The Four Young Rotation Candidates [2017 Season Preview]

Cessa. (Presswire)
Cessa. (Presswire)

Anyone with doubts about the Yankees and their commitment to the youth movement need not look beyond the rotation. Rather than bring in outside help over the winter, even a innings eating veteran on a one-year contract, the Yankees are planning to go with their young starting pitchers in 2017. They’re taking a leap of faith.

Four young starters are vying for two rotation spots this spring: Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Severino. We still don’t know which way the team is leaning — “I would say (no one is ahead). I think we’re going to have some long meetings about this,” said Joe Girardi over the weekend — though I get the feeling Severino came into Spring Training as a favorite for one spot.

Regardless of who gets the two rotation spots on Opening Day, history suggests the Yankees will need all four of these guys to make starts at some point. The Yankees haven’t used fewer than eight starters in a season since the strike-shortened 1994 season, when they used seven. They’ve averaged slightly more than ten starters per season the last three years. So yeah, the depth is good. Let’s preview these four young arms.

Luis Cessa

What does he have the others don’t? A fourth pitch and a ton of athleticism. Cessa, 25 in April, is a former shortstop and his athleticism is evident in his easy, repeatable delivery. More importantly, Cessa throws four distinct pitches. We saw all of them last season during his big league debut. Setting aside his eight relief outings last season, here are the numbers from Cessa’s nine starts (MLB averages in parentheses):

% Thrown Avg Velo Whiff% GB%
Fastball 48.6% 95.0 (92.1) 5.7% (6.9%) 35.0% (37.9%)
Slider 30.3% 85.4 (84.3) 21.8% (15.2%) 66.0% (43.9%)
Curveball 11.1% 80.2 (77.1) 4.8% (11.1%) 50.0% (48.7%)
Changeup 9.9% 85.0 (93.7) 13.3% (14.9%) 40.0% (47.8%)

The slider was Cessa’s go-to secondary pitch, but he also threw his curveball and changeup roughly 10% of the time each, so the four-pitch mix is there. As a result, his platoon split was relatively small: lefty batters had a .324 wOBA against him while righties had a .311 wOBA. None of the other rotation candidates threw four pitches as often as Cessa, and I don’t think any of them are as consistently in sync with their delivery as well.

Also, in the age of pitch counts, I should note Cessa was incredibly pitch efficient last year. He averaged only 14.7 pitches per inning and 3.69 pitches per plate appearance as a starter in 2016. The MLB averages are 16.8 and 3.95, respectively. Cessa managed to complete at least five innings in all nine of his starts while throwing 85+ pitches only three times.

What’s holding him back? A lack of strikeouts and #toomanyhomers, more than anything. Even with a slider that rated as well-above-average in swing-and-miss rate and ground ball rate, Cessa had a mere 17.1% strikeout rate and a 45.0% ground ball rate in his 51.2 innings as a starter last year. Hitters tagged him for a 1.92 HR/9 (19.3 HR/FB%) and that’s way too high. Can’t do that and stay in the rotation.

Cessa has long had a reputation for being a strike-thrower and we saw it last season. He had a 3.9% walk rate in his nine starts. I wonder whether he’s someone who could benefit from throwing a few more pitches out of the zone, especially in two-strike counts. Not everything needs to be over the plate, you know. That could lead to more strikeouts and fewer homers allowed. Just an idea. But yeah, too few strikeouts and too many homers. Those are the two things Cessa will look to improve this summer.

Chad Green

Green. (Presswire)
Green. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? Good question! I’m not sure, exactly. Possibly an overpowering fastball? Green, who turns 26 in May, is one of several pitchers who added velocity after joining the Yankees within the last few years, and last season his heater averaged 95.4 mph and topped out at 99.2 mph. His four-seamer generated a swing and a miss a whopping 16.2% of the time, which is nearly triple the league average rate. Green’s fastball: it’s good. (Bet you didn’t realize he had a 26.3% strikeout rate last season, did you? )

I’d also argue that among the four pitchers in this post, no one improved their stock more over the last 12 months than Green. He’s trending in the right direction. He added some oomph to his fastball, improved the quality of his slider with help from pitching coach Larry Rothschild last spring, and he added a cutter while down in Triple-A. Green came to New York with a fastball and an okay slider. Now he has a bigger fastball, a better slider, and a brand new cutter. Neat.

What’s holding him back? The complete lack of a changeup. Green has tried both splitter and changeup grips and so far he’s been unable to find something that works. Because of that, he has nothing to combat left-handers aside from cutters in on the hands. Last summer lefties hit .287/.351/.663 (.421 wOBA) with nine homers in 95 plate appearances again Green. Yikes. That’s a 3.74 HR/9 (34.6 HR/FB%). Yikes.

Clearly, the goal for Green this season will be improving his changeup. Or his splitter. Either one works. He needs something to keep left-handed hitters off balance, because busting them inside with cutters only works so much. Green needs that soft offspeed pitch to keep them guessing. I’m not sure he has much of a chance to be a big league starter without one. His fastball and slider are good enough that, at worse, Green should be a pretty nice reliever. Obviously the Yankees hope he can be something more than that.

Bryan Mitchell

Mitchell. (Presswire)
Mitchell. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? The potential for a truly dominant pitch. Mitchell’s curveball is arguably the best curveball in the organization. It’s a power bender that averaged 81.9 mph last season with a well-above-average spin rate, which points to the potential for swings and misses and grounders. Don’t sleep on Mitchell’s mid-90s four-seamer and low-90s cutter either. His raw stuff is very impressive.

Also, the soon-to-be 26-year-old Mitchell has performed the best among the rotation candidates, both this spring and last season. I get the sense that’s going to factor into the team’s decision. So far this spring Mitchell has struck out 12 and walked three in 14.1 innings. He’s allowed no more than one run in three of his four appearances. Last year Mitchell threw 25 innings across five starts with the Yankees, during which he had a 3.24 ERA (4.23 FIP). I don’t think the Yankees will base their decision on those numbers, but I do think they’ll be considered.

Of course, Mitchell walked more batters (12) than he struck out (11) during his relatively brief big league cameo last year, so perhaps don’t read too much into the shiny ERA. Point is, Mitchell performed well from a “didn’t allow many runs” perspective, and it sure is easy to dream on his fastball/cutter/curveball combination.

What’s holding him back? Both command and a changeup, or the lack thereof. Mitchell doesn’t miss as many bats as you’d expect and he’s more hittable than his stuff would lead you to believe because his command is so poor. Throwing in the mid-90s is great! But if it’s over the plate, it’s going to get hit. And as pretty as his curveball is, it’s had a below-average swing and miss rate in all three of his MLB seasons. There’s a big disconnect between Mitchell’s stuff and his results, and that disconnect is due to poor command.

The changeup, I’d argue, is a bigger issue. You can carve out a successful career with below-average command, even as a starter. It’s doable. A.J. Burnett spent 17 years in the big leagues, won a pair of World Series rings, and banked over $140M with below-average command. Mitchell doesn’t have Burnett stuff, but he has pretty darn good stuff, and that should be enough to enjoy a big league career even without improving his command.

Without a changeup, however, Mitchell has to rely on his cutter to neutralize lefties, and his command isn’t good enough to rely on that one pitch consistently. Lefties hit .270/.372/.378 (.334 wOBA) against Mitchell last year and .274/.379/.415 (.350 wOBA) in his big league career overall. A right-hander who can’t get lefties out doesn’t have much of a chance to be a starter in Yankee Stadium. Mitchell has been working on his changeup for years — he’s tried a splitter as well — and so far nothing has taken. I wonder how much longer the Yankees will keep waiting before sticking him in the bullpen for good.

Luis Severino

Severino. (Presswire)
Severino. (Presswire)

What does he have the others don’t? Former top prospect status and, in theory, the most upside. That’s going to buy the just turned 23-year-old Severino plenty of opportunities and that’s why I think he’s favored to land a rotation spot right now. Now, to be fair, that’s not the only thing Severino has going for him. He’s got the big fastball, he’s got the wipeout slider, and at one point in time he had a very nice changeup as well. There was a reason Severino was a top prospect.

There’s also this: Severino has had, by far, the best stretch in the big leagues among these four players. Back in 2015 the Yankees called Severino up in the second half, and he had a 2.89 ERA (4.37 FIP) in eleven starts and 62.1 innings for a team in a postseason race. He had his issues with walks (8.6%) and strikeouts (1.30 HR/9), but what rookie pitcher doesn’t? Besides, Severino’s strikeout (22.0%) and grounder (50.3%) rates were impressive. Remember this guy?

That guy is really good! The Yankees remember that guy. They want him back. Severino, unlike Cessa and Mitchell and Green, has shown the ability to dominate big league hitters as a starting pitcher, albeit in 60-something innings two years ago. It’s more than the other guys have shown, however, and that’s going to work in Severino’s favor come decision time. He’s a former top prospect who gave everyone a taste of his upside in 2015. That can’t be ignored.

What’s holding him back? Once again, it’s command and a changeup, though unlike Green and Mitchell, Severino does actually have a changeup. Watch that video. There are more than a few in there. Severino lost confidence and/or feel for his changeup last season — he threw 12 changeups total in his final four starts after averaging 12 changeups per start in 2015 — and he’s working to get it back this spring. Not enough of his starts have been televised for us to get an idea of how he’s progressing, unfortunately.

As for the command, Severino’s location with his secondary stuff last year was a bigger issue than with his fastball. His fastball is so overpowering that he doesn’t need to be precise with it. He just needs to be close enough. With his slider, however, Severino left too may up in the zone and out over the plate early last season, which earned him a demotion back to Triple-A. The same was true with his changeup before he stopped throwing it all together.

This spring Severino made some slight changes to his mechanics — he’s breaking his hands closer to his body (GIF) — in an effort to improve his command and changeup. His issues aren’t a mystery. The Yankees and Rothschild have been working to get Severino back on track, and heck, he even spent some time with Pedro Martinez in the offseason. With the changeup, it’s about getting Severino back to where he was two years ago. Concerns about his command have existed for a while though, and ultimately his ability to improve that will determine whether he stays in the rotation long-term or winds up back in the bullpen, where he dominated last season.

* * *

We have to acknowledge these four pitchers are not necessarily in a rotation competition this spring. They’re in a pitching staff competition. It’s entirely possible one or more of them will wind up in the bullpen should they fail to secure a rotation spot. Like I said earlier though, I’d bet on all four guys making starts at some point during the summer. That’s usually how these things play out.

Assuming Masahiro Tanaka stays healthy and opts out, the Yankees have no established pitching under control beyond 2017. The hope is one or two or all four of these young starters emerge as viable long-term big league rotation options this coming season. They don’t need to become aces to have value. (Have you seen what average-ish mid-rotation guys are getting in free agency?) These four pitchers could help solve a lot of problems this season, though each of them has to figure some things out to make it happen.

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 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.

Sorting out the projected 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster

Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)
Home of the RailRiders. (EwingCole.com)

Over the last few seasons the Yankees and every other team in baseball have begun to use their Triple-A affiliate as an extension of their big league roster. They not only send relievers up and down whenever a fresh arm is needed, they’ll also shuttle platoon players in and out based on upcoming pitching matchups. Clubs look for every advantage possible, and these days that means having MLB and Triple-A roster flexibility.

The Yankees have built an exceptional farm system with many high-caliber prospects ticketed for Triple-A. They also have several big league roster openings with young players slated to compete in Spring Training. The refreshing emphasis on youth means projecting the 2017 Triple-A Scranton roster is damn near impossible, but that won’t stop me from trying. I do this every winter and I ain’t stoppin’ now.

Now that the non-roster invitees have been announced, let’s try to figure out what the RailRiders’ roster will look like on Opening Day. After all, these players are depth players for the Yankees, and inevitably we’re going to see many of them in MLB at some point. The top prospects get all the attention, understandably, but don’t sleep on the Chris Parmelees and Anthony Swarzaks of the world either. Those guys have a way of finding themselves in the Bronx.

Let’s begin by looking at position player candidates for the Triple-A Scranton roster. An asterisk (*) denotes the player is on the 40-man roster, which, in this situation, is kind of a big deal.

Catchers Infielders Outfielders Utility
Kyle Higashioka* Greg Bird* Aaron Judge* Tyler Austin*
Wilkin Castillo Ronald Torreyes* Mason Williams* Rob Refsnyder*
Francisco Diaz Ji-Man Choi Jake Cave Tyler Wade
Kellin Deglan Cito Culver Dustin Fowler
Mike Ford Clint Frazier
Pete Kozma
Donovan Solano
Ruben Tejada

I have 20 position players in the table and these days Triple-A rosters run 25 players deep. As recent as 2011, Triple-A and Double-A teams fielded only 24-man rosters. For real. It is not at all uncommon for Triple-A clubs to carry eight-man bullpens, especially early in the season when pitchers are still getting in the swing of things and also having their workloads monitored. We need to pare that list of 20 players down to 13 or even 12.

Catchers: Barring injury, the Yankees are set with Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine behind the plate at the big league level. Romine did an okay job as the full-time backup last year, and while I wouldn’t completely rule out Higashioka winning the job in camp, it would surprise me. Remember, Romine is out of minor league options, which means if he’s not the backup catcher, he’s out of the organization. (Even if he clears waivers, he’d likely elect free agency and look for a big league opportunity elsewhere.)

The odds are strongly in favor of Romine backing up Sanchez with Higashioka biding his time as the third string catcher in Triple-A. The real question is who will back up Higashioka? Castillo seems like the safe bet considering he’s a 32-year-old journeyman with (a little) big league experience and a ton of Triple-A experience. Diaz has two games of Triple-A experience and that’s it. Deglan has barely played above Single-A. Those two figure to be the Double-A Trenton catching tandem with Higashioka and Castillo in Scranton. That’s two of our 12 position player roster spots.

Infielders: Austin, Bird, and Refsnyder are essentially competing for two big league roster spots: the first base job and a bench job. Everyone wants Bird to win the first base job, including the Yankees themselves. But, if he needs more time to shake off the rust following shoulder surgery, a return trip to Scranton could very well be in the cards. Either way, one of these three players figures to start the season with the RailRiders while the other two are with the Yankees. My guess is Refsnyder winds up in Triple-A, but who knows. Three of our 12 Triple-A roster spots are now taken.

Back to Triple-A for Mr. Refsnyder? (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

Solano, Tejada, and Torreyes will all compete for the big league reserve infielder’s job in Spring Training, or at least appear to compete for the job. Maybe even Kozma too. Torreyes not only filled the role admirably last season, he’s also on the 40-man roster and the other three are not. That’s one heck of a tiebreaker. Torreyes can be sent to Triple-A, he has options remaining, it’s just hard to think he could lose the bench job in Spring Training. Lil’ Ronnie in the show with the other three in Scranton seems to be the most likely outcome here. That’s six Triple-A roster spots accounted for now.

Choi has big league time and while I suppose it’s not completely impossible he wins the big league first base job should Bird need more time in Triple-A, I’d bet against it. The big league service time all but ensures Choi will start the season in Scranton, not Double-A Trenton. That figures to spell bad news for Ford, who has played only 42 career games at the Double-A level. Hard to think the Yankees would send two pure first basemen to Scranton. Choi is position player number seven.

Before we found out the Yankees re-signed Kozma, the final Triple-A infield spot came down to Culver or Ford. Now neither of them figures to get a Triple-A roster spot. They’ll likely have to go back to Double-A to begin the season. Either that, or the RailRiders will carry a six-man bullpen, and there’s no chance of that happening.

Outfield: In a roundabout way, Judge and Williams are competing for one big league roster spot. Judge will be given every opportunity to win the starting right field job, but if the Yankees determine he’s not ready for it, he could wind up back in Triple-A. In that case, Aaron Hicks would presumably take over in right field and Williams would get the fourth outfielder’s job. I suppose it could go to Refsnyder or Austin, but I think the Yankees would want an actual outfielder on the bench. There’s the eighth position player. (Hicks, by the way, is out of options and can’t be sent to Triple-A.)

Frazier is a Triple-A lock because he reached the level last season and is a priority guy as a top prospect. The Yankees aren’t going to send him to Double-A to clear a roster spot because Culver has tenure in the organization or anything like that. Fowler is another high-end prospect who had a successful season at Double-A in 2016, so an assignment to Triple-A is the natural order of things. Cave is a Triple-A veteran and the logical candidate for the fourth outfield spot. Frazier, Fowler, and Cave are position players nine, ten, and eleven.

Utility: I listed Austin and Refsnyder as utility players only because they can play the infield and outfield. They were already covered in the infield section. Wade, who is primarily an infielder but started working out in the outfield in the Arizona Fall League, had a solid Double-A season a year ago, so, like Fowler, an assignment to Triple-A makes sense. Wade is out 12th and final Triple-A position player.

Let’s quickly recap everything we just went through:

  • Catchers (2): Higashioka and Castillo
  • Infielders (4): Choi, Kozma, Solano, and Tejada
  • Outfielders (4): Cave, Fowler, Frazier, and either Judge or Williams
  • Utility (2): Wade, and one of Bird, Austin, or Refsnyder

That’s a dozen position players right there, and I suppose if the RailRiders open the season with a normal seven-man bullpen, either Culver or Ford would make the team as the 13th position player. Probably Culver. I still expect an eight-man bullpen, at least initially.

The perfect world scenario for the Yankees is Bird and Judge winning the first base and right field jobs, respectively, and Austin beating out Refsnyder for a bench spot. So, assuming that happens, here are the projected Triple-A position players, with a batting order written out because why not?

1. SS Tyler Wade
2. CF Dustin Fowler
3. LF Clint Frazier
4. DH Rob Refsnyder
5. C Kyle Higashioka
6. 3B Donovan Solano
7. 1B Ji-Man Choi
8. 2B Ruben Tejada
9. RF Mason Williams

Bench: C Wilkin Castillo, IF Pete Kozma, OF Jake Cave

The batting order is just for fun. Don’t take it to heart. Remember, players are going move around. Refsnyder won’t always DH. Wade will undoubtedly see some time in the outfield. Frazier and Williams will probably see time in all three outfield spots. Heck, Solano and Tejada will probably roam around the infield too. These things are very fluid. That, however, is the projected Triple-A Scranton group of position players based on everything we know at the moment. Now let’s get to the pitchers.

Starters Righty Relievers Lefty Relievers
Luis Cessa* Johnny Barbato* Richard Bleier*
Dietrich Enns* Gio Gallegos* Chasen Shreve*
Chad Green* Ben Heller* Joe Mantiply
Ronald Herrera* Jonathan Holder* Jason Gurka
Bryan Mitchell* J.P. Feyereisen Evan Rutckyj
Luis Severino* Mark Montgomery
Chance Adams Matt Wotherspoon
Daniel Camarena
Kyle Haynes
Brady Lail
Jordan Montgomery

Lots of pitchers. Lots and lots of pitchers. There are 23 of ’em in the table, and if that sounds like a lot, consider the RailRiders used 37 different pitchers last season, including 22 different starters. They used 45 pitchers and 24 different starters in 2015. So yeah, 23 pitches in the table seems like a lot, but it’s maybe half as many as Scranton will need to get through the season. Before you know it they’ll be signing Phil Coke out of an independent league again. That’s baseball, yo.

Rotation: At the moment, the Yankees have to two open big league rotation spots, which Brian Cashman & Co. insist will go to two young pitchers. Cashman has specifically singled out Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Severino as the candidates for those jobs. (Adam Warren too, but I don’t think he’ll actually open the season in the rotation unless all hell breaks loose in camp.) My money is on Severino and Cessa getting the rotation spots. We’ll see.

In theory, the Yankees would send the two losers of the rotation competition to Triple-A, where they would bide their time until they need another starter in the Bronx. Sounds simple enough. That’s not necessarily how it will work though. In 2014 the Yankees held a three-way competition for the long reliever job — not even a rotation spot, the long reliever spot — between Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno. The Yankees ended up carrying all three on the Opening Day roster because they were the best men for the job.

Who’s to say that, if Cessa and Severino were to win the two rotation spots, that Green and Mitchell wouldn’t be in the bullpen? That really complicates things and is why I included guys like Haynes and Lail in this exercise. More than a few of those 40-man roster Triple-A rotation candidates could wind up in the big league bullpen, creating a need for starters in Scranton. Geez, that’s a mouthful.

Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)
Severino. (Danna Stevens/Times Tribune)

Anyway, this is what I think will happen: two of the Cessa/Green/Mitchell/Severino quartet get big league rotation spots and a third winds up in the bullpen as the long man. The fourth goes to Scranton as the de facto sixth starter. That means, based our table, we’re left with seven candidates for the four remaining Triple-A rotation spots: Adams, Camarena, Enns, Haynes, Herrera, Lail, and Montgomery.

Two of the four spots are easy. They’ll go to Adams and Montgomery, two of the better pitching prospects in the organization, both of whom are ready for Triple-A. (Montgomery thrived there in his brief stint last year.) Enns and Herrera are on the 40-man roster, which could give them a leg up for the final two Triple-A rotation spots. I do wonder whether the Yankees will move Enns to the bullpen since that’s likely his ultimate destination.

For now, I’m guessing Enns remains a starter, meaning Scranton’s five-man rotation to start the season will be, in whatever order, Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green Mitchell, or Severino. That leaves Camarena, Haynes, and Lail out in the cold. The projected Double-A rotation is pretty stacked (Ian Clarkin, Josh Rogers, Justus Sheffield, etc.) so it’s not as simple as bumping them down a level. Hmmm.

Bullpen: Right now, the Yankees have five big league bullpen spots accounted for: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, and Warren. Layne is out of options, so if he doesn’t make the big league bullpen, he’s probably out of the organization. No Triple-A for him. I assumed in the previous section one of the four young starters winds up in the bullpen, which means six of seven big league bullpen spots are accounted for in this little exercise.

I have 12 relievers in the table plus Camarena, Haynes, and Lail to consider, so that’s 15 pitchers total. One of those 15 is going to get the final big league bullpen spot, so it’s really 14 pitchers for eight Triple-A bullpen spots. In all likelihood one of the 40-man roster guys will get that last bullpen job with the Yankees. It doesn’t really matter which one, specifically. My money is on Bleier because the Yankees really seem to like him, but ultimately the name doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Because there are six 40-man relievers in that table, and whichever ones don’t get that final MLB bullpen spot will wind up in Triple-A, no questions asked. None of ’em are going to Double-A. That’s five Triple-A bullpen spots accounted for already, which leaves us nine pitchers for the final two or three bullpen spots (depending whether they carry a seven or eight-man bullpen): Camarena, Feyereisen, Gurka, Haynes, Lail, Mantiply, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon.

The Yankees signed Gurka as a minor league free agent earlier this offseason and he has some big league bullpen time with the Rockies, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot. Cashman talked up Mantiply at the town hall two weeks ago and he has a tiny little bit of big league time too, so I think he gets a Triple-A bullpen spot as well. If the RailRiders employ an eight-man bullpen — and to be clear, the Yankees make that decision, not the RailRiders — I think it would be Feyereisen. Just a hunch. Camarena, Haynes, Lail, Montgomery, Rutckyj, and Wotherspoon end up in Double-A for the time being. (One or two might even get released.)

Alright, so after all of that, my projected 13-man Triple-A Scranton pitching staff shakes out like this:

  • Rotation (5): Adams, Enns, Herrera, Montgomery, and one of Cessa, Green, Mitchell, or Severino.
  • Bullpen (8): Feyereisen, Gurka, Mantiply, and five of Barbato, Bleier, Gallegos, Heller, Holder, or Shreve.

After going through all of that, I must point out the odds are strongly in favor of this post being a complete waste of time. Guys are going to get hurt in Spring Training, released before the end of camp, whatever. These things change and they change a lot. Trying to project the Triple-A Opening Day roster in late January is a fool’s errand, so I guess that makes me a fool.

I still think it can be instructive to go through this exercise each year, even though it’s prone to blowing up in my face. It’s good to get an idea of how the Triple-A roster will shake out, see where the Yankees have depth, and who the call-up candidates are at any given moment. I have a tendency to forget about Herrera, personally. Laying this all out is a good reminder that hey, he’s probably going to be in the Scranton rotation. So even though this is all very subject to change, I think we get a good grasp of what the Triple-A roster may look like come April.

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.

Young starters allow the Yankees to finally use a six-man rotation in 2017

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

It feels like only a matter of time until a six-man rotation becomes the norm around baseball. Individual pitchers are generally throwing fewer and fewer innings with each passing season, and with a full-time 26th roster spot seemingly on the horizon, soon it’ll be much easier to carry that extra starter. Right now it takes a little roster creativity to make a sixth starter work.

The Yankees, like many teams, have used a spot sixth starter at times the last few years. Someone gets called up, makes one start to give the rest of the rotation an extra day of rest, then gets sent back down the next day. We’ve seen Chase Whitley, Bryan Mitchell, and Chad Green used in this way the last three seasons. Mitchell, Green, Luis Cessa, and Luis Severino are candidates to do this in 2017. Jordan Montgomery and Chance Adams too, possibly.

Yesterday I wrote about the possibility of a tandem fifth starter system, which sounds great in theory, but probably wouldn’t fly in reality. It could work for a team in a deep rebuild with nothing to play for — the Rockies tried a four-man rotation and with four sets of tandem starters in 2012, when they lost 98 games — but a team trying to contend like the Yankees? Nah. Seems like it would be tough to pull off.

Tandem starters might not be doable. But some sort of six-man rotation? That definitely seems possible. It doesn’t have to be a full-time six-man rotation, remember. That would require playing with a six-man bullpen (nope) or a three-man bench (yup). Let’s call it a modified six-man rotation, in which the Yankees use their young pitching depth as a series of sixth starters.

In a nutshell, you call one guy up for a spot start, send him down the next day, then six days later you call up another young starter to make the next spot start. The Yankees wouldn’t be able to call up the same guy for both starts — players must remain in the minors ten days after being sent down, unless someone is placed on the disabled list — but they have the depth to swing it. Something like this:

Day One: Masahiro Tanaka
Day Two: CC Sabathia
Day Three: Michael Pineda
Day Four: Severino (or whoever wins the rotation spot)
Day Five: Cessa (or whoever wins the rotation spot)
Day Six: Mitchell as spot sixth starter
Day Seven: Tanaka
Day Eight: Sabathia
Day Nine: Pineda
Day Ten: Severino
Day Eleven: Cessa
Day Twelve: Green as the spot sixth starter (Mitchell can’t be recalled yet due to the ten-day rule)

The exact names may change, but that’s the idea. And this is doable because the young starters have minor league option years remaining. Mitchell has one left while Cessa, Severino, and Green each have two. Montgomery and Adams, who are also spot sixth starter candidates, have yet to be added to the 40-man roster, so they have all three options remaining. Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera were just added to the 40-man and have all three options too. Can’t forget them.

Shreve. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Shreve. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Furthermore, the Yankees have optionable relievers, which is a necessity to make this spot sixth starter thing work. Guys like Johnny Barbato, Richard Bleier, Gio Gallegos, Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, and Chasen Shreve can all be sent up and down without being exposed to waivers in 2017. Send a reliever down one day, call up the spot sixth starter the next, then send down the spot sixth starter and call up another reliever the day after that. See? Simple.

Keep in mind the Yankees don’t have to do this all season. April is, as always, loaded with off-days. The Yankees have three off-days in the first ten days of the regular season. They have eight off-days in the first 43 days of the regular season. Basically one every five days. Yeah. It’s not until mid-May, when they begin a stretch of 20 games in 20 days on May 16th, that the Yankees need to seriously consider using a spot sixth starter to give their regular rotation extra rest.

With any luck, the Yankees will be in position to consider using a spot sixth starter (or tandem starters!) all season. That will mean everyone will have stayed healthy and all the young starters won’t be needed to plug big league rotation spots. We know that’s very unlikely, which is why depth is important. Counting guys like Montgomery, Adams, Enns, and Herrera, the Yankees just might have enough arms to use spot sixth starters all year.

Remember, this is as much about the veterans as it is the kids. Tanaka and Sabathia would benefit from the extra rest now and then, as would the younger pitchers, especially since they’ll all presumably be on some workload limit. Cessa led the kids with only 147.2 innings in 2016. It’s not like these guys are all set to throw 190 innings in 2017, you know? Using a spot sixth starter, something the Yankees have done in the past and have the personnel to do this coming season, benefits everyone.

Young pitching depth could allow Yankees to use tandem fifth starters in 2017

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

Five weeks from tomorrow, the Yankees will officially open Spring Training as pitchers and catchers report to Tampa. It’s the biggest non-news day of the year. Nothing really happens that day, but still, it’s the start of the new season. Baseball will be back and that’s exciting. It can’t come soon enough.

The Yankees still have five weeks of offseason remaining to tweak their roster. At this point I would be surprised if they traded away Brett Gardner or Chase Headley, or traded prospects for a young pitcher with several years of control. They might still swing a cheap free agent signing, say a one-year deal for a veteran innings guy, and that’s maybe it. We’ll see.

As it stands, the Yankees can fill out the back of their rotation with their collection of young starters. Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda are the top three starters. These are the guys up for the final two spots, kinda sorta in order of their chances to win a rotation spot in Spring Training:

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

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d say they want Severino to grab a rotation spot and run with it in camp. That’s what I want to happen, anyway. He has the most upside of those six starters. I’m not sure anyone would disagree with me there. Severino winning a spot and keeping it all season would be the best thing for the Yankees, both short and long-term.

Montgomery and Adams almost certainly need more Triple-A time — Adams has yet to pitch at that level and Montgomery has thrown only 49.2 innings there, including postseason — so the chances of them winning a big league rotation job in camp are small. It’s not impossible, just really unlikely. And after Severino, the next three names can really be put in pretty much any order.

In all likelihood we’ll see all six of those guys in the Bronx at some point this coming season. That’s usually how it goes. Getting through a season using only seven starters feels like a miracle these days. The Yankees do have a nice amount of young pitching depth — Dietrich Enns and Ronald Herrera are both on the 40-man roster and I haven’t even mentioned them yet — which could allow the team to be a little creative and use tandem fifth starters.

The tandem starters idea is pretty simple. One guy starts, throws four or five innings, then the next guy comes in and pitches the rest of the game. Perhaps it’s better to set it at times through the lineup rather than innings. The starter goes through the lineup twice, then the tandem starter comes in and goes through the lineup twice as well. Something like this, basically:

Day One: Tanaka
Day Two: Sabathia
Day Three: Pineda
Day Four: Severino
Day Five: Cessa and Mitchell

The names are interchangeable. Cessa could be the fourth starter with Severino and Mitchell the tandem fifth starters. Or Mitchell the fourth starter with Severino and Green the tandem fifth starters. Whatever the order, that’s the idea. Two young pitchers work in tandem in the fifth starter’s spot, essentially splitting the nine-inning game.

The tandem starters idea seems neat, but what exactly is the point? How does this help the Yankees? I see three benefits:

  1. More young pitchers see MLB time. It’s possible those young starters have all reached the point where they need to face big league competition to continue their development. Rather than use two in the rotation and send two to Triple-A, three would be in MLB, turning a lineup over multiple times.
  2. The bullpen gets a day off every five days. If the tandem starters are handling the fifth starter’s spot, then the bullpen won’t have to work so hard that day. It’s a chance to give the rest of the staff regular rest once each time through the rotation. It’s almost like a guaranteed complete game every fifth day.
  3. Workloads can more easily be controlled. These are young pitchers, remember. Cessa led the four youngsters with 147.2 innings in 2016. They’re not ready to be 200+ inning workhorses and will need their innings limited in 2017. The tandem starters plan makes that a bit easier.

At the same time, there is some downside here. How are the kids supposed to learn how to pitch deep into games if you keep yanking them after the second time through the lineup? This is a recipe for building a bunch of five-and-fly starters. And two, what happens in close games? You know everyone, from Joe Girardi to the fans, will want Aroldis Chapman on the mound in the ninth inning of a one-run game. That complicates things.

Ultimately, I feel like the tandem starter idea works better in the minors than it does in the majors. Winning is not the priority in the minors. Development is. You can use the tandem starter system in Triple-A, and hey, if you lose a game because the “second” starter blows a one-run lead in the ninth during his fourth inning of work, so be it. That doesn’t fly in the show, especially not when the Yankees insist they’re still trying to contend.

The tandem starter plan is a nice idea in theory that probably won’t fly in reality. Chances are the Yankees will have plenty of opportunities to use all their young starters this season anyway — they’ve had at least seven starters make 5+ starts in 14 of the last 17 seasons — so finding playing time probably won’t be an issue. Maybe come September, when rosters are expanded and the pitchers approach their innings limit, and the team’s place in the standings is more clear, tandem starters is a more viable idea. For now, it doesn’t seem doable, but not because the Yankees lack the personnel.