The New York Yankees entered the 2018 season as a bonafide World Series contender. Some believe they’re favorites.
That dream will struggle to come to fruition if the starting pitching isn’t addressed. And, for the sake of their expectations, aspirations and placement in the standings, the sooner, the better.
Fortunately, the Yankees haven’t felt the ramifications of their subpar starting five just yet. Despite a not-so-smooth transition to the American League from the National League for Giancarlo Stanton, a Jekyll and Hyde April and May for Didi Gregorius, a slow start for Gary Sanchez and a slew of underwhelming performers, the team has boasted one of the most well-rounded starting lineups in all of baseball.
The bullpen hasn’t lived up to their lofty reputation but Aroldis Chapman has been an anchor at the end of games while others — some familiar (Dellin Betances, Chad Green), some not (Jonathan Holder) — have done enough to shut down the opposition late in games.
But the Achillies heel remains the starting staff.
Luis Severino is the clear ace and is quickly emerging as one of the best starters in the game today. There’s no question about his ability to take the ball and outperform whatever lineup stands in front of the youngster.
After him, though, it’s question marks aplenty.
Masahiro Tanaka has proven time and time again that he could be the ace the Yankees thought they signed out of Japan in 2014 — but his inconsistencies on the mound are too hard to ignore. Relying exclusively on a slew of breaking balls, Tanaka has struggles of keeping pitches up in the zone, which has resulted in nearly two home runs allowed per nine innings. When Tanaka is on, he paints corners like Vincent Van Gogh and can be unhittable. But when he’s off, opposing offenses feast on his offspeed pitches, something that’s even more worrisome against powerful lineups such as the ones the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians boast.
Like Tanaka, CC Sabathia primarily uses a heavy mix of his changeup, cutter and slider to keep hitters off balance. And while he’s proved to be effective with his new gameplan at the age of 37, he, also like Tanaka, is having trouble with consistency. As a four of five starter, Sabathia would be a strong member of the Yankees’ rotation. Now that he’s looked upon as a top three arm, however, his struggles have been magnified.
And then there’s Sonny Gray.
The former Oakland Athletic was a coup during last year’s trade deadline frenzy and he pitched as if the transition from the Bay Area to the Bronx was seamless (3.72 ERA in 11 starts). Fast forward months later and the move is now being questioned by many, as Gray looks like one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. Outside of two standout performances, the right-hander has been lost in 2018, with his 4.79 FIP and 57 hits in 49.2 innings pitched being key indicators of his struggles.
Blockbuster trades rarely come before July, simply because opposing teams are still keeping their own playoff hopes alive.
The Yankees don’t have time to waste. They need help immediately.
Fortunately, the farm system could be of help.
The first name that jumps to mind is top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield. The 22-year-old left hander has gotten his first taste of Triple-A action this season, where he’s held opposing batters to an eye-popping .193 batting average while simultaneously pitching to a 1.65 ERA. In 16.1 innings, Sheffield has also struck out 18 batters while walking just nine, proving that his natural ability continues to progress as he gets promoted.
At the same time, the youngster has battled with a minor shoulder injury and has also continuing to work on both command issues and ability to pitch late into games, all of which are concerning. He’s yet to pitch past the fourth inning with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, which wouldn’t work in New York.
In the end, the Yankees think very highly of Sheffield. If he can work on said issues over his next handful of starts, the youngster can get his first look in pinstripes earlier than expected. He has the necessary mix of pitches (two-seam baseball that reaches the mid-90s, a sweeping slider and an evolving changeup) to make an easy transition to the big leagues.
And if he can live up to the hype that came when he was traded for stud reliever Andrew Miller, the Yankees could have someone who could be slotted behind Severino in the not-so-distant future.
The next option on the 40-man roster could be Jonathan Loaisiga. He’s currently pitching in Double-A with the Trenton Thunder, but the need for a starter could put the youngster on the fast track to the Bronx.
His ability hasn’t equated positive results just yet but Loaisiga is considered one of the organization’s better pitching prospects for a reason. The lanky right-hander reaches the upper-90s with his fastball and accompanies it with a curveball with plus spin rate, something the Yankees value very highly.
He’s struggling with getting hitters out in AA (.319 BAA) but a blister on his pitching hand could have effected his potential. Either way, he has a 46 to four strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2018 and continues to look like a real player in the future. One would think said future is still a year or two away, but the Yankees are getting desperate.
The beauty of having one of the top prospect pools in baseball is depth. Erik Swanson and Josh Rogers won’t be featured on any top prospect lists but they’re both legitimate options to help the big league club in the very near future.
Swanson was the talk amongst the farm earlier this season, as he was the class of the Thunder pitching staff. In five starts, he sported a 0.81 WHIP and allowed just 21 hits in 40.1 innings pitched. While he hasn’t been as dominant in Triple-A (4.22 ERA, albeit a small sample size), the 24-year-old righty is striking out nearly one batter per inning (nine in 10.2), bringing his combined total to 61 compared to just 15 walks.
A more feasible option could be Rogers, who is having more success in Scranton than the aforementioned Swanson.
The southpaw won’t overpower any one hitter with his stuff, but he could remind fans of injured fifth-starter Jordan Montgomery, Like Montgomery, Rogers has a lot of movement on each of his three pitches and uses it to work the corners. He’s started 10 games with the RailRiders this season and has been impressive throughout, with a 2.48 ERA, 36.5 ground ball percentage and .230 BAA all working in his favor. He won’t be promoted to the major leagues and blow anyone away but he has the ability to be a steady presence at the bottom of the rotation, something the team could use.
A promotion of either Swanson or Rogers would result in a move on the 40-man roster, but it’s something the organization must consider.
The Yankees have shown in the past that they’re much more patient with pitching prospects than hitters.
But this team needs a shot in the arm. More simply put, they need an arm for their rotation.
Dan Federico is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.