is just slightly ahead of Green in this list.

3. Chad Green

When it comes to excitement level, Green up there among the top candidates. Along with Cessa, he arrived to the Yankees system as a decent-looking high-minor arm. In 2016, he pitched lights out in Triple-A, marking at 1.52 ERA in 16 starts. He also struck out hitters at a 9.51 K/9 rate while limiting walks (2.00 BB/9) and home runs allowed (0.29 HR/9). Performances like that get noticed and he made his ML debut back in May. It wouldn’t be until July till he got to stay in the bigs consistently though.

Green put up a 4.73 ERA in 45.2 IP with eight starts and four relief appearances. His season ended in early September when he was diagnosed with a strained flexor tendon and sprained UCL in his throwing arm. Injuries like that tend to be a precursor to (gulp) Tommy John Surgery. Uh-oh. The last update on Green said that he is hoping to avoid going under the knife and be back healthy.

My guess is that Yankees will take precautions with Green and limit his innings total for 2017. They will give him shots at the rotation though. He has shown in 2016 that he can be electrifying. He can really strike out hitters (10.25 K/9) and has shown some exciting performances, such as this 6 IP, 0 R, 11 K gem against the powerful Blue Jays. However, just like Cessa, gopher balls have been Green’s kryptonite. He allowed a 2.36 HR/9 in those 45.2 IP, which is terrible. An encouraging thing is that he never allowed a HR/9 rate higher than 1.00 in a full season of minors. The bad thing is, well, he’s in MLB now. He’s gotta find a way to figure it out up there.

Some pitchers never solve YS3 and go on to flourish with other organizations (A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes come to mind). There is also Masahiro Tanaka, who adapted his style to induce weaker contact and grounders. Green has enough upside that Yankees will wait and see how he can progress as a MLB pitcher.

4. Bryan Mitchell

If Cessa and Green saw their stock tick upwards, it was the opposite for Mitchell. After getting a brief trial in 2015, Mitchell locked up a spot on the 2016 Opening Day roster … and then he sprained his toe while covering first base during a ST game, resulting in a Grade 3 turf toe that cost him four months. Welp.

Mitchell did get to pitch in MLB in 2016. He made his return in September and made five starts — two each against the Blue Jays and Red Sox and one against the Dodgers. That’s a tough welcome back to the big league roster. Mitchell held on his own, allowing 9 ER in 25.0 IP for a 3.24 ERA while striking out 11 and walking 12. The peripherals aren’t great but his stuff was back. Take a look at this nasty hard curve that got David Ortiz whiffing.

bryan-mitchell-david-ortiz1

At this moment, Mitchell’s rotation candidacy is dicy because he didn’t pitch as much last year as the guys I put ahead of him on this list. I do think, however, that it is possible for him to notch a rotation spot if he blows the coach staff away in Spring Training. He looked pretty good last spring and he could’ve entrenched himself in MLB had he not gotten injured.

I think Mitchell has a chance for a rotation spot but I’m not sure how well he’ll have to do to win one over Severino, Cessa, or Green. I think the likely scenario is the Yankees give him a long relief job and a chance to impress if there is an injury or one of the starters underachieve. Mitchell was drafted by the Yankees during Mark Teixeira‘s first year with the team, just to give you an idea how long he’s been with the organization.

5. Jordan Montgomery/Dietrich Enns

Mike profiled Montgomery just a few days ago. He wasn’t the most exciting draft pick but he worked himself into being more intriguing lately. Getting near MLB is a big accomplishment itself. Developing more velocity and putting great numbers up in his first look at Triple-A (0.97 ERA in six starts and 37.0 IP) are icing on the cake. Montgomery is not a top tier prospect but there are reasons to be excited.

Enns, on the other hand, has taken every opportunity he could and built himself into a legitimate call-up candidate. A 19th rounder out of Central Michigan University in 2012, he didn’t arrive with eye-popping stuff, and most pitchers with his resume end up becoming organizational fodder. However, his rise through the system has been nearly flawless. The only major blemish was the Tommy John surgery he had back in 2014, but he was even stronger after, posting a 0.61 ERA in 58.2 IP at two levels (Rookie & High-A) in 2015 and a 1.73 ERA in 135.0 IP at two more levels (Double-A & Triple-A) in 2016. Yowza. However, because he’s not young (turning 26 in May) and he’s considered as junkballer, he’s got long odds to overcome to settle a rotation spot in MLB long-term.

Montgomery has a higher ceiling but Enns has a better minor league track record. Both of them spent some time in Scranton last season and excelled there. They probably will have to do it again to get a look in the MLB this year. As much as the fans and I would like to see the rotation remain stable throughout the season, I’d be pretty interested to see either of them make a start for the Yankees. While neither is likely to make the roster out of the camp this year, if they keep dominating in Triple-A, you better believe that the front office will want to try’em out.

6. Chance Adams

Not a lot of people expected Adams to elevate through the system so quickly, but here we are. The 5th rounder out of Dallas Baptist University in the 2015 draft did nothing but impress. He’s one of my favorite stories in the Yankee farm system. Dude went from a college reliever to a starting pitching prospect and put up great numbers while pitching with mid-90’s heat. Many teams would’ve signed up for this outcome with their first round pick.

Ceiling-wise, Adams might be the highest in the list after Severino. His fastball, his minor league track record and his sudden ascension really make him an intriguing story all-around. I’m guessing Adams opens 2017 in Scranton. Unless he has a setback, he will probably make a ML debut sometime during the 2017 season. The question is, when? Unless he puts an unprecedented level of performance, he is likely behind Montgomery/Enns in the pecking order. He doesn’t turn 23 until August, so youth is definitely in Adams’ side, which leads me to believe that Yanks can take a little time with him.