The Yankees began their last spring training turn around the rotation Friday in — at minimum — a much better head space than when they began this process five weeks ago.
The non-Gerrit Cole portion of the rotation, which had evoked concern, has stayed healthy and pitched well, providing the winningest parlay of this Yankee spring training. It has gone so well that Deivi Garcia, who was optioned to Triple-A on Friday, likely will begin the year at the alternate site, readying for a minor league season or for when the big team requires replenishment.
That the body of work and the bodies for the rotation are both sound, of course, beats the alternative. But there are two baseball sayings that resonate right now that should temper, at minimum, runaway enthusiasm:
1. Don’t get fooled by March results.
This is a month for deception. Major leaguers, minor leaguers and non-roster desperation mingle in games at different levels of readiness. Veterans might be working on new swings or pitches. Again, it is better that the Yankees starters have performed well statistically. But if we are to take those numbers seriously, do we also have to do so for a Yankees offense that has generally been abysmal in the Grapefruit League?
If you were a betting person would you bet — with everything you know, including March 2021 results — that the Yankees will have more concern with their rotation or lineup in the regular season?
2. You never have too much starting pitching.
It should be noted how quickly depth vanishes. The Rangers, for example, left spring training 2.0 in 2020 pleased with their new acquisition, Corey Kluber. He started the third game. He pitched one inning. He hurt his shoulder. He never pitched again.
Kluber is now part of a rotation in which that one inning represents one more than Domingo German or Jameson Taillon pitched last year.
Let’s play the betting person angle again: Would you wager the Yankees will sit out the starting trade market come July or will be in deep on, say, the Reds’ Luis Castillo and the Rockies’ German Marquez?
Avoiding rotation fragility in March is the only hurdle the Yankees could have crossed to this point — and they have. A positive, for sure. But considering how little German, Kluber, Taillon and even Jordan Montgomery have pitched the past two years, the greater barrier was always going to be June and July and August …
The whole sport is bracing for covering innings this year, unsure of the workload pitchers can handle coming off a COVID-impacted 2020 of 60 major league games and none for the minors. The average team pitched 516 innings last year in the regular season. In the 162-game 2019 season, it was 1,447.
Boone mentioned last week that he believes Cole can return to being a 200-inning starter this year, a luxury — if it is fulfilled — few teams will have. That would still leave 1,200-plus innings. Let’s return to that betting person: Would you wager on anyone from German, Kluber, Taillon — combined one inning last year — giving 150 innings this year? How about 125? Is Montgomery, 17 starts combined the past three seasons, ready for 25-plus this year?
The Yankees do have Garcia on speed dial. Maybe Clarke Schmidt will heal and becomes a factor at some point. The Yankees are aiming for roughly a July reentry for Luis Severino, but he is another who was at zero innings last year after Tommy John surgery.
Like every team, the Yankees are going to need creativity. The Mariners and Angels, for example, are already committed to six-man rotations and others will at least use that or openers on occasion. The Yankees have four off-days in the first 19 days of the season and want to be mindful to work around them judiciously, especially to protect in expected cooler weather. I suspect hybrids, such as Jonathan Loaisiga and Nick Nelson, who might be able to give 80-100 innings in relief, will be huge.
Boone said he is “not putting any hard limitations on any of (the starters)” as far as innings. He noted that he has a generalized roadmap for how the Yankees would like to allocate starts and innings in 2021, but conceded it is “always an evolving and changing equation along the way.” The whole sport will have to ad-lib; the Yankees arguably as much as any club because of the dearth of innings so many of their starters have had in recent years.
So, yes, that Boone has been pleased with items beyond stats such as stuff and recovery between starts is important. The new additions, Kluber and Taillon, have acclimated well, and so has German, navigating a tough road back to respectability after being suspended under the domestic-abuse protocols. In fact, German’s feel for pitching has perhaps surprised the staff the most.
Again, it is better that the Yankees are not looking for reinforcements or cherry-picking for positives this month. It is a positive first step. But it is a long march from here.