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After Gerrit Cole, Yankees' rotation could be quite good . . . or not

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole pitches during the

Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole pitches during the first inning against Cleveland during Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series at Progressive Field on Sept. 29, 2020, in Cleveland. Credit: Getty Images/Jason Miller

The Yankees made it clear early in the offseason that re-signing DJ LeMahieu was their No. 1 winter priority.

And after they made their fans sweat it out a bit, that came to fruition in mid-January when the second baseman agreed to a six-year, $90 million deal.

So where does that leave the Yankees, who finished a disappointing second in the AL East in 2020 and were eliminated by the division champion Rays in the ALDS, as they prepare to start spring training this week in Tampa?

They're still an overwhelming favorite to represent the American League in the World Series — as was the case last year after they brought ace Gerrit Cole aboard — but arguably have many more questions surrounding the roster than what they had at this time in 2020.

The 2020 Yankees, of course, were prohibitive favorites to reach the World Series regardless of whether it was in a traditional 162-game season or the 60-game campaign brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. That was in large part because of the addition of Cole in December 2019 after the righthander agreed to a nine-year, $324 million free-agent contract.

The questions swirling around this year’s edition of the Yankees revolve primarily — though not exclusively — around who will follow Cole in the rotation.

A year ago at this time, the Yankees planned to take lengthy looks at top prospects such as Deivi Garcia, Michael King and Clarke Schmidt, but they had veterans Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ as starting pitchers.

Entering spring 2020, there also was the promise of Luis Severino rejoining the rotation and, at some point, the return of James Paxton from offseason surgery.

With the Yankees prioritizing LeMahieu this offseason and general manager Brian Cashman under orders at the moment to keep the payroll under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold, the club made little effort to re-sign Tanaka, who signed a one-year deal to pitch in his native Japan. The same was true of free agents Paxton and Happ.

Cashman didn’t leave the rotation unaddressed, though. Far from it. But he took a couple of fliers on righthanders with high upsides who didn't pitch much or at all in 2020.

Cashman signed Corey Kluber — a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner with Cleveland who hasn’t pitched a full season since 2018 because of various injuries — to a one-year, $11 million contract. He also traded for Jameson Taillon, who didn’t pitch last season as he recovered from a second Tommy John surgery performed about 20 months ago. Between them, they pitched one inning last season.

If both are close to their pre-injury/surgery selves, Cashman and the Yankees will have, in the words of one opposing team talent evaluator, "potentially three No. 1s atop the rotation and in regard to the last two [Kluber and Taillon], not investing a lot [in either]."

Jordan Montgomery, who debuted in 2017 and seems to be fully past the Tommy John surgery he underwent in June 2018, figures to be in the mix, as do Domingo German, coming off an 81-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy, and Severino, who could be ready by June after having Tommy John surgery last Feb. 27.

But Cashman acknowledged the obvious, especially given the overwhelming fear that all in the game have when it comes to keeping pitchers healthy. It was the primary concern from medical experts and club personnel going into the shortened 2020 season after a brief second spring training, and those fears were mostly realized as pitchers across the sport went down.

Coming off the start-stop-start aspect of last season and the 60-game sprint that followed, along with the uncertainty of this winter as teams prepare for a traditional 162-game season, those fears "are about double," one opposing team executive said.

"There is risk, but we did as much due diligence as we could in terms of the medical evaluations," Cashman said during a late-January conference call to announce the acquisition of Kluber and Taillon. " 'Hopeful' is certainly an appropriate word in this. We made the commitment because we believe that, despite the risk, it was a position worth taking. And now we're going to test-drive that, for better or worse."

There are sure to be injuries suffered by members of the rotation — even the healthiest teams generally need about eight starters to get through a typical season — meaning young pitchers such as Garcia, King and Schmidt are all but assured of getting shots this season.

As will others, whether it’s knocking-on-the-door prospects such as Albert Abreu, Nick Nelson and Brooks Kriske, Chad Green in an opener role or hard-throwing bullpen pieces such as Jonathan Loaisiga or Luis Cessa.

As for position players, the Yankees appear to be set. For now.

"Clearly, I wouldn’t say we’re a finished product, but you never are. You’re always looking to improve yourself," Cashman said. "And so therefore, we’re back at it. We’re trying to reconfigure, game-plan appropriately and come up with a roster that’s maybe a little bit stronger, maybe a little bit more resilient. We certainly are excited by the current crew that we have."

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