Success of makeshift rotation could change how Yankees approach pitching market

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Given the number of pitching injuries they suffered this season, the Yankees should have been out of the postseason race a long time ago. I mean out out. At one point five of the organization’s six best starting pitchers were on the disabled list and right now three of their top four Opening Day rotation members are still out with injuries. The Masahiro Tanaka injury the week before the All-Star break should have been the final straw. It should have been over after that.

Instead, Brian Cashman & Co. have cobbled together a five-man rotation that not only prevented the Yankees from falling apart, but has actually improved upon what the team was getting out of their starters earlier in the season. The rotation had a 4.10 ERA (3.92 FIP) before Tanaka got hurt and they have a 3.39 ERA (3.26 FIP) since. That’s remarkable. A notable trade (Brandon McCarthy), a scrap heap pickup (Chris Capuano), a timely call-up (Shane Greene), and a return to health (Michael Pineda) have kept the club afloat. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild deserves a lot of credit.

The Yankees figure to be in the market for pitching help this winter because they and every other team look for pitching help every winter. One thing I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter how much pitching a team already has or how bad the offensive environment is around the league, teams will always look for more arms. In the case of the Yankees, they’ll be bringing back three injury risk starters next season in Tanaka (elbow), Pineda (shoulder), and CC Sabathia (knee). Greene and David Phelps provide some depth, but the need for some rotation protection is obvious.

The upcoming free agent pitching class is top heavy thanks to Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields, three inarguably excellent pitchers who come with their own unique sets of pluses and minuses. All three will require pretty massive contracts — Shields is likely to get the smallest deal of the three and I have a hard time believing he’ll sign for fewer than four or five years at this point — and in the case of Scherzer and Shields, forfeiting first round draft picks as well. They’re worth it though. Those three guys are legitimate top of the rotation arms.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

The Yankees are already paying Sabathia and Tanaka top of the rotation dollars and, unless they up payroll substantially next year, fitting another $20M+ per year starter doesn’t seem doable without skimping on offense. They have opened the season with a payroll in the $195M to $215M range in six of the last seven years, and Cot’s says they already have $168.8M committed to only ten players next season. Considering how their offense has been below-average for two straight years now, fixing it should be the top priority this winter.

This season showed the Yankees are capable of building a quality rotation with smaller moves and lower profile pickups. Would they be a better team with Scherzer or Lester? Absolutely. But I think the focus has to be on adding depth this winter, not one big star player. Given all those risky starters under contract, the Yankees should focus on adding two or even three starters this offseason. The alternative to spending, say, $25M annually on Lester could be spending $20M combined on two of McCarthy, Jason Hammel, and the reclamation projects that are Brett Anderson and Justin Masterson, giving the club more options and keeping the contract lengths short.

Now, those are just a bunch of names I’m throwing out there and I’m an idiot. Who knows what it will take to sign those guys in reality or if any of them will want to come pitch in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have shown they are adept at not only identifying starting pitchers who are better than what they’ve shown recently, but also getting more out of them then expected. It’s not a one-time thing either. They’ve done it with Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, and even Hiroki Kuroda in recent years. That’s a valuable skill they can use to their advantage. (The fact that no one can hit anymore works in their favor as well.)

The Yankees are still the Yankees and they’re always going to be in the mix for big name free agents. That’s what they do. Lester in particular is very tempting as an AL East proven workhorse left-handed ace with big market chops, and I fully expect the team to be all in on him this winter. But, as I said the other day, I think the Yankees are where they are right now because of their unwavering reliance on long-term, big money contracts. I think their ability to dig up quality starters out of seemingly nowhere is incredibly valuable and would allow them go to a different route this winter, eschewing yet another long-term pitching contract in favor of shorter term deals that add depth and flexibility.

Makeshift rotation setting the tone during Yanks’ recent surge

(Duane Burleson/Getty)
(Duane Burleson/Getty)

The story of last night’s win over David Price and the Tigers will be the nine consecutive hits in the third inning and rightfully so, but, just as importantly, rookie right-hander Shane Greene had another solid start and continues to solidify his place in the rotation going forward. I mean, nine straight hits is cool and all, but it’s an anomaly. Greene pitching well has become the norm.

Greene’s performance against the Tigers was particularly impressive because he was facing them for the second time. It was the first time a team got a second look at him as a starter. He threw eight scoreless innings against Detroit three weeks ago and followed that up with seven innings of two-run ball last night. Chase Whitley‘s second turn through the league was a disaster — the Blue Jays, the first team to face him a second time, pounded him for eight runs on eleven hits and three walks in 3.1 innings the second time around. It was good to see Greene more than hold his own against a team somewhat familiar with him.

The Yankees have now won six of their last seven games and eight of their last eleven games overall. Greene’s outing continued a stretch of strong starting pitching from the makeshift rotation — the Yankees are on what, their eighth through 12th starters at this point? I’ve lost count — that has kept the team afloat during their offensive struggles. Here is what the rotation has done since August 16th, the start of this eleven-game stretch (via Baseball Musings):.

NYY rotation 8-16 to 8-27

The table does not include Greene’s strong start against the Tigers last night — I didn’t have time to wait for the Baseball Musings database to update, so sue me — which was his third excellent outing during this eleven-game stretch. Include him and the rotation has a 3.36 ERA (2.69 FIP) with a 5.50 K/BB in 69.2 innings during these eleven games. Stretches like this explain why the rotation has a 3.82 ERA (3.75 FIP) this summer despite all the injuries.

The only real terrible start in the table above is Brandon McCarthy‘s outing on Tuesday, when he clearly didn’t have his usual command and ability to locate. He walked two batters and a hit a guy in the second inning alone. He never does that in a full start, nevermind one inning. Pitchers have off nights once in a while and that was one for McCarthy. The bullpen (specifically Adam Warren) deserves some level of blame for allowing two inherited runs to score during Chris Capuano‘s start against the Astros, the other eyesore in the table.

Otherwise the Yankees have been getting strong start after strong start during his eleven-game stretch. And, really, it dates back even further than that. The team has been getting strong starting pitching for several weeks now, but the offense has failed to hold up to its end of the bargain most nights. These last few offensive explosions — you do realize the Yankees scored 16 runs in 14.2 innings against Chris Sale, James Shields, and David Price these last few days, right? — have been nice but they are hardly he norm for this club.

The Yankees don’t win if they get anything less than a strong outing from their starter. They aren’t capable of winning high-scoring games consistently and may the baseball gods have mercy on their soul if the bullpen is any worse than dominant on a given night. In this low-scoring day and age, it all starts with pitching, and the Yankees have been getting lots of it from everywhere imaginable. Scrap heap pickups, trades, big money free agents, you name it and they’ve helped out.

These eleven games have helped the Yankees climb back into the wildcard race — they’re 2.5 games back and FanGraphs has their postseason odds at 13.8%, so they still have a ton of ground to make up — and they’ve had a chance to win just about every game because of the rotation work. This season could have (and, depending on who you ask, should have) been sunk once the regular rotation members started going down with injury. Guys like Greene, McCarthy, and Capuano have picked up the slack, and it has been especially evident during this recent surge.

Sherman: Yankees considering six-man rotation for Sept., possibly 2015

Via Joel Sherman: The Yankees are “strongly considering” using a six-man rotation in September and are at least “talking about” doing the same next year, pitching coach Larry Rothschild and Brian Cashman confirmed. “No doubt, you have to see how all the pieces fit, but I think it is something you have to take a look at,” said Rothschild.

There are several good reasons for employing a six-man rotation once rosters expand in September and I’m for it. Doing it next season is a different matter. The Yankees will have four starters with varying levels of injury concern in Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), CC Sabathia (knee), and Ivan Nova (elbow), and giving them extra rest makes sense, but how do they pull that off? Do they go with a six-man bullpen/four-man bench or seven-man bullpen/three-man bench? Everything they’ve done with their roster the last few years points to the latter. Do it in September, sure, but they’d need to figure some stuff out before doing it in 2015.

Six-man rotation would actually make sense for the Yankees in September

(Greg Fiume/Getty)
(Greg Fiume/Getty)

The Yankees have struggled to piece together a decent rotation for much of the season. At one point arguably the five best starting pitchers in the organization were on the disabled list, and for a big chunk of the summer they were without CC Sabathia (knee), Michael Pineda (shoulder), and Ivan Nova (elbow). Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) went down right before the All-Star break. Pineda has since returned but the other guys are all still on shelf and only Tanaka has a chance of returning before the end of the season.

Finding five quality starters has been a struggle at times, though the Yankees have a decent group right now. Pineda joins young Shane Greene and veterans Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, and Chris Capuano in the rotation, which isn’t the most intimidating fivesome in the league, but they’ve been no worse than solid these last few weeks. It would be nice if they pitched a little deeper in the game once in a while — Greene is the workhorse at this point, no? — but what can you do? Take what you can get. Those guys done more than any of us could have reasonable expected, really.

Rosters expand in only ten days now, at which point the Yankees will surely call up some extra players to help out in the final month of the season. Extra arms like Bryan Mitchell, Matt Daley, and (if healthy) Preston Claiborne will be back, and they may be joined by Manny Banuelos as well. Jacob Lindgren or Tyler Webb could replace Rich Hill, though that’s not adding another pitcher to the roster. Once rosters expand and the Yankees have extra bodies lying around, it actually makes sense to implement a six-man rotation for the final month of the regular season. Here are some reasons.

Control Workloads
Fatigue is always a concern this late in the season, especially for young pitchers and older pitchers. Kuroda has faded late in each of the last few seasons — he’s again showing signs of fading this year — and scaling back on his workload these last five weeks wouldn’t be a bad idea. I know Kuroda is likely in his final few weeks with the team, but he’s been a damn good Yankee these last three years and you take care of your people. He gave the club everything he had and they should reciprocate by taking it easy on him in September even if he won’t wear their uniform in 2014.

The 25-year-old Greene is actually in great shape with his innings total. In fact, he might not throw enough innings this season. He is at 109.2 innings total right now (MLB and Triple-A) after throwing 154.1 innings last season, the most in the farm system. The final weeks of the season probably get him up to 150 or so for the year. Ideally you’d like to see him get up to 170-180 innings this year, but still, we’re talking about a guy who was in High-A and Double-A last year. Major League innings are a different animal. They’re more intense and take more out of you. The raw innings total only tells you so much. Easing Greene towards those 150-ish innings is in no way a bad idea.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Injury Concerns
Needless to say, the rotation is still loaded with injury concerns. Pineda has made two starts after missing more than three months with a back/shoulder issue, and he didn’t even get stretched all the way during his rehab assignment. Given his injury history, taking it easy on him these last few weeks makes an awful lot of sense. Same goes for McCarthy, who has been healthy this year but has a long history of shoulder problems. If the Yankees intend to try to re-sign him after the season — and they should absolutely try to bring him back — then they have every reason to do whatever they can to keep him healthy in September.

And then there’s Tanaka, who threw his second bullpen session yesterday as he works his way back from a partially torn elbow ligament. Everything is going well so far — he even threw some breaking balls and splitters yesterday — so much so that he might face hitters in live batting practice for his next throwing session. The hope is Tanaka will return in September to make a few starts, and if he does, using a six-man rotation would be a fine way to take it easy on that elbow. They were trying to get him extra rest whenever they could before he got hurt. There’s no reason that should change once he returns, right?

Busy Schedule
The Yankees will play their final 38 games of the season in only 39 days. They do have two off-days (September 1st and 8th) but also one doubleheader (September 12th). They close the season out with 21 games in 20 days. There will be no opportunity to give the rotation an extra day of rest here or there the last three weeks of the season — at least not without more rainouts, which would only lead to more doubleheaders — so playing it safe with guys like Greene and Tanaka and Pineda will be tough. The six-man rotation would give everyone an extra day of rest each time through the rotation automatically. They won’t have the opportunity to give them that otherwise.

* * *

Though the Yankees are bringing David Phelps back from his elbow injury as a reliever, they’ll still have Mitchell and Esmil Rogers as sixth starter candidates until Tanaka returns. Maybe even Banuelos, if he’s physically up to it after missing close to two full seasons. That would be fun. Expanded rosters in September ensure there will be plenty of extra arms available in case someone gets knocked out early or anything like that. There’s no worry about overworking the bullpen.

Let’s face it, the team’s postseason odds are tiny — 4.3% according to FanGraphs and 3.1% according to Baseball Prospectus — so it really doesn’t matter who they run out there as the sixth starter. The important thing is getting guys like Tanaka and Pineda extra rest down the stretch, not winning every last ballgame. A six-man rotation isn’t all that practical before September, but it’s plenty easy to implement once rosters expand and winning is a secondary concern. It makes a lot of sense for the Yankees to use six starters in the season’s final month given the injury and workload issues on the roster.