You can count on one hand the number of successful starting pitchers the Yankees have produced in the Brian Cashman era.
A bleak history
Andy Pettitte is without a doubt the gold standard. The lone starting pitcher from the Core Four won 219 ballgames for the Yanks over 15 seasons, and another 19 in the postseason — an MLB record. Pettitte redefined himself throughout the years; he was a workhorse in his early twenties, eclipsing 200 innings five times between 1995 and 2001. As he grew older he became more crafty, often out-thinking hitters with a mix of cutters, sliders, and curveballs. He may never have been the most dominant starting pitcher, but he often times pitched like he was, which is why he will be remembered as one of the most beloved Yankees of all time.
It took a decade for the Yankees to produce another starting pitcher, and while he was not drafted like Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang was signed at a young age and developed in the Yankees’ minor league system. Wang started 17 games as a rookie and pitched well in his lone 2005 postseason game. In 2006 and 2007, he was a 19 game winner and the Yankees’ de facto number one. If not for a foot injury running the bases in 2008 that derailed his career, Wang could have been a cog in the Yankees 2009-12 run. Still, despite his short-lived success, there is no denying Wang’s accomplishments in a Yankee uniform.
That brings us to Phil Hughes — Hughesy as Girardi called him. I was in my University of Vermont dorm room streaming then unreliable MLB.TV on May 1, 2007. It was Hughes’ second career start and every bit of buildup around the righty was materializing before our very eyes; the Yankees had an ace in the making. Then, in the 7th inning of a no-hit bid, Hughes limped off the Texas mound with a hamstring injury, thus producing one of the lowest moments of my Yankees-watching career. It signified the team’s mid-2000’s failures. All hype, no substance.
Hughes didn’t pitch again until August of that season, and would not be a regular in the starting rotation again until 2010 when he won 18 games and was an All Star. In said All Star game, Hughes surrendered the NL’s eventual winning run, symbolizing his time spent in pinstripes which can be summarized with one word: frustration. From the Texas no-hit injury to the endless barrage of homers surrendered, Hughes frustrated Yankees fans to no end.
That’s it. Seriously. . . three successful starting pitchers in the past 22 years (even with some liberties taken on Wang and Hughes). It’s sad the Yankees have only three homegrown starters to their claim, yet remarkable they have not only remained above .500 for that span, but been the most successful franchise in their sport. Whether with money or smoke-and-mirrors, the Yankees have somehow found a way.
The inconsistent Severino
Eighteen months ago, Luis Severino debuted against the Red Sox in the Bronx. He entered the game as the Yankees number-one pitching prospect and “baby Pedro” comparisons to deal with (no pressure, kid). While he lost the game, Sevy pitched well over five innings and survived a difficult first opponent.
By the time September concluded and the Yankees readied for a Wild Card game, Severino had amassed impressive numbers. In 62.1 innings, he allowed only 53 hits and struck out 56. Each of his 11 starts improved on the previous, sending expectations for the young righty sky-high.
Severino’s talent was easy to see. Time after time the Yankees called-up pitchers from the minors with strong statistics only to watch them flounder, but Severino looked different. His mid-90s fastball jumped through the zone and his off-speed stuff, still in development, produced swings-and-misses. He looked different, indeed. He looked like a major leaguer.
That is why 2016 was all the more disappointing. Severino failed miserably as a starter. He lost each of his 7 starts to begin the season, allowing 29 earned runs in 35 innings and a staggering .919 OPS-against.
After being placed on the DL with a phantom injury — essentially, the clear your head DL trip that’s common among struggling pitchers — he stayed in the minors until returning in July as a reliever. In 3 appearances out of the pen, he faced 29 batters and struck out 10 while allowing just 1 hit. His stuff was popping and Severino appeared rejuvenated. That was, until he started again.
We commonly refer to Michael Pineda as jekyll and hyde, but 2016 Severino embodied that idiom. He appeared in 22 games, half as a starter and half as a reliever. Starting, he went 0-8 with a 8.50 ERA and a .337 BA-against. Relieving, he went 3-0 with a 0.39 ERA and a .105 BA-against.
I’ve tried to make sense of the numbers, but they are so mind-bogglingly different that I can’t. There was no rhyme or reason to Severino’s struggles. Logic would dictate that, since he was so strong as a reliever, his issue was facing a lineup for the second time. But his 7.34 ERA in the first 3 innings as a starter indicate the issue was something else, perhaps mental.
Searching for answers, the Yankees suggested a new workout plan for Severino, saying he was too bulky. Pedro Martinez also apparently consulted Severino on his off-speed release point, which may have been the root of his struggles. Whatever the problem was or is, mental or physical, 2017 is the biggest year of Severino’s career.
The time has come
The Yankees rotation is in flux and could look vastly different next year. Masahiro Tanaka’s opt-out clause is looming, and should he exercise it, the Yankees will have to pay him (more) to keep him. CC Sabathia’s contract, which also featured an opt-out clause that he exercised, ends after 2017. Michael Pineda will test free agency for the first time next winter. If he repeats 2016 then the Yankees will move on but if he performs well then they will have to out-bid the market to retain him — kind of a lose-lose situation, if you ask me.
Right now the Yankees have five pitchers vying for two rotation spots, with Severino leading the way. Adam Warren, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, and Luis Cessa all have the potential to be solid pitchers, but do not project as a difference maker. Severino, on the other hand, has that ability. He can grab the Yankees rotation by the balls and solidify himself as the front-end pitcher we all saw glimpses of in 2015.
The good news for the Yankees is that Severino is not the only young pitcher with promise. James Kaprielian (#87 on Baseball America’s top-100 prospects) and Justus Sheffield (#91) highlight a deeper list of potential starters the Yankees have not enjoyed in the nearly 20 years Cashman has been GM-ing the team. But Kaprielian and Sheffield’s timetable is 2018, assuming things go as planned. Severino can make a difference now.
A strong season from Severino this year could have a lasting impact on the organization. Not only will it help the Yankees compete in 2017, but it will give them some clarity on how to proceed with an uncertain rotation in 2018 and beyond.