New York Yankees Analysis: Are the Yankees taking too big a risk with pitching?

William Parlee
New York Yankees, Corey Kluber
Mar 1, 2020; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Corey Kluber (28) pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2020 shortened season, the New York Yankees decided not to give qualifying offers to start pitchers Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ. That left them with only one veteran pitcher, last year’s acquisition of their ace Gerrit Cole. Behind him, they had a bevy of inexperienced, untested, not ready for prime time pitchers that the front office originally said they were satisfied with.

The Yankees instead made their priority the signing of second baseman DJ LeMahieu to a new contract. Those negotiations dragged on for over two months while pitching upgrades went untouched. Early in the offseason, Yankee owner Hal Steinbrenner issued a directive that he wanted to stay below the luxury tax threshold of $210 million. With that edict and LeMahieu still dangling out there, and how much it would cost to keep him in pinstripes, general manager Brian Cashman’s hands were tied, not knowing how much money he had to spend on the team’s other needs.

The New York Yankees did make some minor moves by signing Nestor Cortes Jr. and Adam Warren to minor league contracts. Both relievers had pitched for the Yankees before. Finally, last week the Yankees were able to resign LeMahieu last year’s batting champ. Cashman apparently got very creative. Originally it seemed that Yankees might have to pay as much as $25 million a year to keep DJ. The negotiations dragged on because DJ wanted more security than the three-year $75 million contract the Yankees reportedly offered. DJ demanded five years and the talks stalled.

One thing we know about Brian Cashman is that he can be secretive and creative. In the end, he got LeMahieu to sign a six-year deal, but at only $15 million annually, giving Cashman far more flexibility on additional improvements to the team. Before fans could digest the signing, another signing was made hours later. The Yankees signed a one year $11 million contract with Corey Kluber. Kluber is a two-time Cy Young award winner but comes to the team with injury baggage.

The Yankees already have questions with Jordan Montgomery, who is just a season off his Tommy John surgery. Last season he pitched in ten games with a 2-3 record and an elevated 5.11 ERA. This season they will have Domingo German coming back from the suspension; he didn’t pitch at all last season. Joining him midseason will be Luis Severino, returning to the Yankees after not pitching for a season and a half.

The New York Yankees’ next move was to trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates that sent starter Jameson Taillon to the Yankees for four lower-level Yankee prospects. That move was most likely influenced by Gerrit Cole, who was in the minor leagues with him, and they pitched together for the Pirates in 2016 and 2017. At first, this seemed like a huge upgrade for the Yankees, but he too did not pitch last season, coming back from his own Tommy John surgery.

In another surprise move yesterday, the Yankees signed a $2.5 million contract with the 38-year-old reliever Darren O’Day. This acquisition was made possible when the Yankees dumped Adam Ottavino to the Red Sox in their only second trade this century. O’Day is old in pitching terms but will give the bullpen a different look with his pitching submarine style. The Yankees are also familiar with O’Day from their years of facing him with the Baltimore Orioles. But O’Day has his own injury issues.

The New York Yankees have now set themselves up with some great pitchers that could have a high reward for the Yankees without spending a barrel of money, but coming with that is a significant risk. The question is, are the Yankees taking too big a risk? They are betting on all these returning pitchers regaining form and giving them a winning season. The Yankee’s injury history the past two years to otherwise healthy players makes one wonder how this will all pan out.

  1. Gerrit Cole, healthy coming off a 7-3 ERA 2.84 season in 12 games. In his previous two seasons with the Houston Astros, he won 35 games. Cole has been relatively healthy in his career, but in 2016 he was on the IL three times, one a season-ending elbow inflammation.
  2. Cory Kluber’s 2019 season was shortened by a fractured arm. Last season he pitched only one inning after developing a bad should in his first game with the Texas Rangers. In the previous three years, Kluber won 18 or more games. Since 2014 he has been in the Cy Young voting, winning the award twice.
  3. Jameson Taillon did not pitch last season for the Pirates. TJ surgery. Taillon has been in the majors for five years but pitched in only seven games in 2019. Taillon is one of the few pitchers that has had Tommy John surgery twice.
  4. Luis Severino, coming off Tommy John surgery, hasn’t pitched in almost two years. Severino was 19-8 in 2018 with an ERA of 3.39. Severino was an All-Star and Cy Young nominee in two years of his four years with the Yankees, but also had Tommy John surgery, then missed five months in 2019 due to an issue with an inflamed rotator cuff. He later dealt with a lat injury while rehabbing his rotator cuff.
  5. Domingo German did not pitch last season due to suspension. During 2019 he was the Yankees’ most winning pitcher going 18-4 before MLB shut his season down. German has pitched in 38 games over three years.
  6. Jordan Montgomery, a season off from surgery, 2-3 ERA 5.11 in 10 starts during 2020. “Monty” has pitched only 18 games during the last three years with the Yankees. There is a question on how he will hold up in a 162 game season.
  7. Darren O’Day, 38 years old, missed two months in 2018 with a hamstring injury, missed five months in 2019 with a strained forearm. Last season was 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in 16â…“ innings over 19 games last year with Atlanta and remained healthy.

It’s hard to believe that all of these pitchers will complete the 2021 season without an injury with all these injuries and surgeries. If the Yankees can pull this off, they will be the team to contend with this season. If not, they may have overplayed their cards. Just as likely as one or more of these players miss some time, it is probable that the New York Yankees can still have a good season. This big upside is that if these players can come even close to their best years, we will see you in October.

Much of the Yankees’ 2021 success may lay in the hands of their up and coming pitching prospects. The Yankees will surely have to make adjustments as the season progresses as the pitchers have to have inning limits either from not pitching last season or adjusting to a 162 game season. Deivi Garcia and Clarke Shmidt will surely see innings, especially if the Yankees use a six-man rotation at some point in the season to give pitchers another day of rest.