Needing rotation boost, Yankees turn to top prospect Luis Severino
Tuesday was a bad day for the first-place Yankees on the injury front. They placed their only deadline acquisition, outfielder Dustin Ackley, on the disabled list with a lumbar strain. They announced that outfielder Mason Williams would need season-ending surgery on his right shoulder, which he jammed diving back into first base in his eighth major league game in June. And they confirmed that Michael Pineda, who was leading the Yankees' rotation in FIP and the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio before suffering a flexor strain in his right forearm, is not expected back until September.
The last of those is the biggest loss and comes with by far the most compelling solution. After receiving poor spot starts from Chris Capuano (2/3 IP, 5 R and since outrighted off the roster) and Bryan Mitchell (4 IP, 4 R) in Pineda’s stead, the Yankees have decided to call up their top pitching prospect, as well as one of the top pitching prospects in the game: 21-year-old righthander Luis Severino, who will make his major league debut with a start against the Red Sox tonight at Yankee Stadium.
A top-100 prospect coming into the year, the Dominican-born Severino ranked 28th on Baseball Prospectus’s midseason list of the game’s top 50 prospects in early July and 17th on Baseball America’s corresponding list. His calling card is a mid-90s fastball that regularly spikes into the upper 90s with movement. He complements that heater with a good changeup that he throws with the same arm speed and slot as his fastball and slider, all of which he can throw for strikes. The knock on Severino is that he’s small for a righthanded power pitcher: Listed at just 6 feet and less than 200 pounds, his undersized frame has led many to predict that his future is in the bullpen or on the disabled list. That’s not an immediate concern for the Yankees, who limited Severino’s innings in the minors so that he would be fully available down the stretch should they need him, but it affects his long-term projection and his ranking on those prospect lists.
Severino’s minor-league numbers in parts of four seasons since being signed by the Yankees in 2011 have been almost uniformly outstanding. He has never walked more than 2.4 men per nine innings over a full season, and in 195 innings from Rookie League to Double A, he struck out 228 batters (10.5 K/9) with a 4.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Since his late-May promotion to Triple A, he has gone 7–0 with a 1.91 ERA. But at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he has also posted the lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio of his young career (not counting his time in the Dominican Summer League as an 18-year-old), and his 7.3 K/9 rate has been masked by his .238 opponents’ average on balls in play in his 11 starts there. That reduced strikeout rate combined with excessive luck on balls in play and Severino’s fly ball tendencies raise some additional concerns about the young righthander heading into his debut. But fortunately for Severino, the Yankees are planning to give him a long leash.
“We are excited to see what Luis Severino will do over time, forgetting [tonight],” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told The Journal News’ Chad Jennings on Tuesday night. “He’s going to have anything and everything to work through on that aspect, and so he’s got a much longer rope, and I hope people recognize that. We’re going to lean on a guy who’s earned the right to be leaned on. But at the same time, we can’t forget how old he is and how quick he’s moved himself. That makes us excited.... If he doesn’t have his best stuff, then obviously he’ll get the ball five days later. It’s as simple as that.”
Severino will be the third notable pitching prospect to make his major league debut in a span of just two days and the second in as many games in the Yankees’ current series against the Red Sox. In Colorado on Tuesday night, Jon Gray, the third pick in the 2013 draft and ranked 35th on BA’s midseason list, made his debut for the Rockies against the Mariners. The 23-year-old righty gave up a pair of runs in the first but settled down after that, allowing only an unearned run in the fourth before getting an early hook when his turn in the batting order came up in the bottom of the inning. Back in New York, Boston’s Henry Owens, a 23-year-old lefty who ranked 47th on BA’s midseason list, made a strong debut Tuesday night, allowing just one run on three hits and a walk through five innings and striking out five. His line was ruined when the first two men of the sixth inning reached off him and then scored off reliever Robbie Ross Jr., who replaced Owens after 96 pitches.
Owens’s performance was particularly impressive in light of how productive the Yankees' offense has been of late. After he was removed from the game, New York scored 11 runs in two innings on the way to a 13–3 win, the team's fourth game with 10 or more runs scored out of its last seven. Last week, the Yankees beat up the White Sox, 12–3, on Sunday and 13–6 on Friday after hanging 21 runs on the Rangers on Tuesday, the most runs scored in a game by any team since the Mariners dropped 21 on Texas on May 30, 2012. Over their last dozen games, the Bronx Bombers have averaged 8.3 runs per game, raising their average on the season to an even 5.0 per contest.
All of those runs have helped the Yankees hold off the only team to outscore them on the season, the Blue Jays, who are second in the AL East and have shaved 1 1/2 games off the Yankees’ lead in the division over the past week. Toronto, of course, was widely considered the big winner at the July 31 trade deadline, having added Troy Tulowitzki to what was already the majors’ top offense, as well as dealing for ace David Price, relievers Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins and outfielder Ben Revere, all of whom should provide much-needed upgrades in their respective roles. Toronto has gone 6–1 since Tulowitzki, the first of those acquisitions, joined the team, taking three of four from the AL-leading Royals over the weekend and since beating the Twins twice to move into the second wild card spot. After two more games against Minnesota this week, the Jays travel to New York for a three-game weekend set against the Yankees, with Price scheduled to start on Saturday (Severino’s second start won’t come until the Yankees head to Cleveland next week).
That should be a fascinating matchup, as the Yankees have gone 16–6 (.727) since July 8, but Toronto holds a 4–2 advantage in the season series to this point. As comfortable as New York’s 5 1/2-game lead may seem heading into Wednesday’s action, the team has 13 games remaining against the vastly improved Blue Jays, four of which Price is scheduled to start. It’s no wonder, then, that the Yankees are breaking the glass on Severino.