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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

It's hard to predict how James Paxton and CC Sabathia will fare in their return to Yankees' rotation

James Paxton of the Yankees looks at the

James Paxton of the Yankees looks at the ball as he stands on the mound during the second inning against the Twins at Yankee Stadium on May 3. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Aside from Masahiro Tanaka’s perpetually-absent splitter, which haunted him again in Tuesday’s 5-4 loss to the Padres, the Yankees’ rotation will otherwise become whole again this week.

James Paxton will be activated for Wednesday’s series finale against the Padres, then CC Sabathia is expected to follow Sunday night when the Red Sox wrap up a four-game visit to the Bronx.

But for how long?

Paxton hasn’t inspired much confidence in recent conversations about his sore left knee, which still causes some discomfort but apparently is sturdy enough for him to give it a go. And consider the clock officially started on Sabathia, whose early need for maintenance on his chronically ailing right knee makes us think he’ll struggle to survive until this season’s end.

So as much as the Yankees are looking forward to the returns of these two from the injured list, it’s difficult to predict how either will perform — or if their knees can handle the strain.

It’s been encouraging how the rotation has motored along without them, thanks in part to the consistency of Tanaka before Tuesday’s glitch. After Eric Hosmer crushed a flat-splitter for a three-run homer in the first inning, Tanaka clamped down for five scoreless, which was a huge bullpen-saving help as Paxton will be limited to around 80 pitches in his return.

“I was able to grind it out a little bit,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. 

The same could be said about the Yankees’ rotation, as they’ve plowed through by relying on the surprising rise of Domingo German and the success of Chad Green kick-starting their “opener” strategy. As for J.A. Happ, his 5.09 ERA and penchant for serving up long balls (14 in 58 1/3 innings) has made him more an obstacle than asset to this point. 

But entering Tuesday night, the Yankees’ rotation was ranked fourth in the American League in both ERA (3.80) and WHIP (1.20) while tied for third (with the A’s) in opponents batting average (. 235). The runaway leader in most of the AL’s rotation categories are the Rays, who were first in those three — with a 2.33 ERA, 0.96 ERA and .194 OBA — by also leaning on a trio of traditional starters, but deploying their ace opener, Ryan Stanek, in 15 starts (1.50 ERA over a total of 24 innings).

The Rays’ superb pitching has kept them on the heels of the division-leading Yankees, who presumably — on paper — should improve if Paxton and Sabathia are at full strength. But that’s the big question here. We know what this group already has managed to cobble together. It’s the future that should be worrisome, because we’re not convinced this can be a reliable formula through September and maybe into October, despite their admirable first two months. 

“I think it’s something that probably doesn’t get talked about enough,” Aaron Boone said before Tuesday’s game. “Obviously our bullpen has been a big factor, but we’re not in a position to win games as consistently as we have if we’re not getting good starts consistently, and we have. Sometimes we haven’t pitched as deep into the game as sometimes we hope. But by and large our starting pitchers consistently have given us a chance to win every single night and I think that gets lost a little bit in all this.”

The Yankees are now 3-0 in those “opener” starts after Green combined with five relievers to beat the Padres in Monday’s 5-2 victory. And regardless of whoever front-line starter Brian Cashman acquires in the weeks ahead, be it Dallas Keuchel after the June 3 draft or Madison Bumgarner or Marcus Stroman at the trade deadline, we’re getting the impression this opener thing is going to be a semi-regular part of the Yankees’ season-long strategy.

It may have to be. Primarily because the knee problems bothering Paxton and Sabathia don’t sound like isolated, one-time IL stints. The Yankees can handle those occasional rest-breaks with their new “opener” toy. But life should be easier with their anticipated rotation pieces back in place, and we’ll see if that’s the case soon enough, starting Wednesday with Paxton.

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