Managing The Pitching Staff in 2020 – Tandem Starters Part II
By Andy Singer July 13, 2020
I am well aware of the fact that I sound like a broken record at this point, but there is little question but that this season will be unique in far too many ways to really discuss here. Suffice it to say that in a strange season that we may see new and creative ways of managing a non-traditional expanded roster pool. On the one hand, the Yankees have a roster that would have made them favorites for a World Series appearance even in a normal season. On the other hand, the Yankees’ system is teeming with intriguing prospects, some of whom who have impressive skill-sets that we didn’t necessarily expect to see in the Bronx this year.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Yankees are in a very different position now than they were in March when it comes to how many of those prospects will be treated this season, particularly where pitching prospects are concerned. Whereas a young starting pitching prospect in the low-mid minors could have been expected to continue to be brought along a starter against minor league competition, growing their pitch counts while refining their secondary pitch quality, control, command, and mechanics back in March, now that plan is effectively moot due to the cancellation of minor league baseball this year. While pitching prospects across baseball can certainly work with their respective coaches to continue their development, true development to be able to start 30 times, for 5-7 inning at a clip in the big leagues is nearly impossible without a consistent accumulation of minor league innings.
For many starting pitching prospects, value could be derived even prior to their eventual arrival as big league starters if they were able to pitch in shorter outings in the Majors. Normally, most teams choose not to exercise this option so as not to stunt the development of a pitching prospect when they can accumulate more innings as a starter in the minors. The Yankees, as most of our readers are well aware at this point, have numerous pitching prospects for whom this is true, and none of them have a place to pitch in real games this season. The Yankees must balance developing young players in 2020 with their World Series aspirations, but in a year in which pitching prospects are going to lose time building their repertoires as starting pitchers, the pull to utilize starting pitching prospects in creative ways on the MLB roster to improve the team in real terms is great.
With all of that in mind, I want to resurrect an idea that I’ve written about for at least two years now: tandem starters. I outlined the idea in detail here, and I explained how the idea would function in a normal season here. In essentials, one or multiple spots in the rotation can utilize more than one player to accumulate a normal starter’s worth of innings (5-7 innings) per “start” prior to giving way to the bullpen. Because a typical Yankee bullpen really doesn’t use the 12th or 13th man for any reason other than a blowout, these are essentially wasted spots on a roster from a value perspective, but they do save more important arms during a long, grueling season. That isn’t the case in 2020. The season will only be 60 games long, so everyone will be fresh, even if starters aren’t as built up as much as they would normally at the start of the year.
The roster rules in 2020 also uniquely suit themselves to managing a pitching staff in this fashion. Teams will begin the season with the option of carrying up to 30 players for the first two weeks, 28 for two weeks after that, before settling into the standard 26-man roster (27 on days with a doubleheader). That’s four weeks of expanded rosters, enough to play roughly 43% of the season. The Yankees can make this work, and they can use some of their prospect capital to improve the team’s performance in 2020.
First, let’s look at the projected starting rotation this season:
Cole is the only guy in the projected rotation that can be counted on as a traditional workhorse. Paxton is coming off of major back surgery, Tanaka is behind after suffering a concussion in the aftermath of a truly scary shot to the skull in the first Summer Training simulated game; JA Happ just isn’t very good, particularly after he sees an opposing batting order once; and Monty hasn’t thrown real innings since early 2018, so he will need to build up slowly. You can make an easy argument for assigning a tag team partner for at least the bottom-3 pitchers in the Yankee starting rotation, if not everyone without the last name Cole.
Now, let’s look at the locks for the bullpen:
Nothing to see here, everyone is great. With the starting 5 plus the locks in the bullpen, that’s 10 roster spots assured for known pitchers, although Chapman has been diagnosed with COVID-19, so that could be an additional roster spot available at the start of the season. If we assume that 13-14 spots are reserved for position players, that’s 23-24 spots accounted for. That leaves 6-7 available spots at the start of the season, or 2-3 after 4 weeks.
That’s a lot of spots for pitching! Let’s start trying to fill them by looking at the pool of traditional relievers available in the Yankees’ 60-man roster pool:
Luis Cessa (currently out with COVID-19)
These are the only realistic options to pitch real innings this year among the pure reliever pool. Generally, this is not a terribly exciting list. Cessa has shown flashes that make you dream out of the ‘pen, and he would likely be included on the “locks” list were he healthy; David Hale has shown significant improvement over the last couple of seasons, and could be expected to be decent out of the bullpen, but isn’t exactly exciting; Tyler Lyons is a token lefty who isn’t awful against other lefties…so there’s that; Holder was a solid contributor until last season, when he battled ineffectiveness and injuries, though his stuff really can’t afford to suffer if injuries cost him anything; Heller and Kriske are interesting bullpen prospects, though likely replaceable; and Zych is a bullpen journeyman.
This is not a terribly impressive list, as expected. Realistically, I don’t think that it is reasonable to assume much more than replacement level performance out of any of these players in a 60-game season.
Let’s compare it to some of the young starting pitchers available in the 60-man pool:
Now we’re getting somewhere. Loaisiga has experience starting and relieving (though his lengthy injury history makes him far better suited to relief long-term, even in multi-inning outings) and has some of the best stuff in the Yankee system; Mike King is similar to Monty in that none of his stuff wows anyone, but he uses a 4+ pitch effectively with good command; Garcia and Schmidt are the top pitching prospects in the system, and would be dynamite in 2-3 inning outings, airing it out with their considerable stuff; Medina has the best stuff in the system, has shown significant progression over the last year, and could likely blow big league hitters away now in short innings; Yajure is a good starting prospect who has seen his stuff tick up a notch with recent velocity gains, has pitched to upper-level hitters, and could likely survive quite well with his primary offerings in short outings; and Abreu and Nelson have great stuff, have pitched in the upper minors, but have significant questions about their future as starters due to injuries and command.
Most of us would agree that the prospect/young starters on this last list are far more intriguing than the list of veteran/prospect relievers. While the expectations for their collective performance in the big leagues right now would be more volatile, I think that if even 2 of these guys hit in a role as tandem starters, the value is far higher than replacement level.
To summarize, tandem starters is more than doable this year, and the Yankees have even better pieces with whom to try it now than they did when I first mentioned the idea in 2018. The Yankees could and should utilize their high-octane arms to their advantage on the Major League roster in 2020. I suspect that the Yankees may be thinking about something along these lines just by virtue of the fact that they included prospects like Medina on the 60-man roster, someone who in a normal year likely never would have sniffed the big leagues this year even though his stuff alone could likely blow through a Major League lineup once without further development. In a compressed season, every marginal win is worth more, and the Yankees can utilize their prospect capital to increase their win expectancy. Tandem starters would go a long way towards helping the Yankees win a World Series in 2020.