The Fill-in Starting Pitchers [2017 Season Review]

Cessa. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Cessa. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Although they went into Spring Training with two open rotation spots and physical concerns with the other three spots, the Yankees made it through the 2017 season using only eleven different starting pitchers. Only ten teams used fewer. Furthermore, the Yankees had only eight pitchers make at least five starts this year. Those eight pitchers accounted for 158 of the Yankees’ 162 starts this season.

Pitching depth is a necessity in baseball, not a luxury, and the Yankees got some decent production out of their depth arms this year. Given how often pitchers get hurt, the performance of your sixth or seventh starter can very easily be the difference between a postseason berth and a long offseason. Times to review the three starters who drew the most fill-in starts during the 2017 season.

Luis Cessa

It wasn’t until mid-June that the Yankees were forced to use a sixth starter for the first time. A hamstring injury sent CC Sabathia to the disabled list, and while Cessa’s overall Triple-A numbers weren’t great (4.15 ERA and 4.40 FIP in 65 innings), he’d allowed only five runs in his previous three starts and 20 innings. He was the hot hand. Plus he lined up perfectly with Sabathia’s rotation spot.

Cessa made three starts while Sabathia was sidelined, during which he allowed eleven runs on 13 hits and six walks in 13.2 innings. One start was okay (three runs in five innings) while the other two were bad (four runs in four innings, four runs in 4.2 innings). Joe Girardi kept the leash short with Cessa — he averaged only 82 pitches in those three starts, all Yankees losses — which was understandable.

The Yankees kept Cessa around as a long reliever following Sabathia’s return, and he pitched fairly well in that role, allowing six runs in 14.2 innings across five appearances. One real disaster outing against the Reds (three runs in one inning) skew the numbers a bit. Cessa tossed 4.2 scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on July 4th and 3.1 scoreless innings against the Rays on July 30th.

Following a quick stint in Triple-A, Cessa returned to the Yankees in mid-August, making a spot start against the Mets on August 14th when Sabathia’s knee acted up. He allowed two runs in 4.2 innings and had to be pulled after throwing 66 pitches with what appeared to be a back injury. Cessa would not pitch again this season. He was placed on the disabled list the next day with what the Yankees called a rib cage injury. It was season-ending.

In five spot starts this season Cessa pitched to a 5.82 ERA (6.25 FIP) and held hitters to a .256/.360/.535 batting line in 21.2 innings. In five relief appearances, he had a 3.14 ERA (4.83 FIP) and a .259/.333/.389 opponent’s batting line in 14.1 innings. (Cessa also had a 3.46 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 78.1 Triple-A innings.) Pretty bad all around, save those long relief outings against the Blue Jays and Rays.

I am a Cessa fan — I know that puts me in the extreme minority — because I like his athleticism (former shortstop!), I like his velocity (averaged 95.4 mph and topped out at 99.5 mph in 2017), and I like that he throws four pitches. That said, Cessa shelved his curveball and changeup as the season progressed and started to lean heavily on his fastball and slider:

luis-cessa-pitch-selection

The swing-and-miss rate on Cessa’s slider this year: 21.4%. The MLB average is 16.9%. The whiffs-per-swing rate on Cessa’s slider this year: 43.2%. The MLB average is 35.2%. When you’re getting empty swings like that on your slider, why bother messing around with a curveball and changeup, especially when you’re trying to stick around and establish yourself in the big leagues?

Cessa will turn 26 in April and he has a minor league option remaining for next season, so he figures to again be an up-and-down depth arm in 2018. He doesn’t want to become Bryan Mitchell. That good arm/bad results guy who runs out of options without having carved out a role in the big leagues. Depending how the rotation depth chart shakes out, the Yankees might be best served by putting Cessa in the bullpen full-time next year, and letting him air it out with an upper-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss slider. He just might surprise you.

Jaime Garcia

Jaime. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Jaime. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Despite strong overall results, the rotation was enough of a concern at the trade deadline that the Yankees added two starters, not one. Michael Pineda went down with Tommy John surgery, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery were piling up innings, and Sabathia’s knee is an ongoing concern. So, on July 30th, the Yankees traded pitching prospects Dietrich Enns and Zack Littell to the Twins for veteran southpaw Jaime Garcia. They then traded for Sonny Gray the next day.

Garcia made his Yankees debut on August 4th and it did not go well. Not at all. He allowed six runs (five earned) in 4.2 innings in Cleveland. Yuck. After that though, Jaime reeled off a six-start stretch in which he pitched to a 2.97 ERA (4.67 FIP) in 30.1 innings. Girardi had a short leash and didn’t let Garcia face the middle of the lineup a third time often, but hey, that’s a serviceable six-start stretch. Coincidentally enough, Jaime’s best game as a Yankee came against the Twins, his former team, on September 18th.

Nine strikeouts and one unearned run on four hits and one walk in 5.2 innings against the team chasing you for the top wildcard spot. Could you imagine if Garcia had pitched like that in a postseason race against the Yankees after they’d traded him? Good gravy. The hot takes would burn down the internet. Garcia helped the Yankees sweep the Twins that series, which effectively ended the race for the top wildcard spot.

Jaime made eight starts for the Yankees after the trade — they used a quasi-six-man rotation for parts of September, so at one point Garcia went 13 days between starts — throwing 37.1 innings with a 4.82 ERA (4.87 FIP) overall. Not great, but they, the Yankees needed the pitching depth, and the six-start stretch in the middle was fine. Garcia was on the ALDS and ALCS rosters and he did get into a postseason game, tossing 2.2 hitless mop-up innings in Game One against the Indians, sparing the other relievers in the loss. (The bullpen was shot after the Wild Card Game, remember.)

Garcia was a rental. He’s a free agent now and there are no indications the Yankees may bring him back, though, to be fair, there are no indications the Yankees plan to do anything right now. Things have been pretty quiet the last few days. I suppose the Yankees could look at Jaime as a one-year candidate should they opt against bringing Sabathia back. I doubt it, but you never know.

Caleb Smith

(Stephen Brashear/Getty)
Smith. (Stephen Brashear/Getty)

Smith’s season started with the biggest opportunity of his career. He was in camp with the Cubs as a Rule 5 Draft pick. Chicago wanted him so much they worked out a trade with the Brewers to get him. In a prearranged deal, Milwaukee picked Smith in the Rule 5 Draft, then immediately traded him to their NL Central rivals for an undisclosed sum of cash. The Cubbies wanted Smith, but they had the last Rule 5 Draft pick and were worried he wouldn’t last, so they made the trade.

Things didn’t work out for Smith with the Cubs. He allowed three runs (all on solo homers) in 6.1 Cactus League innings and was returned to the Yankees at the end of camp. It was going to be tough for Smith to crack Chicago’s roster given their depth anyway, and once he started serving up dingers in Spring Training, that was that. The Cubs took a look, didn’t like what they saw enough to keep him, then sent him back to the Yankees.

The Yankees had Smith start the season back in Double-A — he spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons with Trenton — but moved him up to Triple-A Scranton a week into the season. He was lights out with the RailRiders. I’m talking 2.11 ERA (3.32 FIP) with 25.6% strikeouts in 15 starts and 89.2 innings before getting his first MLB call-up in July. The Yankees needed another long man and Smith was their pick.

Smith’s first big league outing went better than the line score indicates: 3 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 5 K. He retired the first six men he faced before things unraveled when some ground balls found holes in his third inning of work. The outing was good enough to earn Smith a spot start a few days later, in Pineda’s suddenly vacant rotation spot. He made two starts and neither went particularly well:

  • July 23rd at Mariners: 3.2 IP, 5 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB 2 K on 56 pitches
  • July 29th vs. Rays: 3.1 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 4 K on 71 pitches

Despite being a lefty with good velocity — Smith’s fastball averaged 93.6 mph and topped out at 97.1 mph during his brief MLB stint — and a good changeup, Smith struggled to put hitters away in his two spot starts, especially once the lineup turned over. Realistically, I don’t think there was anything he could do in those two starts to convince the Yankees they didn’t need Garcia and/or Gray. That he struggled made the decision to make the trades that much easier.

Smith went back to Triple-A for a few weeks after that before returning in mid-August as a reliever. In six relief outings to close out the season, he allowed eight runs in 8.2 innings, with opponents hitting .265/.359/.559 against him. A disastrous three runs, no outs appearance against the Rangers on September 8th skews his numbers a bit for sure. But still, Smith did not pitch all that well in the show. He threw 18.2 total innings with a 7.71 ERA (5.62 FIP).

Two weeks ago, as part of their annual 40-man roster cleanup, the Yankees traded Smith (and Garrett Cooper) to the Marlins for pitching prospect Mike King and $250,000 in Shohei Ohtani international bonus money. Smith wasn’t going to survive the 40-man roster purge and the Yankees got what they could for him. This is a good thing for him. Smith will turn 27 in July, and he figures to have a much better big league opportunity with Miami next year than he would with the Yankees. Hopefully things work out for him. He’s stuck with it for an awful long time in the minors.

Yankees trade Garrett Cooper and Caleb Smith to Marlins

King. (@tKinger14 on Twitter)
King. (@tKinger14 on Twitter)

The Yankees have made another trade as they continue their 40-man roster purge. Tonight they traded Garrett Cooper and Caleb Smith to the Marlins for pitching prospect Mike King and an undisclosed sum of 2017-18 international bonus money, the team announced. This trade plus the Nick Rumbelow trade and Ronald Herrera trade give the Yankees six open 40-man roster spots before they have to protect players from the Rule 5 Draft.

King, 22, was selected by Miami in the 11th round of the 2016 draft out of Boston College. He threw 149 innings this season, all at Low Class-A, where he had a 3.14 ERA (3.97 FIP) with 17.8% strikeouts and 3.5% walks. MLB.com did not rank King among the top 30 prospects in the Marlins system, which is arguably the worst in baseball. Here is a snippet of Baseball America’s pre-2016 draft scouting report (subs. req’):

The 6-foot-3 righthander doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but he commands an upper 80s fastball with sink, touching 92 mph. King mixes in a short-breaking slider that is difficult to square up but not an above-average offering. He pitches to contact but is a plus competitor and has above-average command.

The Yankees have had a lot of success getting their pitching prospects to add velocity in recent years. If King adds a few ticks to his heater, he could be really interesting given his slider, command, and competitiveness. Also, a move to the bullpen could be in the cards. King could move real quick as a reliever.

The international bonus money is the more notable addition here because it means more money for Shohei Ohtani, should he come over. It had been reported the Yankees already maxed out their bonus pool — teams are allowed to trade for an addition 75% of their original pool ($4.75M for the Yankees) — but apparently not. Maybe they’re maxed out now? Hmmm.

Both Cooper and Smith were up-and-down depth players for the Yankees this summer. Cooper, 27 next month, hit .326/.333/.488 (113 wRC+) in 13 games as a fill-in first baseman. That includes a four-hit game against the Blue Jays. The Yankees acquired Cooper from the Brewers for Tyler Webb at midseason. He didn’t receive a September call-up, which was a pretty good indication his 40-man roster spot would be jeopardy.

Smith, 26, spent most of the season in Triple-A. He had a 7.71 ERA (5.62 FIP) in 18.2 big league inning spread across two starts and seven relief appearances. The Marlins hired farm system head Gary Denbo away from the Yankees a few weeks ago, and he is no doubt very familiar with Smith. I wonder if he’ll get a chance to crack their rotation next year. Either way, both Smith and Cooper figure to get better opportunities with the Marlins than they would’ve with the Yankees, so good luck to them.

Update: Buster Olney says the Yankees received $250,000 in international bonus money from the Marlins, and are now maxed out. It was reported earlier this month they had $3.5M in available international bonus money to offer Ohtani, so now it’s $3.75M.

Game 149: Score runs for Sonny

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

Following yesterday’s game the Yankees shuffled their rotation to ensure CC Sabathia and his balky knee will not start on the turf in Toronto next week, which means Sonny Gray gets the start this afternoon. Gray has made eight starts as a Yankees, and in those eight starts, the Yankees have scored 24 total runs. Nine of the 24 came in one game. They’ve scored four runs in his five losses. Get that man some runs!

The good news is the Yankees are facing the Orioles at home today, and gosh, they’ve destroyed the O’s in Yankee Stadium all season. They’re 7-1 with a +57 run differential against the Orioles at home. Overall, the Yankees have scored 150 runs in 18 games — 150 runs in 18 games! — against the O’s this season. No team has scored more runs against any other team since baseball expanded in 1961. Crazy. How about another blowout today? Here is the Orioles’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Aaron Judge
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. DH Matt Holliday
  7. 1B Greg Bird
  8. 3B Todd Frazier
  9. LF Clint Frazier
    RHP Sonny Gray

Another cloudy and humid but not crazy hot day in New York. There’s also a little rain in the forecast. Not much. Probably not enough to interrupt the game. This afternoon’s series finale — it really is a shame this series has to end, isn’t it? — will begin a little after 1pm ET, and YES will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Adam Warren (back) played catch again today and everything feels good. He’s still on track to get in a few games before the end of the regular season … Caleb Smith was placed on the 10-day DL with a viral infection, the Yankees announced. That might end his season. Only two weeks left.

Roster Move: Domingo German was called up from Triple-A Scranton, the Yankees announced. He essentially replaces Smith as the extra long man. The Yankees did not need to place Smith on the disabled list to call up German. German had been down for much more than ten days.

Game 136: Severino vs. Sale

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

Even though it is only September 3rd, the Yankees and Red Sox will meet for the final time tonight. Final time in the regular season, that is. They could always meet in the postseason. The Yankees have won two of the first three games of this four-game series, and that’s good, but they can’t really afford a split if they want to win the AL East. A loss tonight puts them right back where they were at the start of the series, 5.5 games back.

Tonight’s pitching matchup is a dandy: Luis Severino vs. Chris Sale. If the season ended today, I’m pretty sure Sale would win the Cy Young and Severino would finish in the top three of the voting. Definitely in the top five. As good as Sale is, the Yankees have won three of the four games he’s started against them this year, and in the one loss, they had a lead in the ninth inning. Sale’s been great against the Yankees (2.12 ERA in 29.2 innings), but he can be beat. Here is the Red Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 1B Chase Headley
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. RF Aaron Judge
  6. SS Didi Gregorius
  7. DH Matt Holliday
  8. 3B Todd Frazier
  9. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
    RHP Luis Severino

Not the best baseball weather in New York today. It’s cloudy and chilly, and it was raining on-and-off for a bit. There’s no rain in the forecast tonight. At least nothing heavy. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:35pm ET and ESPN will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Aaron Hicks (left oblique strain) was placed on the 10-day DL, the Yankees announced. The injury is not as severe as his previous oblique strain and the hope is he can start swinging a bat within ten days. The Yankees used the DL stint to bring Caleb Smith back before his ten days in the minors were up, so there are eleven guys in the bullpen right now. I’m guessing another outfielder will be up soon too … Clint Frazier (oblique) will begin a minor league rehab assignment with Double-A Trenton on Wednesday.

Rotation Update: Jordan Montgomery, CC Sabathia, and Sonny Gray will start the next three games in that order. Joe Girardi said they’re essentially slipping Jaime Garcia this time around, though he will rejoin the rotation at some point.

Game 133: The Biggest Series of the Season (For Real)

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

So this is it. The most important series of the season. Truly. These four games with the Red Sox will determine whether the Yankees have any chance at winning the AL East, or will have to shift gears and begin focusing on the wildcard. And, truth be told, the Yankees probably need to sweep this series to have a shot at the division title. They’re 5.5 games back. A split accomplishes nothing. Winning three of four gets the Yankees to within 3.5 games with 26 to play, but no head-to-head games against the Red Sox. One game at a time though.

The Yankees just got swept by the Indians and it was abundantly clearly which team went to the World Series last year and which team is hoping to get to the postseason for only the second time in five years. The Yankees have to treat these four games like postseason games. They really do. Because this is their postseason. The wildcard race is tight and the division title is becoming more and more unrealistic. Win tonight, move on to the next one. Here is the Red Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Aaron Hicks
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. 2B Starlin Castro
  6. RF Aaron Judge
  7. DH Chase Headley
  8. 1B Greg Bird
  9. 3B Todd Frazier
    LHP CC Sabathia

Cool and cloudy in New York today. Damn near autumnal. Tonight’s series opener will begin a little after 7pm ET And you’ll be able to watch on WPIX locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Clint Frazier (oblique) continues to progress and started throwing today. Now that he’s throwing and swinging a bat, I imagine it won’t be too long before he begins a minor league rehab assignment.

Roster Moves: The Yankees have sent Caleb Smith and Jordan Montgomery to Triple-A Scranton, and called up Gio Gallegos, the team announced. Gallegos replaces Smith. Montgomery was the 26th man for yesterday’s doubleheader and had to go back down after the game.

Appeals Update: MLB has scheduled Sanchez’s and Austin Romine‘s appeal hearings for tomorrow, reports Mike Mazzeo. The ruling will not necessarily come tomorrow, however. Hunter Strickland had to wait six days between the hearing and the ruling after throwing at Bryce Harper earlier this year, though that was unusually long. Sanchez and Romine probably won’t have to wait that long. Either way, the Yankees picked up Erik Kratz earlier today for extra catcher depth.

Game 118: Score runs for Sonny

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time as a Yankee, Sonny Gray will start a game at Yankee Stadium this evening. Perhaps the Yankees will even score runs for him. Gray has made two starts and thrown 12 innings since the trade, and during those 12 innings the offense has scored zero runs. Not one. They’ve scored one run total in the two games he’s started. That’s gotta change.

Of course, scoring runs might not be so easy tonight with Jacob deGrom on the bump for the Mets. He’s having a fantastic season: 3.21 ERA (3.52 FIP) with 29.2% strikeouts and 7.5% walks in 151.1 innings. The Yankees have been getting shut down by guys like Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez and Rafael Montero lately. What happens whey face a bonafide ace? It’s ugly. Hoping for the best tonight. Here is the Mets’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. DH Brett Gardner
  2. LF Aaron Hicks
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. C Gary Sanchez
  6. 1B Chase Headley
  7. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  8. 1B Todd Frazier
  9. 2B Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Sonny Gray

Pretty crummy weather in New York today. Overcast and on-and-off rain all day. There’s no more rain in the forecast tonight, though it’s cloudy and cool and humid. Yuck. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on either WPIX or SNY. Enjoy the game.

Roster Move: Luis Cessa has been placed on the 10-day DL with a rib cage injury, the Yankees announced. He left last night’s start with the injury. Caleb Smith was called back up from Triple-A Scranton to replace him on the roster.

Injury Update: Joe Girardi indicated the plan right now is to have CC Sabathia (knee) return on Saturday, the first day he’s eligible to be activated. That lines him up perfectly to replace Cessa. Sabathia threw a bullpen session yesterday and will reportedly throw another one at some point this week … Greg Bird (ankle) remains on target to begin his minor league rehab assignment tomorrow. He hopes to be activated sometime next week.

Game 117: The Subway Series

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Cessa. (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The roles have reversed from last year’s Subway Series, when the Yankees had just waved the white flag and the Mets were still chasing the playoffs. Both teams are reeling right now, though, and tonight’s pitching match-up represents something close to the bottom of the barrel for both teams. Nevertheless, this series represents an opportunity for the Yankees to get back on-track against a subpar team, with the added (and somewhat artificial) drama of an inter-borough rivalry.

Here’s the lineup that Luis Cessa will face tonight; and here’s the group that will square-off against Rafael Montero:

  1. Brett Gardner, LF
  2. Aaron Hicks, CF
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Didi Gregorius, DH
  5. Gary Sanchez, C
  6. Chase Headley, 1B
  7. Todd Frazier, 3B
  8. Ronald Torreyes, 2B
  9. Tyler Wade, SS

The first pitch is scheduled for 7:05 PM EST, and will be broadcast on both YES and ESPN (for those out of market fans).

Injury Updates: CC Sabathia (knee) threw a bullpen session today and was “very encouraged.” He’s expected to throw one more bullpen session, then come off the 10-day DL as soon as he’s eligible (Saturday) … Starlin Castro (hamstring) ran the bases today and is on track to begin a minor league rehab assignment Friday … Greg Bird (ankle) and Matt Holliday (back) both took batting practice again. Bird will begin a rehab assignment Wednesday.

Roster Move: To get Cessa on the roster, the Yankees sent down Caleb Smith.