When the 2019 regular season opens in three weeks, the Yankees will be without staff ace Luis Severino and fifth starter CC Sabathia. Severino is dealing with rotator cuff inflammation and Sabathia is working his way back from offseason knee and heart surgery. Sabathia’s delayed start to the season was expected. Severino’s injury came out of nowhere, like most injuries.
“Hopefully it’s as short as necessary, but we need to make sure we give it the time also that’s necessary,” Brian Cashman said to Coley Harvey earlier this week. “He’s an important piece and we’re not going to have him for a period of time. We’ll adjust. That’s what everybody has to do. But it’s obviously a very concerning situation until he’s on the mound for a consistent amount of time to the point that you forget it ever happened.”
Cashman seemingly ruled out an outside rotation addition — “What I’ve got is what I’ve got and we’re comfortable with that. Can’t rule anything out, but I’d say the main focus is what we have,” he said — which isn’t surprising. No general manager would come out and say “yep, we’re ready to sign someone or make a trade” after losing a key player to injury. That’s a good way to crush your leverage.
Realistically, there are four ways the Yankees can replace Severino and Sabathia. One, they could splurge and sign Dallas Keuchel. I wouldn’t bet on that. Two, they could go after Gio Gonzalez, who figures to be cheaper than Keuchel and still offers that Proven Veteran™ track record. Three, they could go real cheap with someone like James Shields or Edwin Jackson. Or four, they could go in-house with Luis Cessa, Domingo German, or Jonathan Loaisiga.
The Yankees tend to promote from within to address roster needs these days — remember how Severino made his MLB debut? the Yankees called him up because they didn’t like any of the asking prices at the 2015 trade deadline — so my hunch is they’ll roll with Cessa, German, and Loaisiga. I get adding depth, but is there any reason to believe Jackson or Shields or Bartolo Colon would give the Yankees better production? Eh, not really.
Sticking Cessa, German, or Loaisiga in the rotation and letting them run with it is the most straightforward move. It is not necessarily the best move, however. I think the best move would be pairing them with an opener. Aaron Boone more or less dismissed using an opener last week — “Look, if we are healthy and have perfect health, you don’t envision that,” he said — but here’s what he told George King following Severino’s injury:
“I could see (an opener) being considered from time to time. I don’t consider it a lot, but I could see it coming into play,” Boone said of employing the opener by using a reliever such as Chad Green to start a game. “There are so many things that go into that for us. A long stretch of games, you may want to give a guy an extra day. When we are healthy and right, I don’t see it that much.”
When healthy, the Yankees don’t have any opener candidates. Sabathia is the best candidate to be paired with an opener, but he has a longer than usual warm-up routine, and that might not translate well to the bullpen. An opener with Sabathia could be a net negative. With Severino and Sabathia sidelined though, and presumably two of Cessa, German, and Loaisiga in the rotation, suddenly the Yankees have two candidates for an opener.
The opener is both a smart strategy and a total drag to watch. The additional pitching changes and constant bullpen monitoring distract from the actual game. Strategically, it’s brilliant. You match up one of your better pitchers against the top of the lineup (i.e. the other team’s best hitters) in the first inning, then turn it over to someone who can get you through three or four (or five) innings while facing the top of the lineup only once. It’s smart. It is.
Cessa, German, and Loaisiga are all young pitchers with recent bullpen experience — they all pitched in relief for the Yankees at times last year — and the Yankees certainly have the bullpen depth to swing this. They could use Chad Green as an opener and still have Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zack Britton, and Adam Ottavino for the late innings. I wouldn’t be opposed to using Betances as an opener and really dropping the hammer.
German really struggled in the first inning last year (8.36 ERA and .283/.348/.667 against) though I don’t think we need to dig up stats to validate the strategy. Generally speaking, the other team’s best hitters bat in the first inning. That has been the case for decades. Top relievers like Green, Betances, and Ottavino are better equipped to retire the other team’s best hitters than inexperienced kids like Cessa, German, and Loaisiga. It’s pretty simple.
The difficult part — and this is what Rays manager Kevin Cash did so well last year — is getting the players to buy in. Throwing Betances rather than Cessa at Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, and J.D. Martinez in the first inning sounds great, but is Dellin comfortable pitching that early in the game? Pitchers are creatures of habit. Disrupt their routine and bad things can happen. There’s an adjustment that has to be made.
Remember, the opener was born out of necessity. The Rays used it last year because they were hit hard by injuries last spring. Nathan Eovaldi was slowed by loose bodies in his elbow and pitching prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon needed Tommy John surgery. Tampa had Chris Archer and Blake Snell, and that was it. They came up with a creative way to navigate around the pitching injuries and lack of rotation depth.
The Yankees, when healthy, don’t need an opener. Their starters are plenty good enough. The Yankees aren’t healthy though, and barring a surprise signing or trade, they’re going to go into the regular season with two of Cessa, German, and Loaisiga in the rotation. That’s not great. Dipping into that deep bullpen to use an opener will allow the kids to avoid the top of the order once per game, which will increase their chances of having a productive outing.
At this point the opener is a legitimate baseball strategy more than a gimmick. And, with the AL East race expected to be tight all season, every game takes on increased importance. The Yankees are already without two of their top five starters. Anything they can do to make life easier on the fill-in starters should not be dismissed. The opener can make for some ugly baseball, believe me I know, but it can also give the Yankees a better chance to win when Cessa, German, or Loaisiga are on the mound.