It may be fair to call 2016 the weirdest year in recent Yankees history. Not only did Brian Cashman trade away some of the team’s best assets to facilitate a rebuild, but New York somehow still almost made the playoffs on the strength of a late-season surge (fueled by call-ups like Gary Sánchez). Cashman’s trades were almost universally hailed as a success, and the Yankees’ restocked farm system ranks as one of baseball’s best entering the 2017 season.
New York, as currently constructed, is in prime position to field a World Series contender in a few years. Even now, they are a fringe playoff team for the 2017 season, meaning that the Yankees are not even sacrificing present competitiveness for future success. However, the team is facing one major problem without an easy solution: Its starting rotation is shaky and there is no clear way to improve it.
In 2016, Yankees starting pitchers ranked around league average in several categories. In fWAR, for example, New York ranked 16th with 11.8, also finishing 16th in FIP (4.40). These numbers, while not great, hardly doom the team to mediocrity. However, there are reasons to believe that last year’s metrics could be somewhat deceiving in terms of a 2017 outlook.
New York had three starting pitchers record more than one fWAR in 2016: Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, and CC Sabathia. Tanaka pitched just under 200 innings, recorded a 3.51 FIP, and struck out 7.44 batters per nine innings. Sabathia and Pineda, while much less consistent than Tanaka, were both at least decent options as well. Neither recorded an above-average FIP, but Sabathia and Pineda each reached 175 innings and were able to provide overall production at close to a league-average level.
These three pitchers are not the problem for New York in 2017. Each has a compelling reason to be included on a major-league staff — Tanaka’s consistency, Pineda’s potential, Sabathia’s track record — and it is not difficult to envision a competent starting five that includes all three of them. For the Yankees, the biggest problem facing the rotation is that the pithing becomes much less clear after Sabathia.
Two of the Yankees’ most-used starters last season, Nathan Eovaldi and Iván Nova, are gone (Nova via trade, Eovaldi to Tommy John surgery). Neither of these two pitchers provided elite production, but their absence creates holes in the rotation without a clear answer. The team has several young players who could fill this void, but none of them are proven options yet. Bryan Mitchell spent most of last year hurt, Luis Severino was completely ineffective as a starter, and Luis Cessa has not shown enough consistent talent to be relied upon.
In a nutshell, then, the Yankees have one consistently good pitcher (Tanaka), two pitchers who range from decent to slightly below-average (Pineda and Sabathia), and several younger options whose potential is still unclear (Severino, Mitchell, Cessa, Chad Green). While this conglomeration made up most of a roughly average rotation last season, Sabathia’s age, Pineda’s general inconsistency, and the absence of Eovaldi and Nova do not bode well for 2017.
If the Yankees’ only goal was to rebuild, this rotation issue would not be a problem. However, this team surely plans on at least competing for a wild card this season, and will probably need to upgrade at least one of its rotation spots to do so. This is part of why so many Chris Sale rumors involved the Yankees before he was dealt to Boston. Adding an ace to this staff would lessen everyone’s responsibilities and make the rotation much stronger. Tanaka, for all his skills, would function much better as a No. 2 starter, and cobbling together a fifth rotation pitcher is much easier than doing so for two spots.
However, as baseball saw with Chris Sale’s trade, the market for quality starting pitching is extremely high at the moment. As much as Sale would have made sense for the Yankees, sacrificing the prospects that the team now values so highly would throw off the franchise’s long-term goals. Ultimately, there may be no clear way for the team to upgrade its rotation right now.
In all fairness, though, this is not an issue that needs immediate action. The team backed off on Chris Sale, and seems unlikely to trade for José Quintana, too. It is entirely possible that Severino or Mitchell could turn in a productive season for the team in 2017, and Cashman’s lack of urgency to bring in a high-profile starter suggests that this is not something the Yankees are willing to spend major assets on right now.
More likely, the team will look to future free agents, or perhaps even the trade market in 2017 if circumstances are right. Cashman has shown the ability to add quality starters around the trade deadline in recent years, and the quality of starting pitchers available in the next two off-seasons is substantially higher than the 2016 crop. However, until the Yankees make these moves, the team’s rotation still looks pretty thin.
For the Yankees, the overall future is bright. FanGraphs currently projects that the team will finish right outside of the second wild card spot, which is hardly bad for a “rebuilding” team. However, the Yankees need to upgrade their rotation at some point, and there is not a clear path to doing so.
Thomas Jenkins is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Peachtree Hoops. You can also follow him on Twitter for tweets about sports.