All winter we heard about the high-ceiling potential of the Yankees’ rotation. Now they’re just 10 days away from turning that optimal scenario into reality.
General manager Brian Cashman took a considerable leap of faith in surrounding $324 million ace Gerrit Cole — his only proven incumbent starter — with risky imports Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. He’s still gambling on a trio of upward-trending homegrown arms in Jordan Montgomery, Deivi Garcia and Domingo German.
Based on what we’ve witnessed, however, Cashman’s blueprint appears to be working. After Cole’s regular-season dress rehearsal Sunday against the Blue Jays, an eight-strikeout effort in which he allowed one run in five innings, the Yankees’ starting pitchers led the majors with a 2.12 ERA. The rotation also ranked among the top five in most of the other categories heading into Sunday.
Obviously, it’s spring training. We’re talking about practice. But here at the end of March, that is all we have to go by. And for the Yankees, a team that typically worries more about surviving the Grapefruit League season than excelling at it, what’s currently happening is way better than the alternative.
"First and foremost, it’s the guys," manager Aaron Boone said Sunday. "They’ve come in with an excellent focus across the board, in really good shape and in a position to go out and perform. I think the plan in place for these guys, from [pitching coach] Matt Blake leading that to getting these guys built up properly to this point, has gone really well. So with 10, 11 days to go here, I am at least encouraged by where we are."
The stats are a positive. More importantly, the pillars of the rotation have taken their turns without significant interruption. Kluber threw a total of 18 pitches last year before a shoulder-muscle tear ended his season. Taillon had zero because of his continuing rehab from a second Tommy John surgery. To date, there have been no red flags for either one, with the two totaling four walks and 13 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings.
"That’s the biggest thing when you get out of spring training; you want to be able to certainly have a healthy staff," Cole said Sunday. "Starters are tremendously important when we’re talking about six months, and I think that it’ll help that everybody’s taking the ball when they’re asked. The performance right now is kind of the cherry on top. Of course, the regular season is what counts. But I like the position that we’re in."
Having Cole as the unofficial captain of this group is a value that stretches beyond his turn every fifth day. The ace sets the tone, and Cole was every bit the alpha dog Sunday against the Blue Jays, the team he’ll face April 1 in the Bronx.
Cole mowed through Toronto’s "A’’ lineup, striking out four straight and five of six during one stretch. His velocity topped out at 100 mph, with an average of 96.7, and he registered nine swings-and-misses, with 21 called strikes.
Cole can be an impossible act to follow, but you could make a case for German being more dominant.
German has whiffed 13 and walked only one in his nine scoreless innings while trying to earn the trust of his teammates coming off a domestic-violence suspension. Reforming his behavior is a big part of that, and it was fair to wonder — based on his bizarre social media posts — if German’s head was in the right place when he first showed up in Tampa. But that question seemingly has been answered.
"I feel good," he said through an interpreter. "I feel ready to pitch and start and face the challenges of a regular season."
German remains locked in a competition with Garcia for the fifth starter’s spot, but that role promises to be flexible over the next six months, as it’s likely that both will be leaned on heavily to provide starter innings.
Regardless of who gets the turn any particular week, the Yankees’ bar already is set high from this group’s spring training performance, and the pressure only intensifies from here.
"We want to create an environment, a culture, where these guys are pushing one another, holding one another accountable, supporting each other," Boone said. "We’re only in March, but I do like the kind of camaraderie and conversations that are developing and the closeness that’s developing between these guys."
And they’re healthy. So far. Knock on wood.