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Counting on a Comeback

Mike Whiteman March 17. 2021

The tenuous nature of the Yankee rotation has been well documented in many media sources. Depending on how things shake out, the team could at some point be relying on three starting pitchers who haven’t faced a Major League batter since 2019 (Jameson Taillon, Domingo German and Luis Severino) and another (Corey Kluber) who threw a grand total of one inning in 2020.

What can we expect from them? Spring Training reports have been positive, but there’s obviously still risk in those fragile arms. I cannot recall a team hoping for so much out of pitchers who threw so little the season before.

The good news is there are success stories in similar past circumstances:

Dwight Gooden

“Doc” Gooden in his prime was a sight to behold. The high heat. The big curve. By the end of his age-25 season, he already had won 119 games, and seemingly on the road to Cooperstown. Sadly, struggles with substance abuse derailed his career very quickly, and at age 30 he was suspended for the 1995 season.

George Steinbrenner loved redemption stories, and he loved stars. He signed Gooden as a free agent before the 1996 season, not knowing what to expect in the way of contributions. Doc started out slow out of the gate, but when ace starter David Cone was sidelined with an aneurysm in May, Gooden filled the gap by winning eleven games, including a no-hitter, before tiring at a the end of the season. His 5.01 ERA belies his importance to the team – if he doesn’t step up it’s hard to see the Yanks winning the division that season.

Jon Lieber

Lieber was basically an average yet durable pitcher for the Pirates and Cubs from 1994-2002. Durable, until he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery which ended his 2002 season early.

The Yankees signed the right-hander after the surgery, and he spent the 2003 season recovering and rehabbing. He emerged as was one of the more reliable starters of the mess that was Yankee pitching in 2004, going 14-8, 4.33 with 104 ERA+.

Andy Pettite

When Andy Pettite retired after the 2010 season at age 38, fans had no reason to doubt it. He was a devoted family man troubled by his absence from home during the season. He had a wonderful career, a recent World Championship (2009) and was ready to move on from the game.

Or was he?

He evidently didn’t lose the competitive bug, and it didn’t hurt that GM Brian Cashman reached out multiple times offering the opportunity to return. Things started moving quickly in Spring Training 2012, as Pettite was serving as a Spring Training instructor. As opposed to other instructors, Pettite also had a secret bullpen session observed by Cashman, manager Joe Girardi, pitching coach Larry Rothschild, and advisor Gene Michael. Andy looked good, and was offered a contract.

After an extended Spring Training, the big lefty moved into the rotation in May, and didn’t look like he had missed a beat. When a comebacker during a start in late June broke his ankle, he had a 3.22 ERA. He was able to join the team in September, and pitched well enough to lower that ERA to 2.87 on the season.

Alex Rodriguez

Rodriguez was suspended for the whole 2014 season due to his part in the Biogenesis scandal. The mammoth contract extension he signed after the 2007 season still had four more years to go, which meant a divorce between the team and its controversial star wasn’t happening anytime soon. The expectations for a soon be 40-year old having two career hip surgeries and a year’s layoff were low.

ARod exceeded those expectations in 2015 – by a lot. Relegated to primarily playing Designated Hitter, he led the Yanks with 33 home runs and help propel the team to a Wild-Card playoff berth.

Bartolo Colon “Big Sexy” had been a solid starter in his early career, primarily with Cleveland and the Los Angeles Angels. After his Cy Young award winning season of 2005, he was dogged by injuries, and missed all of the 2010 season due to shoulder and elbow ailments.

Colon signed a low risk minor league deal with the Yanks in 2011 and somewhat surprisingly made the team, pitching out of the bullpen early before joining the rotation at the end of April. He went on to start 26 games, winning eight games with a 107 ERA+.

Dave Winfield

The twelve-time All-Star and longtime Yankee had missed the 1989 season after undergoing back surgery. He came back with a solid 1990 season…but not with the Yanks.

He did start out the season with the team, but struggled on the field (.213/.269/.361) and off the diamond as this was the height of the Winfield/Steinbrenner feud, which eventually resulted in the Yankee owner’s suspension from the game due to paying a gambler for “dirt” on the slugger. Winfield was traded to the then California Angels in May where he got his sanity and stroke back, and finished the season with solid numbers.

I really think that the 2021 edition is one of the most intriguing Yankee teams in years due to the rotation dynamic. There’s a ton of potential, and a ton of risk. It may be a reach to expect all four to come back fully, but between history, the eye tests from Tampa, and the optimistic nature of Spring Training, it’s hard to not dream just a bit.


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