As we count down the last few days until baseball finally returns, let’s look at some candidates to round out the Yankees pitching staff.
It took long enough, but we’ve finally made it (well, almost, anyway). After what seemed like endless months of speculation over whether we would see a baseball season take place this year, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel, as the Yankees are getting their last few “Summer Camp” practices and games in before Opening Day this coming Thursday, July 23rd.
With Masahiro Tanaka still rehabbing from a mild concussion and Aroldis Chapman away from the team as he recovers from COVID-19, the Yankees have a handful of spots up for grabs to round out the rotation and bullpen. As it stands now, the team has nine pitchers who seem to be locks to make the team: starting pitchers Gerrit Cole, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, and Jordan Montgomery, and relief pitchers Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton, Chad Green, Adam Ottavino and Jonathan Holder. Luis Cessa recently returned to the team after recovering from COVID-19 and is likely to make the roster, but shouldn’t be considered a lock, as the team may want him to get in some more work first.
MLB has implemented expanded rosters for the start of the season, with teams carrying 30 players on their Opening Day roster in addition to a three-man “taxi squad” before cutting their rosters to 28 players after two weeks and 26 players after four weeks. The Yankees will likely opt to carry more arms than bats on the initial roster, which means that a lot of pitching staff spots are still open, especially if Tanaka, Chapman, and/or Cessa aren’t healthy enough to make the team come Thursday. With only a couple of days remaining for players to make their pitch (no pun intended) to make the team, let’s take a closer look at the strongest candidates to claim the remaining rotation and bullpen spots.
A former first-round pick who raised some eyebrows with an impressive showing in Spring Training before coronavirus shut baseball down, Schmidt has dazzled in Summer Camp intrasquad games and put together a very strong case to make the team. His tantalizing curveball and changeup are great compliments to his fastball, as evidenced by this overlay from Twitter pitching savant @PitchingNinja.
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 6, 2020
As if his stuff on the mound isn’t impressive enough, Schmidt’s recent comments about his pitching philosophy regarding using his “break-x” abilities to induce swings-and-misses and ground balls shed light on just how smart a pitcher he is.
Schmidt appeared in 19 games (18 starts) in 2019, pitching mainly in High-A but also making three starts in Rookie ball, and another three starts in AA. Overall, he went 6-5 with a 3.47 ERA, punching out 102 batters and only walking 28 in 90.2 innings pitched. He appeared in four games (one as a starter) this past Spring Training and only allowed two earned runs in his seven total innings of work, striking out eight batters along the way.
While his recent performance on the mound speaks for itself, Schmidt isn’t currently on the 40 man roster, meaning that the Yankees would have to move someone to the 60-day IL or DFA someone in order to make room for him. While this could possibly keep him off the roster to start the season, his talent is incredibly apparent, and it wouldn’t be a shock at all to see him contribute to the big league club this season. Especially if Tanaka has to miss a few starts at the beginning of the season, don’t be surprised to see Schmidt crack the roster, potentially even as a starter.
After years of the team tinkering with him in both starting and relief roles, it seems the Yankees have come to the conclusion that Loaisiga’s stuff plays best out of the bullpen, at least for the time being. Manager Aaron Boone said this past Wednesday that he sees the Nicaraguan right-hander as someone they will use “initially in some kind of reliever role, but certainly a guy that’s capable of giving us some length.” Loaisiga features a high-velocity fastball as well as a curveball with some break as his primary pitches and also mixes in a changeup and sinker. He has made eight career starts and 16 relief appearances at the major league level, often struggling when he is stretched out as a starter, but he has shown promise as a reliever capable of going multiple innings.
Loaisiga missed much of the 2019 season with a right shoulder strain, but was effective when he returned, especially as a long reliever. He went two or more innings in six of his 11 appearances, only allowing multiple earned runs in two of those appearances. He also ate some valuable innings for the Yankees in the postseason, particularly in closing out blowout wins in ALDS Game 2 and ALCS Game 1.
Loaisiga’s pitch arsenal certainly plays, and his versatility in being able to be used in multiple roles as a pitcher is something that could help his case to make the team. With Nestor Cortes Jr. gone, look for Loaisiga to potentially be used as an opener in addition to a long reliever if he cracks the roster.
Acquired from the Marlins in a November 2017 trade in exchange for Caleb Smith and Garrett Cooper, King rapidly rose through the ranks of the Yankees minor league system and made his debut for the team as a September call-up in 2019. He threw two innings in relief, striking out a batter and surrendering two hits and one unearned run.
Like Schmidt, King turned some heads with an impressive Spring Training, and he worked his way into the conversation as a potential rotation piece when Luis Severino and James Paxton went down with injuries. The New York native features a heavy sinker and mixes in some breaking pitches as well. In his 2019 debut, he threw his sinker for 27 of his 41 pitches.
King has seen a lot of action, especially as a starter, in the Yankees’ Summer Camp intrasquad games, and is expected to start the team’s exhibition game against the Mets at Citi Field on Saturday night. The fact that the team has placed an emphasis on having him appear in so many of these games before the season starts suggests that they see him playing a role with the big league club this season, perhaps as a reliever or opener and spot starter. A strong showing against a stacked Mets lineup on Saturday night would certainly help his case to make the team.
A Princeton graduate, Hale has bounced around the league since the Braves drafted him in 2009, spending time in Atlanta, Colorado and Minnesota as well as New York. With all the injuries the Yankees sustained last year, he worked his way into 20 games as a reliever, pitching to a 3.11 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 37.2 innings and recording two saves. Like Loaisiga, Hale has shown promise in a long relief role, as he recorded five or more outs in 13 of his 20 appearances last season, even throwing upwards of 35 pitches seven times.
It’s clear that the Yankees organization has an affinity for Hale, as they have brought him back every time he has been designated for assignment. While he’s not the flashiest pitcher who is going to seriously impress anyone with his makeup on the mound, relievers capable of getting outs and eating multiple innings are going to be essential to saving the pitching staff, especially in such a short season where teams really can’t afford long term injuries. Hale is a strong candidate to make the team or be added to the roster later on in a Cortes Jr.-esque long relief role.
A right-hander brought over from Cleveland in the Andrew Miller trade that also sent Clint Frazier to the Bronx, Heller has shown plenty of potential on the mound during his time with the Yankees, he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He missed the whole 2018 season with a bone spur in his right elbow, then missed a significant portion of 2019 recovering from UCL surgery before he returned to the majors as a September call-up. Heller threw 7.1 innings in six games out of the bullpen towards the end of the season, allowing only one earned run and striking out nine with three walks.
Similarly to Hale, Heller isn’t going to wow anyone with his impressive stuff on the mound, but he throws a fastball that has some nice movement, and he mixes in a slider and changeup as well. He has also shown the ability to go two innings out of the bullpen before, making him another long-relief candidate to eat up innings and save the big arms. If Heller can stay healthy this year, he’s someone to keep an eye on for a potential breakout, somewhat like Jonathan Holder in 2018.
A crafty southpaw who spent nine years in the Cardinals organization, the Yankees picked up Lyons towards the end of 2019, and he worked his way onto the playoff roster after an impressive showing as a September call-up. Lyons got work in ALDS Game 2 and ALCS Game 4, pitching 1.2 innings and striking out four without allowing any hits, walks or runs. His slider, which is soft but has some movement, is his primary pitch, and he also mixes in a fastball, sinker and changeup. The team brought him back on a minor league contract in January.
Lyons’ makeup on the mound isn’t anything to write home about, but he has shown that he can get outs even against the league’s best lineups, and the fact that he worked his way onto the playoff roster last year shows that the organization clearly likes him. With the bullpen already being very righty-heavy, Lyons could be an intriguing option to add some left-handed reliever depth, especially if Chapman isn’t well enough to return to the team come Thursday.
Garcia has been heralded by many as the best pitching prospect the Yankees have had in recent memory, and general manager Brian Cashman’s reluctance to include him in a trade for a starting pitcher at the trade deadline last season shed some light on just how highly the organization thinks of him. While he looked amazing in AA and AAA last year when he was on, Garcia struggled with command and control, as he walked 54 batters in 111.1 innings of work. He also hasn’t appeared in many intrasquad games so far during Summer Camp.
There’s still a world in which he contributes at the major league level at some point this season, but there’s a strong likelihood that the team feels he isn’t developed enough to do so just yet. The fact that pitchers like Schmidt and King have appeared in far more intrasquad games than he has suggests that the team sees them as the pitchers who are developed and polished enough to contribute this season, while Garcia just isn’t there yet.
The team would also be able to further delay Garcia’s service time and eventual free agency by keeping him from debuting this year. However, his ceiling is still ridiculously high, and if a spot opens up midseason, expect Garcia’s name to at least be thrown around as a replacement.