Coming into the 2016 season, New York Yankees fans had reasons to be excited for the team’s rotation. It had an ace in Masahiro Tanaka, a budding superstar in Luis Severino, young fireballers Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi, and veterans CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova as options.
However, the rotation has been an unmitigated disaster through almost a quarter of the season so far. While Tanaka has been fantastic, that’s really where the positives end. With Sabathia and Severino looking to be activated off of the disabled list soon, the Yankees will have to make a choice: who stays in the rotation, and who goes?
A couple of starters are assured spots in the rotation, and that’s Tanaka and Sabathia. Simply put, they have been the two most dependable starters that the Yankees have this season. The fact that they almost make a combined $50 million per year will ensure their spot in the rotation no matter how they perform, but Tanaka and Sabathia have definitely earned their spots this year.
Eovaldi is also probably safe in the rotation, despite his inconsistency. He will throw 7 innings of 2-run ball one start, only to struggle to make it out of the 5th or 6th in the next while allowing 4 runs and constant contact. But Eovaldi has plus stuff and has taken real strides recently in becoming a more complete pitcher, starting with adding a quality offspeed pitch in his splitter, which now gives him 4 primary pitches.
Beyond them, the puzzle gets a little difficult to sort out. On one hand, it is easiest to send Nova back to the bullpen and leave Pineda and Severino in the rotation. But anyone that has watched how the latter 2 pitchers have performed this year knows that the Yankees are not winning games with these guys on the mound. In fact, River Ave Blues pointed out that the Yankees are 2-13 in games started by Pineda and Severino and 14-9 in all other games.
Pineda may have lost his nerve following his masterful Mothers’ Day start last year, in which he struck out 16 batters. In 28 games since then, he has gone 8-14 with a 5.47 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. He has become a nibbler in the strike zone, and he isn’t pitching with any confidence.
Bright spots for “Big Mike” since last Mothers’ Day have been few and far between. Before this terrible stretch, Pineda was looked at as a possible ace. In fact, after that Mothers’ Day gem, some called Pineda the real ace of the Yankees. That couldn’t look any more false than it looks now.
However, it’s been just as ugly for Luis Severino. After a post-trade-deadline call-up, Severino had an epic rookie season. He went 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP in 11 starts last year. And while some regression and rookie adversity was to be expected, no one predicted Severino to pitch this poorly in 2016.
Currently on the DL with a mild Triceps strain, Severino is 0-6 with a 7.46 ERA and 1.69 WHIP. It will be a couple of weeks before Severino can return, and General Manager Brian Cashman confirmed that Severino will pitch at least one rehab game.
In Severino’s stead, Ivan Nova has quietly done a good job. He looked uncomfortable out of the bullpen earlier this season, but Nova did get some good out of his demotion. His stint in the bullpen saw him become essentially a 2-pitch pitcher (sinker and curveball) with his other offerings becoming rare (<10% each).
While this wouldn’t seem to be what you want from a starter, the bullpen stint helped Nova gain confidence in those pitches. In his two starts since Severino went on the DL, Nova has pitched 10.1 innings of 2-run ball, good for a 1.78 ERA. If he keeps this up, there’s no reason to remove Nova from the rotation.
So this leaves us with Pineda and Severino. Both pitchers have minor league options remaining, which means that they can be sent down without having to pass through waivers. However, it is not likely that the Yankees will send down Pineda given his track record.
Thus, for the time being, I’d keep Pineda in the rotation. Assuming everyone’s healthy when Severino returns, I’d consider demoting Pineda to the mop-up man spot if he continues to pitch this badly. One thing about Pineda is that his stuff does look like it could translate into a relief role. He throws a hard fastball and has a slider that, while it needs work, can be deadly. His changeup hasn’t exactly become a dependable third pitch, so it could be minimized or scrapped in the bullpen.
I looked at the same idea with Nathan Eovaldi last year, but his development of a splitter has cemented his status as a starter. If Pineda cannot find a consistent third pitch, he could find himself in the bullpen soon.
Ultimately this is contingent on everyone’s health, which is never a given in baseball. But the Yankees may want to consider moving Pineda to the bullpen if he continues his downward spiral. As for Severino, I’d have more patience with him, and would only consider a demotion to the minor leagues if he continues to struggle after his DL stint.
If the Yankees have learned anything this year, it’s that you can never have enough starting pitching. Their lack of depth has hurt them so far, and change is needed if the Yankees want to get back into the race.