A Plan for the 5th Rotation Spot
2018 may be remembered as the first year that numerous teams experimented with the idea of using an “opener”, or a pitcher that matched up specifically with the first 3-5 hitters in the opposing team’s lineup prior to giving way to the rest of the bullpen. Teams utilized openers to varying degrees of success this year, prompting many in the baseball community to rethink the composition of the traditional pitching staff. In 2018, the Yankees did not employ an opener in any of their rotation spots. Despite this fact, the Yankees kept a minimum of 12-13 pitchers on the staff for most games this season. Most of that time, the 12th and 13th members of the pitching staff would go multiple days without being used, essentially wasting a roster spot as insurance for a blowout game. While the idea of an opener can be debated as a legitimate solution for off-season roster construction as opposed to a desperate decision for a flawed team, one idea that was not really explored last season was the idea of employing multiple multi-inning relievers to fill out a rotation spot. Most teams struggle to find even 3 or 4 legitimate starters to pitch 180-200 innings each year, which leaves 1-2 rotation spots to pitchers who probably cannot achieve acceptable statistics for a competitive team over the course of 150+ innings. Based on the available options on the Free Agent market, and the abundance of intriguing pitchers the Yankees have in the high minors, I think the Yankees would be well served to explore using tandem starters in the 5th rotation slot.
As part of this plan, the Yankees would utilize a rotating cast of aspiring young starting pitchers in the 5th rotation slot, keeping two on the roster at any given time. Each of two pitchers would be asked to throw 3-4 innings, and never face an opposing batting order more than twice. Based on potential and current experience, the pool of pitchers for this role at the start of the season would be Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams, Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, Domingo Acevedo, and Mike King. Let’s go through the case for each:
The case for Sheffield is pretty obvious: he is one of the consensus top-100 prospects in all of baseball. He is a hard throwing lefty, featuring a mid-90s fastball, hard slider, and a usable change-up. The Yankees gave him three appearances in the majors in 2018, putting him at the cusp of being a major league regular. Sheffield is still working to learn to control and command his stuff, as he struggled some with walks in the high minors and occasionally gave up some cheap runs when he did not locate his pitches well in the strike zone. However, minor league hitters cannot consistently challenge him anymore due to his ability to overpower them – he is ready for Major League exposure in a controlled setting that allows him to work with all of his pitches, like a multi-inning appearance.
Chance Adams is a name that feels like has been in the Yankee Universe forever. He is a prospect that gained significant attention in 2016/2017 following a rare move from the bullpen to starting. Some of the prospect shine wore off as Adams struggled in 2018 following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. That said, Adams did put together a solid first start in the majors against a stacked World Champion Red Sox lineup in Boston, and he continues to intrigue observers with a solid 3-pitch mix. Scouts seem to be split as to whether Adams is a reliever or a starter in the Major Leagues, but I think there is a really good third option: allowing him an opportunity to pitch in 3 inning stints where he can air it out, but also continue to work on all of his pitches while seeing a batting order more than once.
To me, German is one of the most interesting young pitchers on the Yankees’ staff. German had very little development time in the minors due to injuries, he’s had some success at the big league level, but has not succeeded enough to justify a guaranteed spot on the roster. German has a big fastball and a wipe-out slider, but he struggles with command, and has only flashed a change-up on occasion. While his statistics as a starter were mixed at best, his numbers in his relief appearances were surprisingly good in 2018:
Stats compiled from Baseball-Reference.com
The sample size is small, but the statistics above were compiled in 7 relief appearances, 4 of which lasted a minimum of 2.2 innings. In 2-4 inning tandem outings, German could prove to be a real asset for the Yankees in 2019.
Loaisiga took one of the most fascinating routes to reach the majors last year of any player in recent memory. Loaisiga, born in Nicaragua, was considered a good young prospect for the Giants when he debuted in the Dominican Summer League in 2013. Following years of injuries, Loaisiga was dealt to the Yankees, making one minor league appearance in 2016 prior to tearing through the minors in 2017 and 2018. He was rushed to the majors in 2018 prior to being ready, flashing a high-90s fastball and solid-to-excellent secondary stuff that needs refinement. The injury bug again struck, and Loaisiga dealt with shoulder issues for much of a summer. Loaisiga has a scary injury history and may not be built to server as a traditional starter, but has enough stuff to throw multiple innings. Serving as one of the Yankees’ tandem 5th starters may be a tailor made role for Loaisiga.
From a baseball perspective, everything I said about Loaisiga goes for Acevedo – arm troubles last year, huge fastball, solid secondary offerings, but may not be built to be a traditional starter. Acevedo is 6’7” and struggles to repeat his delivery, but tears through minor league hitters with his big stuff. He could continue to develop while airing it out in shorter outings in the majors while providing real value to the Yankees in multiple roles
Mike King is different from every other pitcher on this list. He does not have stuff that jumps out to scouts or fans, pounds the strike zone, and features a 4-5 pitch mix to keep hitters off-balance. In the high minors, King has not posted big strikeout numbers, but he limits walks and seems to have a repeatable ability to produce soft contact. Because he burst onto the scene just this past year, King may be a flash in the pan, but if he continues his strong performance down in Scranton to start the year, he could very well be part of this group. Low-stuff pitchers like King tend to succeed in shorter outings, and he would represent a significant change of pace from every other pitcher here.
If the Yankees plan to employ a 12-13 man pitching staff again this year, keeping two pitchers on the roster to serve as rotating tandem starters is one way to ensure that every roster spot is used efficiently and effectively. Each pitcher on this list is ready or close to ready to grow against big league hitters, and has the potential to provide real value to the Yankees as soon as 2019. The Yankees have utilized a shuttle of relievers at Scranton to fill in the last spot in the bullpen for years now – why not do the same with the 5th starter spot in the rotation?