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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Properly preparing big-league starting pitchers for season in flux is a big problem

Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole throws during spring training

Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole throws during spring training in Tampa on Sunday Feb. 16, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

If baseball does salvage part of this season and Gerrit Cole finally makes his Yankees debut, just how closely will he resemble the pitcher who signed that nine-year, $324 million deal in December?

What about Masahiro Tanaka? Scouts raved to Newsday’s Erik Boland about Tanaka’s performance during the aborted spring training, but he’s home in Japan, under self-imposed quarantine, riding out the coronavirus scourge.

James Paxton? He’s up in Wisconsin continuing his throwing progression after back surgery, hoping to be ready if the season resumes.

All three are potential Cy Young Award candidates and anchor a rotation that is pivotal to the Yankees’ championship dreams. But in looking at this fractured, start-stop-start scenario from a preparation standpoint, can this group — or any elite rotation, for that matter — adequately get themselves in premier pitching shape?

It’s the question that lurks behind the question of getting baseball up and running again. MLB has so many other boxes to check that this stuff isn’t mentioned all that much in the bigger debate. But the individual clubs are sweating these details, and for a team like the Yankees, with so much riding on these arms, formulating a plan is paramount.

Even then, it’s hardly a guarantee that these notorious creatures of habit, a group that plots their lives in five-day increments, can perform at the same level after dealing with this unprecedented, chopped-up schedule.

The last time we saw Cole, it was an IG video of him playing catch in his Greenwich backyard with neighbor/manager Aaron Boone. For Tanaka, what’s next after his self-imposed 14-day quarantine on the other side of the world? Will Japan start experiencing the massive shutdown already underway here in the United States?

This truly is uncharted territory. And for all the behind-the-scenes prep work being done by Boone, new Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake and the rest of the staff — from the conditioning crew to the medical unit — it’s impossible to predict what will transpire if there is another Opening Day.

The goal is to get the Yankees’ rotation pitching as well as it was before play was halted on March 12. But nobody really knows the blueprint to get there.

“It’s one of those things where we were building and we felt like we were in a good rhythm in spring training,” Blake said this week in a conference call. “Guys performing at a high level, and we’re coming together, and there’s good rapport amongst the group — and then you kind of hit this hard stop. So you don’t want to let the frustration of that momentum you were building kind of lapse and carry that into a break where everyone is isolated.”

The biggest worry is injury, of course. Any variation to pitchers’ routines can be problematic, which is why throwing programs are put together so meticulously. But even if they do stay healthy, finding a way to reach peak performance is tricky when there is no target date for which to aim.

Blake said each pitcher is pretty much on his own individual program at the moment, with the Yankees offering some general parameters as everyone copes with this COVID-19 crisis.

As for the most effective spring training approach, Blake raised a good point the other day in wondering aloud how many games against other teams would make sense. He stressed the importance of those early pre-exhibition days, based on the controlled environment of live BP and intrasquad scrimmages, over another Grapefruit League schedule. It’s impossible, however, to simulate the adrenaline provided by facing a different uniform.

“I think the scariest part is the level of intensity that you’re asking a guy to go and start facing hitters, on our own team or another team,” Blake said. “And then when a real season starts, I think it’s hard to expect them to carry that intensity on their own.”

And don’t expect to see Cole very long on Opening Day. Blake figures he can get the rotation up around 55 to 65 pitches in three weeks’ time, as opposed to the typical 95 by the end of the usual six-week spring training. Whether it’s Cole or Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom, you’re not going to see very much of aces in those first few starts.

In 1995, the Braves’ brilliant rotation did fine with only three weeks of preparation. Greg Maddux (19-2, 1.63 ERA), Tom Glavine (16-7, 3.08) and John Smoltz (12-7, 3.18) pitched to their resumes in leading Atlanta to its only championship during that stretch of 14 straight division titles. But it’s worth noting that the ’95 spring training didn’t come on the heels of a previous one, with months off in between.

“I think that’s what the interesting part of this is,” Blake said. “There’s no playbook here. Nobody’s ever gone through it. So yeah, there’s no tried-and-true recipe to kind of fall back on.”

We can say that about a lot of things right now.

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