The State of the Yankees’ Rotation: Pitchers and Catchers Edition

Luis Severino

Baseball is back! Well, kind of. Pitchers and catchers reporting means the new season has officially started though it’s also just a tease that baseball is truly back with six weeks of meaningless baseball ahead and February and the winter gauntlet still upon us. But with temperatures in the minus-double digits over the last week with the wind chill, any sign of baseball and spring and is a welcome sight.

The Yankees’ spring training opened and with it came the barrage of beat writer tweets marveling at the height and build of new Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman as if no one seemed to know that a guy who throws 105 mph would be so big and so strong. It opened with Joe Girardi being peppered with questions about the unknown playing status of Chapman as well as the lingering injury issues surrounding nearly the entire rotation. And it opened with me wondering about how good this Yankees pitching staff is or can be or if it will be any good at all.

We know the bullpen isn’t going to be good, but rather great. It has to be. If the Yankees’ bullpen doesn’t live up to the hype then nothing else matters because this team isn’t going anywhere without the best bullpen in baseball. The rotation, on the other hand, is once again an unknown for the fourth straight season, so let’s focus there. I decided to write one question about each of the Yankees’ six starting pitchers in honor of them reporting to Tampa.

Number 47, Ivan Nova, Number 47

Who are you?

I know you’re Ivan Manuel (Guance) Nova, born Jan. 12, 1987 and signed by the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 2004. But I mean who are you as a pitcher?

Are you the Ivan Nova that pitched decently in 10 games and seven starts near the end of the 2010 season? Are you the Ivan Nova that went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA in 2011, shut down the Tigers in Game 1 (but kind of Game 2) in the 2011 ALDS and look like you might be a future front-end starter? Are you the Ivan Nova that went 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA in 2012 and gave up five earned runs or more in nine of 28 starts? Are you the Ivan Nova that pitched his way back to Triple-A at the beginning of 2013 only to return on July 5 and pitch to a 2.59 ERA over his next 15 starts (104 1/3 innings)? Are you the Ivan Nova that had an 8.27 ERA after four starts in 2014 before needing Tommy John surgery? Are you the Ivan Nova that returned in 2015 and went 6-11 with a 5.07 ERA in 17 starts?

The Yankees brought back Nova because they are hoping he can be the pitcher he was in 2011 and the second half of 2013 now that he’s a full season removed from Tommy John surgery and it’s not the worst gamble they ever made. Unfortunately, if the other five starters stay healthy in spring training (and that might be the biggest “if” of all time), Nova is the odd man out and I don’t know what happens to him when it comes to a roster spot. He isn’t suited a long-relief role where the appearances are infrequent and where he wouldn’t be stretched out enough to spot start once an inevitable injury to the other four happens. So I think that could mean he begins the season in Triple-A, which isn’t the worst thing. Like Nova said this month, “I’m a starting pitcher, not a reliever,” and the Yankees should abide by that.

It’s been four-plus years since I thought Nova could be really good and two-plus years since I thought that again. After six seasons as the poster boy for inconsistent, this is likely his last chance with the Yankes to remove that label.

Number 52, CC Sabathia, Number 52

Did you figure out how to “pitch” yet?

Once again, CC Sabathia’s supposed best friend is Cliff Lee, and once again, CC Sabathia spent four seasons with Andy Pettitte. So how is that he hasn’t figured how to pitch like his best friend and longtime teammate and get people out with diminished velocity? How is it that Sabathia still thinks he can pull a mid-to-high-90s fastball out of his back pocket to escape a jam like the old days?

I know CC Sabathia is done. I wrote about it last June and again a little over a week ago. I know he’s never going to be the pitcher he was in 2009 or 2010 or 2011 or 2012, but is it too much to ask of him to just not be the pitcher he was in 2013 (14-13, 4.78 ERA), 2014 (3-4, 5.28 ERA) and 2015 (6-10, 4.73 ERA)?

Maybe after three seasons and 69 starts of being unable to accept the fact that 95 mph and 96 mph and 97 mph are no longer options, and really, 90 mph and 91 mph are often not options either, maybe this is the year that Sabathia learns how to get people out without an overpowering fastball. If it isn’t and if he can’t, well, we’re looking at a fourth straight bad season from the former ace, and if his left shoulder stays healthy, we’ll see it again in 2017 for another $25 million.

The Yankees don’t need Sabathia to be what he once was or even close to it. They just can’t have him ruining the season like he nearly did last year of the way Phil Hughes did in 2013 (14 losses). If Sabathia was able to stay in the rotation last year over Adam Warren despite winning more two games in a month only twice then it’s obvious he’s going to be in the rotation no matter what and the Yankees can’t afford to have him lay an egg or destroy the bullpen every five days.

I would sign up for an above-.500 record and 4.50 ERA from Sabathia right now because it’s better than anything he’s done in the last three seasons and it’s certainly better than anything anyone should expect from him this season. Give me a season of 6 IP/3 ER starts and I’m more than happy.

Number 30, Nathan Eovaldi, Number 30

Have you realized you throw 100 mph?

Nathan Eovaldi’s first season in the Bronx wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be. He did go 14-3 with a 4.20 ERA, but what I hate about him is that he struck out 121 in 154 1/3 innings. How is it possible that a guy who can throw 100 mph for an entire game (and when I say game I mean a Nathan Eovaldi-pitched game, which is 5 1/3 innings), but can’t strike anyone out? At least Phil Hughes had an excuse when he would get ahead 0-2 and then throw nine more pitches in at-bat and that excuse was that he was throwing 92. Eovaldi is throwing 98-99-100 with every fastball and can’t put hitters away. It’s a waste of talent and a waste of an arm and it’s the reason Eovaldi joined his third team by age 24 despite throwing so hard.

Maybe Eovaldi’s new-found splitter last season will be the difference in his career. Maybe that’s the pitch that will finally get him over the hump and and start to bring down that ugly 1.397 career WHIP of his. Maybe he won’t waste so many two-strike pitches that get fouled off and won’t try to strike every guy out and maintain his pitch count, so he isn’t forced to leave every game in the sixth inning nearing 120 pitches. That’s a lot of maybes for a guy who many Yankees fans believe in and believe he can be a front-end starter for this team. I’m going to need to see it more than once a month.

Number 40, Luis Severino, Number 40

Are you the ace?

Luis Severino might be the best pitcher on the Yankees and that’s with a healthy Masahiro Tanaka. I have him as the third starter here because even though Severino is the future of this rotation, there’s no chance the Yankees have him as the No. 2 going into the season and they will likely have him as the No. 4 and I wouldn’t be surprised if they have him as the No. 5. This is the team that told us they’re all about winning last season and sent Adam Warren to the bullpen to keep CC Sabathia in the rotation and it nearly cost them a playoff berth for the third straight season.

I’m actually surprised Joe Girardi mentioned that he sees Severino pitching 200 innings this season since it’s unlike Girardi to say anyone has a guaranteed spot on the team. It would have been more like Girardi to say that Severino is competing for a rotation spot even though he might be the team’s ace.

I liked everything I saw from Severino last season and I’m expecting big things from him in 2016. That might be unfair for a starting pitcher who turns 22 on Saturday and has 11 starts and 62 1/3 innings of Major League experience under his belt, but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t think he could handle it. Even with minimal work in the majors, I thought there was a case to be made to have Severino start the wild-card game last year though I knew that would never happen. But to think he was right there alongside Tanaka, the $155 million man, to start a one-game playoff after 11 career starts shows you how good Severino is.

Number 35, Michael Pineda, Number 35

Will you ever pitch a full season?

After missing the entire 2012 and 2013 seasons, I started to think Michael Pineda would never actually pitch a game for the Yankees and that feeling of overwhelming excitement I felt in January 2012 when I found out the Yankees had traded Jesus Montero for him would never come to fruition. I finally got that feeling in 2014 when Pineda pitched to a 1.89 ERA, but only for a short time with just 13 starts. In 2015, Pineda wasn’t as good as he had been the year before, but he was healthier, making 27 starts after missing nearly all of August.

2014 Michael Pineda is the Michael Pineda I thought the Yankees were getting when they traded for him. (Well, 2014 Michael Pineda with a few more strikeouts is really the pitcher I thought they were getting.) But I thought they were getting a No. 1-2 starter in exchange for a player without a position. I thought they were getting the guy they thought they were signing in A.J. Burnett and someone to finally slot in behind CC Sabathia and make a true and formidable 1-2 punch for the playoffs. Instead Pineda has made just 40 starts over four years as a Yankee and by the time he was healthy to pitch, Sabathia was no longer the No. 1 and the Yankees weren’t even a playoff team.

I still think there’s a full season as a Yankee ahead of Pineda, and the scary part is it feels like that trade happened forever ago, yet he just turned 27 in January. With all the questions once again surrounding this rotation, it would be nice if Pineda could finally remove himself as one of the questions for the first time in five years and here’s to believing he can. I still believe in Big Mike.

Number 19, Masahiro Tanaka, Number 19

Is your right elbow OK?

Back in October, Tanaka had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow. It wasn’t the surgery many thought he would have had by now and some New York writers have wished he would have by now, but it’s still surgery. Now four months removed from the surgery, there is a possibility Tanaka won’t be ready in time for Opening Day despite being pain free at this point.

I was skeptical of the Yankees giving $155 million to a pitcher that had never thrown a pitcher in the majors. When his third pitch in the majors, on an 0-2 count to Melky Cabrera, went for a leadoff home run in the third game of the 2014 season, I wasn’t feeling too good. But Tanaka won that game and started the season 6-0 and when he improved to 11-1 on June 17 with his fifth double-digit strikeout game in 15 starts, his ERA stood at 1.99. Even when he lost a complete game to the Red Sox on June 28 despite giving up just two earned runs, Tanaka was still 11-3 with a 2.10 ERA and he was still the best pitcher in the American League.

In his next two starts, Tanaka gave up nine earned runs in 13 2/3 innings and went on the disabled list after his July 8 start. He returned on Sept. 21 to make two starts — one good (5.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K vs. TOR) and one bad (1.2 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 2 K at BOS) — to end the season.

In 2015, we saw the April 4-July 8, 2014 Tanaka in spurts. We saw him on April 18 (7 IP, 2 HR, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 8 K at TB) and April 23 (6.1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K at DET). But then he went on the DL until June 3. We saw him come off the DL and pitch 21 innings with 21 strikeouts, allowing just four earned runs in his first three starts back. But after that run from June 3-15, we saw him sporadically and didn’t see him in the one-game playoff against the Astros even though he probably could have pitched 14 scoreless innings that game and the Yankees still would have lost.

Last season, I thought Tanaka had to be healthy all year for the Yankees to make the playoffs. He wasn’t (24 starts) and they did (kind of). But this season, I’m saying nearly the same thing: Masahiro Tanaka has to be healthy nearly all season for the Yankees to make the playoffs. With Michael Pineda’s shoulder annual shoulder problems, Nathan Eovaldi’s own elbow issue, Luis Severino’s inexperience, CC Sabathia’s … well just about everything with CC and Ivan Nova’s inconsistent career, the Yankees can’t afford to lose Tanaka. That’s right, the 2015 rotation hinges on the right arm of a pitcher pitching with a torn right elbow. Baseball is back!