BALTIMORE — So who goes?
If you feel the Yankees need another starting pitcher, and you’re eyeing Dallas Keuchel after next week’s draft, or Madison Bumgarner by the July 31 trade deadline, where does the vacancy come from in this first-place rotation?
That mostly depends on how far Domingo German — the staff’s current ace — is able to stretch this season, with the expectation the Yankees will cap his innings at some point. But for now, he’s got the No. 1 spot locked down, and German leads the majors in wins (9-1) after allowing two earned runs and striking out five in five innings Tuesday night in the Yankees’ 11-4 rout of the Orioles at Camden Yards.
“It feels good,” German said through an interpreter, “but the focus is to get the job done.”
German, now with a 2.60 ERA, essentially is Luis Severino, the absentee ace who has been on the shelf since February, first thanks to rotator-cuff inflammation, then a mysterious lat strain. He’s become the Yankees’ top starter, at 26, and silenced whatever panic gripped Yankeeland when Severino had to be shut down minutes before his Grapefruit League debut.
“Been huge, no question,” Aaron Boone said before Tuesday’s game. “He’s been one of the best pitchers in the league. Period.”
The only problem is the cap. Coming off T.J. surgery in 2015, and just 93 1/3 innings a year ago, the Yankees may be hard pressed to push him much above 125 this season. He’s already at 55 1/3 innings, through 10 starts, and at that pace, German can probably make it through maybe another dozen, which could get him into August.
The Yankees estimate Severino will be back after the All-Star break, but that could mean any time in the second half. And do we really expect him to be vintage Severino?
For comparison, the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard suffered a lat strain during an April 30 start in 2017. He didn’t return until late September, and that was for a total of three innings, basically just to get the feel of climbing the mound again.
German, the only member of the rotation with minor-league options left, was breezing along Tuesday night through four scoreless innings before his own throwing error on a room-service double-play grounder momentarily knocked him off course. On the next pitch, a 92-mph fastball, Steve Wilkerson pulled a three-run homer over the high rightfield wall.
It appeared to be a classic case of German just being unnerved by his wild throw, and he settled down to whiff Dwight Smith, then retired two of the next three to wrap his 93-pitch outing. This wasn’t a Picasso for German, but he was plenty effective — and helped by the Yankees running up a 9-1 lead during his stay.
Put it this way: he was significantly better than J.A. Happ, who was lobbing up beach balls the previous night. As the others have struggled with either poor performance or lousy health, German has been the lone constant, providing stability during the wobbly first eight weeks.
He’s averaged close to six innings in his 10 starts, the high-water mark for the staff, and his 2.50 ERA entering Tuesday ranked fifth in the American League. As much as Brian Cashman did his best to acquire upgrades like that this winter, he’s so far failed to match what he already had in-house.
The Yankees spent $34 million on Happ, but after Monday’s shelling by the O’s, he has a 5.16 ERA, giving up 13 homers in 10 starts. James Paxton, earning $8.6 million for his first year in pinstripes, has mostly pitched well (3.11 ERA) when healthy, but believes his recent knee issues stemmed from the soft clay of the Stadium mound.
The mainstay Masahiro Tanaka — making $22 million this season and $23 million the next — is putting up his usual numbers, despite a shorter leash. Rounding out the veteran quartet is CC Sabathia, with an $8 million price tag on his farewell tour. Sabathia is coming back from offseason heart surgery, and turns 39 in July, so he’s a wild card for the long haul. Still, if he’s healthy, Sabathia is going to be in the rotation.
Obviously, a lot can happen between now and the trade deadline. The Yankees have used seven starters through 47 games — including Chad Green as Sunday’s “opener” — with three accounting for 30 of them. None has been more important than German.
“Nothing will surprise me with Domingo,” Boone said. “He’s very talented.”
Talented enough to be an ace for the Yankees, maybe for as long as they’ll let him.