Most believe that the Yankees enter the 2021 season as heavy favorites to win the AL East and to contend for the best record in the American League. While the Blue Jays and Rays are far from pushovers, at least on paper, New York is the class of the division. Therefore, while we’re sure to hear from players, coaches, and the front office that their objective is to win the division and qualify for the playoffs, making the postseason (especially when the field has been expanded) does not a successful Yankee campaign make. No, for better or worse, regardless of how many feel-good stories emerge in the Bronx this year (the return of Brett Gardner, a renaissance for players coming off injuries, or the emergence of yet another relative unknown), if Championship 28 is not the end result, this group will never be held in the high regard as the teams of the late 90’s or even 2009, despite this club’s being arguably superior in many aspects.
When you are a fan of – or a player for – the New York Yankees, your annual focus is on a championship. While regular season accolades are fine and will certainly sell a player’s jersey, the true long-term love affair between this fanbase and a player comes when he has multiple rings to show off when things are all said and done. To have a number retired in monument park, it’s usually not if he finished with rings; it’s how many? Bronx Legends are made in October, not in the dog days of June. And that’s why, at the potential cost of Regular Season Awards and egos, the 2021 Yankees must finally commit to this coming season preparing a 6-man rotation.
Major League teams carefully script, with the help of the most advanced technology and analytics, the weekly progression of work for their prized arms as a dominant starting rotation has been the centerpiece for teams’ prolonged success for decades; it’s certainly the primary aspect of a franchise’s capacity to maintain annual success in the postseason. Brian Cashman has added quality depth to the rotation this past offseason, but if the Yankees do not consciously approach this campaign with an early view on preparing for the postseason, the additions of such names as Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon – and the anticipated return of Luis Severino – will mean very little through a championship-or-bust perspective.
If you’re going to incorporate a somewhat-drastic/revolutionary new approach to maintaining the health of your rotation, isn’t 2021 the year to do it? No MLB player had a “normal year” in 2020; while many familiar faces continued to produce at prolific rates, there’s never been a season like last. 60 games. Seven-inning double headers. Expanded playoffs. New rules for extra innings. And no Minor League action during which young players could climb or develop through the benefit of real game action. It’s going to take some time for bodies to adjust to the old ways of 162, the marathon versus the 60-game sprint. Consider the disparity between those two regular season game totals; try to recognize that this season our Yankees are being tasked with playing over 100 games more than they took on just last year. How quickly can the human body, even for elite athletes, make that type of transition?
Oh, and let’s not forget that a number of arms the Yankees will be counting on this season don’t even come in carrying the benefit of having played a 60-game tilt. Three names expected to be lead contenders to break camp with a starting role this season have missed significant time to various issues in the recent past. Both Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon carry the potential of greatly contributing to an elite starting rotation – but this is based on past track record for Kluber and pure, raw stuff for Taillon. Neither participated in the 2020 Major League season due to injuries. And then there’s Domingo German who may have been on the precipice of stepping in as a long-term piece in the Yankee rotation after a 2019 debut season in which he went 18-4 with a 4.03 era. And then the news broke that he faced an 81-game suspension due to breaking the league’s domestic violence policy. If German is able to show enough in the spring, which he certainly has thus far, to warrant another opportunity as a starter (whether his teammates are able to whole-heartedly welcome him back into the fold or not), that’s a third arm you’d be relying on who hasn’t seen a Major League inning in over a year.
With the addition of German to this list-of-concerns, you’re potentially looking at sixty-percent of a five-man rotation combining for exactly one more inning than I threw in the Majors last year. And Jordan Montgomery isn’t exactly the poster-child for physical reliability either, himself having undergone Tommy John surgery in 2018. Each of these names, fortunately, carries a high-ceiling for 2021, but can Aaron Boone honestly predict that his July rotation will contain all of these names as healthy and well-performing options?
Looking at a transition between a five-man versus a six-man rotation may not seem like a tremendous shift when it is analyzed in the short-term. Assuming an off-day per week, a starter’s spot in the rotation comes back around on approximately the sixth day after his previous start. So what’s the benefit of bumping that number out by a day each time through? Let’s say that somehow…miraculously…the same five starters are run out through the 162 regular season schedule. That would mean each arm would take on 32.4 starts. However, if you simply add a sixth man to the same full-season rotation schedule, the starts-per-rotation-slot drops to an even 27. To put it in terms of total anticipated innings expected, even if those 5.4 fewer starts per man were expected to only save 5 innings each turn, that’s 27 fewer MLB innings each. It’s a difference for a workhorse like Cole to drop from 200 total innings (a big ask for any pitcher, especially after the unusual past year) to a relatively modest 173 – still plenty to build to his peak for the postseason but reducing the equivalent of three complete games of taxing effort. It’s significant.
Deivi Garcia will likely enter the 2021 season on something of an innings limit; is it realistic the limit could fall somewhere in the 173 IP range? If it’s lower than that, you have a veteran arm like Chacin who is more than capable of contributing spot starts along the way. How about Taillon, who is still only 29 and should be entering his prime years? After his second Tommy John, won’t the Yankees be anticipating that he won’t be called on to contribute 200+ frames?
Those who contend that the Yankees, or any other team, can’t execute the 6-man transition because it would cause them to be out of “alignment” with their opponents’ starters are analyzing through a far too myopic lens. Yes, when you’re facing a rival’s ace in the regular season, it’s nice to send your top arm out there. But there isn’t a name amongst the six options who cannot be expected to contribute a QS more often than not, and on most days the Yankee offense should more than compensate for an occasional rough outing.
It was not too long ago when the baseball world furrowed brows over the Rays’ decision to employ an Opener versus rolling with the more traditional roles associated within a staff. In fact, it may surprise some that it was as recently as 2018 when Sergio Romo took the mound for the Rays with no intention of being stretched to 5 innings or more. The Yanks later followed the Rays recipe when they tabbed Chad Greene as the de facto Opener in 2019 (don’t let the recent Yankee history around the Opener sour all of this; yes, I am aware that the experiment backfired when Aaron Boone disastrously tabbed youngster Deivi Garcia to usher in an extended outing for now-Twin J.A Happ). Despite the mixed results seen in the early days of the Opener, it will undoubtedly be a strategy employed by various clubs this year, for much the same starter-saving purpose as unleashing the 6-headed monster of the Yankees. And by the way, why did the Opener approach have such a negative impact on the end of the Yankees season in 2020? Perhaps that has to do more with the move intentionally executing a scenario wherein J.A Happ was to take on the bulk of the innings after a season when he had not once taken the mound in a relief capacity. In fact, Happ had entered a game from the ‘pen three times. In total. Since 2014.
If the Yankees couldn’t offer up the talent and ceiling of a 6-man rotation of Cole, Kluber, Taillon, Montgomery, Garcia, and German, they wouldn’t have the benefit of this debate. It’s a luxury for a team to have that level of depth in the rotation – and they already anticipate adding an arm this summer when former-ace and Cy Young candidate Luis Severino is fully healed. While it’s a dangerous game to make predictions for the regular season based on a player’s performance in Spring Training, the early returns on every one of those six have been very intriguing…if not downright exciting.
The Yankees need to have a dominant postseason rotation in order to assure them the best possible chance to bring home their 28th title in 2021. If they can reach October with all of their arms healthy – and relatively untaxed in relation to the rest of the MLB – there’s no team in baseball with any better chance to raise the trophy at the end of the season. For the Yankees, the playoff push starts on April 1.
Still not convinced of the value of trading out some extra Gerrit Cole regular season dominance for a greater likelihood of staff-wide health? Perhaps you’ll be more capable of buying in if you let yourself dream a bit: a 2021 Yankees v. Dodgers Fall Classic with matchups like this:
- Game One: Gerritt Cole versus Clayton Kershaw
- Game Two: Corey Kluber versus Trevor Bauer
- Game Three: Jameson Taillon versus Walker Buehler
- Game Four: The hottest option of Luis Severino…or Deivi Garcia…or Jordan Montgomery…or Domingo German versus David Price or Dustin May or Julio Urias
If the prospect of seeing those hypothetical matchups doesn’t give you goosebumps – and remind you that for the Yankees the regular season isn’t the season, you’re rooting for the wrong team.