It couldn’t have been more ominous. A few hours after placing Masahiro Tanaka on the 10-day disabled list with inflammation in his pitching shoulder, and a day after placing CC Sabathia on the DL with pain in his right knee, Jordan Montgomery—Sunday night’s starter and Sabathia’s replacement in the rotation—got hit in the head with a line drive during batting practice.
Luckily, Montgomery is fine and is still scheduled to start Sunday night against the Red Sox. But it’s emblematic of a larger problem—the Yankees’ rotation isn’t that good right now.
Luis Severino, their most consistent pitcher all year, gave up 10 runs in 4 1/3 innings in Saturday’s 10–5 loss to the Red Sox. Previously, he had only given up more than five runs three times this year. Tanaka, on the whole, hasn’t been great, giving up five walks in four innings in an 11–5 loss to the Blue Jays on Wednesday. His ERA is a career-high 4.92. Michael Pineda is already out for the season. Sonny Gray, the big deadline acquisition, has been good in two starts, but hasn’t gotten any run support. Jaime Garcia, the other deadline pickup, has a 6.97 ERA.
The Yankees are 4 1/2 games back of the Red Sox, and have a cushion in the wild card (2 1/2 over the Twins, 3 over the Angels, Mariners and Rays). They should be in good shape to make the playoffs. But the dream of a long playoff run? It’s not going to happen with one reliable starter.
Let’s think back to 2009, the last time the Yankees won a World Series. Their starters were Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett. While Sabathia took on the bulk of the work (1.98 ERA in 36 1/3 innings), Pettitte (3.52 ERA in 30 2/3 innings) and Burnett (5.27 ERA in 27 1/3 innings) played big roles. While it wasn't the best staff, it worked.
The Yankees don’t have that luxury. Severino has been fantastic, Saturday aside. He entered today with a 2.91 ERA and an 158 ERA+. He’s New York's only starter with an ERA under three.
The Yankees envision a playoff starting rotation of Severino, Gray, Tanaka and Sabathia. Ideally, that would be shortened in the ALDS to put Sabathia in the pen. On paper, that’s pretty good, certainly equal to the Astros (Keuchel, Morton, McCullers, Fiers) and not too far off from the Red Sox (Sale, Porcello, Pomeranz, Rodriguez). In reality, it’s a bit hit or miss. Tanaka is a complete toss-up at this point. He’s had some brilliant starts (a complete-game shutout against Boston in April, an eight inning, 14-strikeout performance against Tampa in July) and some big duds (the season-opener against Tampa, a 1 2/3 inning appearance against Houston). He’s had six appearances under five innings. In three previous seasons, he had three total appearances under five innings.
Sabathia, who’s expected to only miss one start because of his knee, has continued his past few years of being reliably average. He doesn’t strikeout as many hitters, but he averages about five innings a start. The Yankees have a good enough bullpen to handle that.
Gray has been good, but it’s still a bit too early to tell how he will adjust to big-time playoff pressure (his last playoff appearance was four years ago).
The Yankees will make the playoffs. They have an offense that get can them far, especially if Starlin Castro comes back healthy and Aaron Judge gets back on track.
But they have a rotation that can be hit or miss, especially when it comes to their proven star in Tanaka. Severino and Gray could be enough to get them past Houston and Boston, especially if they can do it on short rest. If they had the Tanaka of old, then the Yankees would be the clear AL favorite.
But they don’t—not now, at least. Until then, they’re behind two really good teams in the hunt for the pennant.