The Yankees starting rotation depth will be tested early after an offseason that featured a massive signing, trade rumors and a projection for a top-5 rotation. James Paxton will play an important role in that rotation, albeit delayed by three to four months after a surgical procedure on his back.
To cut through the medical language, Paxton underwent a procedure to remove a herniated disc while also having a cyst removed. The injury first appeared in the Sept. 27 start Paxton made in Texas where he only lasted one inning. He received an injection and proceeded to make three postseason starts.
According to comments from general manager Brian Cashman, a conservative plan of an injection and monitoring had been working for Paxton up until about a month ago. That was when he consulted Dr. Andrew Dossett, who recommended another injection and four weeks of rest. When that didn’t work, Paxton and the Yankees arrived at the last resort of a surgical procedure. Paxton, a pending free agent, will aim to return to the rotation at some point between May and June.
“We had to wait to see how it played out rather than rush to a decision,” Cashman told the NY Post. “Surgery is always the last resort and the last resort takes time. We lost time on the playing side. We took the proper steps of the process to determine if surgery was necessary or not.”
As unfortunate as it is for the Yankees to lose such a talented pitcher, they appear poised to patch the hole from within. The whispers around a potential trade of J.A. Happ quieted, as we know now, right around the time Paxton’s back flared up again. The team has a fine line to walk with Happ after a down year in 2019. The veteran lefty, who has averaged 168 innings since 2014, has a $17 million option that will vest at either 165 innings or 27 starts in 2020.
Option issues aside (a problem for a later date, especially given Paxton’s uncertainty), Happ now sits firmly in the No. 4 rotation spot with a good, ol’ fashioned Fifth Starter Competition coming up in Tampa this month. The Yankees have a wealth of talent that could perform well in that No. 5 spot, headlined by the return of Jordan Montgomery.
“I think [Montgomery] has proven himself at this level. For him to get back last year was big, just for his frame of mind,” manager Aaron Boone told the NY Post. “The fact he was able to make it back and get some work done, get into some games, I think was big for him and his mindset moving forward.’’
Boone stopped short of anointing Montgomery as the fifth starter, and Cashman struck a similar tone when listing candidates that have the potential to upset Montgomery for that rotation spot.
“Montgomery won a rotation spot (in 2017) and he was a dark horse who was not anticipated at all,” Cashman said. “So who is to say that it won’t be Michael King or Luis Cessa or Jonathan Loáisiga or Deivi García? We will see.”
It’s entirely true that Montgomery came out of nowhere in 2017, forcing his way into the rotation and onto the 40-man roster a year ahead of schedule. Montgomery’s experience and distance from his reconstructive elbow surgery makes him a natural frontrunner at this point.
Cessa pitched the entirety of 2019 as a reliever with better results to show for it. The Yankees also took that path with Loáisiga to limit his innings after a shoulder injury in 2019.
That realistically leaves the Yankees with four options: Montgomery, King, García or a wild card just like Montgomery himself in 2017. King debuted late in 2019 after recovering from a stress reaction in his arm that delayed his first in-game appearance until July 3 in the Gulf Coast League. He has only 62⅔ innings of Triple-A experience. García, the Yankees No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline, has pitched just 40 innings at the Triple-A level and will turn 21 in May. In a perfect world, both García and King are allowed to get more Triple-A seasoning and can continue to serve as depth in case another injury hits the Yankees pitching staff.
That’s where the wild card players come into this scenario. The two that strike me as the most likely to surprise their way into the rotation would be righties Nick Nelson and/or Clarke Schmidt. Nelson worked his way onto the 40-man roster this offseason behind 13 games of 2.35 ERA ball at Double-A Trenton and a 4.71 ERA introduction (four starts) to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Schmidt feels more like Montgomery in the sense that he does not need to be added to the 40-man roster until this offseason. But, after a 2019 performance that saw him work his way up three levels with a combined 3.47 ERA across Rookie, High-A and Double-A, Schmidt could just pitch his way into the conversation.
There is still a lot of time between today and March 26, when the Yankees will have presumably ironed out their Opening Day rotation. Soon after that point, we’ll learn how they plan to navigate James Paxton’s absence as well.