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2020 Yankees projections: Starting rotation

Prior to Summer Camp beginning for the Yankees, we’ll be making projections for the entire team.

First up: the starting rotation

For most of the past decade, the Yankee rotation has been essentially the same — a good but not great group without an ace. A respectable combination of number twos and threes. We thought we were getting an ace in 2014 with Masahiro Tanaka. Brian Cashman thought he acquired an ace at the 2017 trade deadline with Sonny Gray. And in 2018, we thought we had our ace of the future with Luis Severino.

Finally, this past offseason, Cashman was done playing games. After passing on guys like Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Price, and Patrick Corbin, we reversed course. With the addition of Gerrit Cole, Yankee fans can finally sleep at night knowing that we have someone that can match up with a Verlander, deGrom or Scherzer.

Gerrit Cole

While Cole was always fit to handle New York, the coronavirus crisis may make the transition even easier. There won’t be throngs of reporters swarming him after games, and there won’t be bridge and tunnel tough guys booing him after one bad start.

At this point, you surely know why the Yankees gave this man $324 million. In 2019 he led the league in ERA, strikeouts, strikeouts per 9, and adjusted ERA. He was by far the best pitcher in the AL based on pretty much every metric. Other than Jacob deGrom, it’s tough to make an argument for anyone else as the best pitcher in the sport. Cole had absolute video game numbers in 2019, and some sort of regression seems inevitable. He’s going to get around 11 starts if the full 60 game schedule is played, and I’m sure the Yankees will bring him along slowly to protect their investment.

Regardless of the numbers that he puts up this year, Cole gives the Yankees a feeling of invincibility they haven’t had since prime Sabathia. Unlike our last three playoff runs, we finally have a guy that can go toe to toe with the best.

Prediction: 11 Starts/3.24 ERA/2.98 FIP/12.2 SO/9

 James Paxton

Paxton had a tale of three seasons in 2019. He was dominant in the beginning, terrible in the middle, and solid at the end. He threw eight shutout innings against the Red Sox in April, but he also had three starts where he allowed six or more earned runs. It can be frustrating watching him go back and forth. Sometimes he storms off the mound after a strikeout, breathing fire. Other times, he trudges slowly toward the dugout like a lost puppy that wandered into the wrong neighborhood; even his playoff run mimicked his inconsistency. Over his three playoff starts, one was mediocre, one sucked, and one was incredible.

ALDS Game One: 4.2 Innings/3 Earned runs. 5.79 ERA
ALCS Game Two: 2.1 Innings/1 Earned run, 5.14 ERA
ALCS Game Five: 6 innings/1 Earned run, 1.50 ERA

In ALDS game one, the Yankee offense was able to overcome the mediocre start and the Yankees eventually won in a blowout. However, Paxton absolutely decimated the team in game two of the ALCS. By not being able to get out of the third inning, there was an immense amount of pressure thrust onto the bullpen. I don’t expect seven innings from every start, but two innings is simply unacceptable. This non-competitive start had the Yankees playing catch up for the rest of the series. He was magnificent in game five, but we all know it was too late.

Paxton ended up at 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA in 2019, which is right in line with his career ERA of 3.50. As a Scott Boras client, Paxton should be hyper-focused and motivated going into a contract year. If he has 10 great starts, he could be setting himself up for life changing payday.

Prediction: 9 starts/3.48 ERA/3.64 FIP/11.4 SO/9

Masahiro Tanaka

Like CC Sabathia, Tanaka came over as an ace. However, over the past three years he has settled into the role of a solid number three. Ironically, when the Yankees signed Tanaka, Cashman said that he hoped “Tanaka could develop into a solid number three starter.”  In 2019, Masa was the epitome of an average pitcher. He went 11-9 with a 4.45 ERA and struck out 7.4/9. There were rumblings that the juiced ball had less exaggerated seams than the old ball. Many articles were written talking about how much the ball affected Tanaka’s trademark splitter. While this may have helped contributed to his season, Tanaka also had a 4.74 ERA in 2017. It’s not like he was dominating every year before the ball changed.

Despite his average season, Masa took the ball every five days and was able to avoid the IL, which was no small feat among our injury ravaged group. He is a laser focused consummate professional who never complains or make a scene. He is an old school bulldog that George Steinbrenner would’ve adored. Tanaka has been an absolute monster in the playoffs, pitching to a 1.76 ERA over 46 innings as a Yankee. At this point, we know what we are going to get with Tanaka. An average to solid regular season with playoff dominance. As a number three starter, you can sign me up.

Prediction: 10 Starts/ 3.96 ERA/4.10 FIP/7.8 SO/9

 Jordan Montgomery

I’ll admit that I’m not as high on Montgomery as most. Fans love comparing him to Andy Petitte because he’s a similarly sized lefty, but I think the comparisons need to stop there. Andy consistently went deep into games for his entire career. For all of the fanfare around Montgomery’s 2017 rookie season, most of his starts were around five innings. It’s been almost three years, however I remember a lot of 3-2 counts and him struggling to put guys away. It’s pretty pointless to try to use his 2017 stats to project 2020. What we do know is that Montgomery is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and has added a tick or two to his fastball. He was topping out around 93 pre-injury, and he is now said to be able to dial it up to 95.  If he can maintain that added velocity, it should lead to less foul balls, more strikeouts, and longer starts. Keep in mind that he is still relatively fresh off surgery and won’t be pushed hard at all. The Yankees are going to ask him to be a solid number four and nothing else. I think everyone should temper their expectations here.

Prediction: 8 starts/4.42 ERA/4.10 FIP/8.5 SO/9

J.A. Happ

J.A. Happ was awful in 2019. His 4.91 ERA was one of the worst among full time starters. He’s an aging pitcher with mediocre stuff who has to rely on pinpoint accuracy just to grind out a quality start. In his only playoff start as a Yankee, he was visibly shaking on the mound and got absolutely embarrassed at Fenway Park.

If it sounds like I’m being harsh, there’s a reason for it. I still can’t comprehend why Brian Cashman chose to give a then 36 year old pitcher with essentially one pitch $17 million. Yes, he was great in the second half in 2018. Yes, he’s a professional. But his velocity and spin rate were plummeting at alarming rates going into the 2018 off season. An organization as innovative as the Yankees should’ve known he was cooked. Remember that Charlie Morton was available for a cheaper price. He finished third in the CY Young race last year. Happ allowed 1.9 HR/9 in 2019. The Yankees will be mainly playing in hitters parks and it’s tough for me to project improvement as he heads into his age 37 season.

Okay I’m done. I really hope I am wrong here and I end up on Old Takes Exposed.

Prediction: 10 Starts/5.15 ERA/4.9 FIP/6.9 SO/9

 The Rest

The Yankees will be playing 60 games, yet I only accounted for 48. Where will the other 12 starts come from? Some candidates:

  1. Joanathan Loaisiga
  2. Luis Cessa
  3. Clarke Schmidt
  4. Deivi Garcia
  5. Mike King
  6. Bullpen Games

After the starting five, the Yankees have plenty of depth for spot starts. I’m sure we will dive into this group on another post, but expect this group to combine for a few starts over the course of the season.  Domingo German will be eligible to return to action during game 4 of the ALCS, so stay tuned.