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The next steps and bullpen wrinkles for a Yankees rotation on an all-time run

Hal Steinbrenner doubled down in the offseason. He heard the outside noise. But he kept the same decision-making personnel from baseball operations to the dugout, believing they had served the organization and his family well.

The Yankees owner insisted the group came together for postseason meetings that surfaced and then settled problematic issues.

But for the most part, except in places in which they had no choice — for example, Brad Ausmus at bench coach to replace Carlos Mendoza, who was hired as Mets manager — he entrusted Brian Cashman and his infrastructure to fix a product that seemed heading in the wrong direction.

After all, Steinbrenner had called the playoff-less, 82-80 2023 season “awful.” Cashman labeled it “a disaster.”

Cashman was feisty in the offseason defending the people and process that had brought the Yankees such sustained success. But he also said the obvious — that even the greatest verbal argument would not matter. Only winning would.

And through Memorial Day, the Yankees (37-18) had quieted the noise with the AL’s best record. They had earned that record one-third of the way through the season, performing well in every facet.

Cashman’s group made three major moves in the offseason, and Juan Soto, Marcus Stroman and Alex Verdugo each rank either as A-plus additions or As. They have been durable and excellent and, in Soto’s case, great. 

Nothing is perfect. The lefty relievers whom Cashman’s crew obtained from the Dodgers, Caleb Ferguson and Victor Gonzalez, are not comforting. And, in general, due to an injury to Jonathan Loaisiga and a step back in performance by Ian Hamilton, the Yankees may need to add not just a lefty, but a strong reliever in general.

Juan Soto has helped transform the Yankees in his first season with the club. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Also, Gleyber Torres is possibly letting the implications of his walk year into his head because whatever issues you have with him as a player, Torres is a better hitter than this. And Anthony Rizzo has lost something on both sides of the ball.

But it feels nitpicky. As of Monday, the Yankees were seventh in runs per game, second in starter ERA and bullpen ERA and second in defensive efficiency.

And there is something that cannot be captured by numbers. The Yankees’ sense of purpose has been great this year.

I thought Cashman talking about injuries undermining the team last year was bad form. There is no doubt the freak injuries to Aaron Judge, especially, and to Rizzo were seismic for the Yankees. But teams such as the eventual champion Rangers and playoff-bound Dodgers and Rays had at least as many key injuries and arguably more than the Yankees did. Plus, the Yankees’ history over the past three decades is to do what strong organizations do, which is to figure out how to compensate.

Yes, there is a tipping point where there are just too many injuries — thanks for the ride, 2024 Knicks. But it should be remembered now that in July 2021, the Mets were in first place and the Braves were bobbing along around .500 when Jacob deGrom and Ronald Acuña Jr. were lost for the season. The Mets collapsed without their ace. The Braves won a championship after Acuña, their best player, tore his right ACL, which should be recalled upon the devastating news that the reigning NL MVP has been lost for the rest of this year after tearing his left ACL.

Yankees ace Gerrit Cole has been reduced to the role of expert spectator through the first third of the 2024 season. Jason Szenes for the NY Post

Good organizations figure a way.

So there is nothing that embodies the 2024 Yankees quite like how they have compensated without Gerrit Cole. This is a club that last year was two-player-dominant with Cole and Judge, which might work in basketball (hello, Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving — and there goes this week’s second basketball reference), but doesn’t really work in baseball, especially if one gets hurt.

Thus it felt devastating when Cole went down with nerve irritation in his right elbow in mid-March because Stroman, Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon were coming back from having suffered injuries last year, Luis Gil basically had missed two years after Tommy John surgery and Clarke Schmidt was still trying to demonstrate he was a major league starter. And that is before even dealing with whether Rodon was overwhelmed by New York and whether the polarizing Stroman was a fit.

And remember what sandwiched Cole getting hurt.

In the winter, the Yankees missed out on their No. 1 free-agent target, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, which is how they ended up with Stroman.

And after Cole went down, there was an awful lot of insisting that the Yankees had to trade for Dylan Cease or sign Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell. Which is how they ended up going with Gil after they did none of that. There were real questions toward the end of spring about whether Gil — as terrific as he had been in camp — would beat out Clayton Beeter and Will Warren for a rotation spot.

The Yankees’ Plan A for their rotation involved signing coveted free agent Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who instead landed with the Dodgers. AP

So how is it possible this rotation has performed like the Cy Young winner? No, really.

Last year, Cole won the award with a 2.63 ERA, a .206 batting average against and 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

This Yankees rotation has a 2.72 ERA, .211 batting average against and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings. THE WHOLE ROTATION. The whole COLE-LESS rotation.

In New York, we watched the Knicks thrive even after losing Julius Randle (sorry, third basketball reference). And the Yankees are doing the same without Cole. It feels unsustainable both in terms of health and performance. But part of value is when you perform. And this quintet has been brilliant individually and as a group.

Consider:

1. All five starters are qualified for the ERA title and have an ERA-plus of 122 or better (Cortes is the low man going into his Tuesday start against the Angels).

Want the full list of MLB teams that had five pitchers qualify for the ERA title over a full season, each with an ERA-plus of 122 or better? There are four — and none since the 1947 Cardinals.

Now, this Yankees team isn’t going to join the list.

First, Gil flickers on and off being qualified for the ERA title by the week. He is at 55 ⅓ innings, so the moment the Yankees play their 56th game Tuesday night, he no longer will be qualified — until he starts again Wednesday (assuming he pitches at least 1 ⅔ innings).

The Yankees are not putting restrictions on Gil. They are letting the testing done between starts on items such as Gil’s strength and flexibility determine whether to reduce his workload. But with the expectation of a playoffs berth, the Yankees will probably find reason not to let Gil throw cross the qualifying threshold of 162 innings during the regular season.

Luis Gil has held opposing hitters to a .143 batting average and .233 slugging percentage. Robert Sabo for the NY Post

Also, keep in mind that when Cole returns, perhaps the Yankees could go to a six-man rotation for a turn or two to break in Cole slowly and give the others a breather. Still, the big-picture plan is to go with a five-man rotation.

That means someone will come out and ultimately not qualify for the ERA title, and there just will not be enough time for Cole to do so either.

But on the subject of who comes out …

2. Rejoin me at point No. 3 in a bit to return to some true startling rotation numbers (Mike Greenberg has nothing on me for teasing what is coming up next). But if you will first indulge a story I have told in print, TV and on podcasts, it feels fitting for the moment.

When Joe Torre became Yankees manager in 1996, he was not well-regarded. He had not had much success in stops with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. So I remember the moment when I began to recognize there was more there than the iffy reputation.

A story that lingered over that spring: The Yankees had seven veteran starting pitchers with David Cone, Dwight Gooden, Scott Kamieniecki, Jimmy Key, Andy Pettitte, Melido Perez and Kenny Rogers plus an out-of-option prospect they were very fond of named Mark Hutton. Torre was persistently asked which five would make up the season-opening rotation.

Late that spring, I was alone in his office with Torre at what then was known as Legends Field in Tampa. And I asked again. And Torre said he would make the decision if he had to, but, “I will never have to make that decision.” Torre was wise enough to know these things usually take care of themselves through injury and performance.

Carlos Rodon has remained available through 11 turns of the Yankees rotation this season and posted a 2.95 ERA. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Sure enough, Perez did not make it to the starting line due to injury. Rogers took a liner off his shoulder in the spring. Kamieniecki was hurt a few starts into the season. Cone was lost for four months with an aneurysm near his armpit. Hutton proved not to be a viable alternative. Key was on and off the disabled list three times. Gooden ran out of gas late in the year. Pettitte, in his second season, was the only one to go the whole way — and even he dealt with a tender elbow in the second half.

Forget about five starters. There were times the Yankees had three or four, and they actually had to trade at the deadline for David Weathers, who at that point was a starter.

From conversations with Cole, I believe he would like to build up in bullpen sessions and live batting practice to the point where maybe he could throw 45 pitches in his first rehab outing. The hope would be to not need as many minor league rehab starts then to get to 90-ish pitches and return to the majors. Still, even under the best scenario, he remains three weeks away and probably longer.

So Boone will make his decision at that point. More than likely, it will be made for him, regardless of how many hysterical conversations there are on the subject in all the various forms of media and social media. The Yankees will be blessed if they do not have multiple breakdowns and avoid having to find a starter at the trade deadline.

3. Now back to our program. Gil currently does qualify for the ERA title and has a 190 ERA-plus. I want to present to you the list of pitchers in Yankees history who have qualified for the ERA title in a full season and had a better mark:

Ron Guidry (1978): 208 ERA-plus

Spud Chandler (1943): 198

Lefty Gomez (1937): 193

End of list.

4. The Yankees are the only team in the majors that had five starters qualified for the ERA title. The Phillies (Aaron Nola, Christopher Sanchez, Ranger Suarez, Zack Wheeler), Royals (Seth Lugo, Cole Ragans, Brady Singer, Michael Wacha), Mariners (Luis Castillo Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Bryce Miller) and Pirates (Bailey Falter, Jared Jones, Mitch Keller, Martin Perez) each had four.

Marcus Stroman has been an integral part of a historically consistent rotation in his first year with the Yankees. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

No team has finished with five since the Blue Jays and Cubs in 2016. No Yankees team has had five since 1999: Cone, Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Orlando Hernandez and Hideki Irabu.

5. The great Sarah Langs had two stats that I think mean a ton:

The Yankees currently are tied for the longest streak in MLB history at 14 games of having a starter work at least five innings while holding the opponent to two or fewer runs. It only has been done three other times, including by the 2022 Mets.

The Yankees have not had a start of fewer than four innings through 55 games. There are only three longer streaks to begin a schedule in MLB history.

The Yankees have not had a blow-up start this season that forces Boone to find, say, eight innings of relief, which tends to have a snowball effect over the next few games due to a taxed bullpen. Boone has not had to overexpose his relievers because the starters have provided length. 

The first job of a starter is to keep his team in the game, at minimum. There had been just three instances all season when the book was closed on a Yankees starter as the team trailed by three runs or more: down three against the Diamondbacks on April 2, down four to the Marlins on April 10 and down six to the Orioles on May 2. That last one by Rodon stands out as the lone time a Yankees starter pitched them completely out of a game.

In his four starts since — all Yankee wins — Rodon had pitched at least six innings, allowed two or fewer runs and pitched to a combined 1.85 ERA.

My totally made-up trade

Since it was brought up what the Yankees could be looking at before the July 30 trade deadline, let’s take a little dive here. But before we do, remember, 1) it is two months until the deadline and a lot is going to change in who needs what, 2) a lot is going to change in who are buyers or sellers and 3) this is how I see it, not something I have been told is going on.

I think the Yankees would like to solidify two parts of their bullpen: find a more reliable lefty and find someone else they are comfortable with late in games to work in tandem with Clay Holmes.

The Yankees could be interested in acquiring support — and a potential successor — for closer Clay Holmes before the trade deadline. Corey Sipkin for the NY Post

I could see the Yankees fashioning a trade similar to what they did at the deadline in 2017, when they obtained two relievers in a deal (Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson plus Todd Frazier), or in 2018, when they got closer capable Zack Britton.

Keep in mind that the Yankees are going to get two more months of information on items such as:

1. Can Scott Effross and/or Lou Trivino make it back to help? The two relievers obtained at the deadline in 2022 each missed all of last season after Tommy John surgery and are still rehabbing (Effross also had a back procedure). 

2. How do Kahnle and Hamilton look? Hamilton was a revelation last season, but has not been as good this year and has been usurped as the main setup man by this season’s revelation, Luke Weaver. If the Yanks can get the 2023 version of Hamilton with Weaver and Holmes, that strengthens the end game.

Kahnle has pitched only once in his return from a shoulder ailment. He is a righty with a high-end changeup — the kind that could allow Boone to use him against lefties in big spots as opposed to one of the southpaw relievers.

3. If the Yankees decide to limit Gil’s innings or put Cole into his rotation spot, could Gil become a late-inning force in the pen? Could Beeter, currently on the Triple-A injured list due to a shoulder issue, be transitioned to use his big arm in the pen? In nine major league outings, Ron Marinaccio (1.42 ERA) looked way more like the very helpful 2022 version of himself rather than the downgrade of last season. His Triple-A ERA is 0.82 in eight outings.

I think there is one other item the Yankees will have to keep in mind: Holmes can be a free agent after this season.

Steinbrenner’s recent proclamation that the Yankees cannot sustain their $300 million-ish payroll would make me highly dubious they will invest the, say, four years at $56 million (or even more) that will be necessary to retain Holmes.

The Yanks probably have some conceit that they can create a late-game reliever, as they did with Holmes. Maybe a year from now, Hamilton or Weaver or Gil or Beeter is the closer. But if it were possible to land a late-game piece whom the Yankees envision possibly co-starring with Holmes now and replacing him in 2025, all the better.

The dream get is Oakland’s Mason Miller, who has struck out 53.6 percent of hitters he has faced this season. But because of the combination of dominance and control — he cannot be a free agent until after the 2029 season — the A’s will expect a ton in a trade, and every high-end contender and more will be in play for him. The Orioles and Dodgers stand out. I am not sure the Yankees can get him, and it would seem impossible without including Jasson Dominguez and/or Spencer Jones.

It is expected to take a major haul of prospects to acquire dominant A’s closer Mason Miller. Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

If the Yankees knew for sure they were keeping Soto long-term, that might permit them to be more open to trading a top-prospect outfielder.

Here is one I thought about watching the Yankees-Padres series over the weekend: Does Jeremiah Estrada’s five-batter, five-strikeout performance Sunday on top of his excellent work all year give the Padres the belief he can close? Also, does San Diego still feel compelled to lower payroll now and in the near future?

Their closer Robert Suarez is making $10 million this season, is due $10 million next year and has an $8 million player option in 2026. Perhaps the Padres, as they try to make the playoffs in 2024, would not trade their closer … unless, perhaps, they think Estrada can do the job for basically minimum salary.

As for lefties, the Padres have Yuki Matsui and Wandy Peralta tied up in multi-year deals. Would that make them more amenable to dealing Adrian Morejon?

Both Kyle Finnegan and his main Nationals setup man Hunter Harvey are free agents after 2025, and Washington should still be in the mode of long-term talent acquisition. Even though Harvey is not closing, he strikes out more hitters than Finnegan, walks fewer and keeps the ball on the ground better.

After a troubling start to the season, Pirates closer David Bednar has been much better in May.

The Nationals’ Hunter Harvey is a potential name to watch on the reliever trade market. Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the place to go one-stop shopping for a late-inning reliever and a lefty is with the Cardinals, who have played much better recently and certainly do not want to be sellers. But if they are, closer Ryan Helsley can be a free agent after 2025, and in John King and Jojo Romero and maybe even Matthew Liberatore, they have a buffet of lefty relievers.

The Marlins have no worries about contending, so Tanner Scott must be traded in his walk year. He feels a little Britton-ish. Both were lefty-pitching Orioles draft picks. Both have the kind of stuff that doesn’t get hit well and ends up on the ground a lot. When they get in trouble, it is usually due to walks. Britton was traded to the Yankees in his walk year. Scott was among the majors’ best relievers last year because he kept his walk rate to a career-low 7.8 percent. This year, it was 18.4 percent, but it had declined in the past month as he had not allowed a run in his past 15 outings.

The Braves have three viable lefties in Aaron Bummer, Dylan Lee and A.J. Minter, who is due to be a free agent after the season. Can they use one as a piece in a trade to help find outfield help to ease the loss of Acuña?

Hey, on that subject

In 2021, the Braves traded for four outfield bats after Acuña was lost for the season: Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler. That quartet helped them win the World Series.

This year, the Braves are telling folks their initial plan after losing Acuña is to check out internal options and decide closer to the trade deadline whether to reach outside and at what level.

Braves star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. was down in agony after suffering a season-ending ACL tear. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

The Braves have a few problems:

1. They already are projected to a team-record (by far) payroll of roughly $265 million for luxury-tax purposes, and have been perceived by their rivals as not having much financial wiggle room. 

2. To win six straight NL East titles, the Braves have either promoted their best prospects to the majors or made trades, and their system is not viewed as deep or high-end. Before the season, MLB.com, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic and Baseball America ranked Atlanta’s system either 26th or 27th out of 30.

3. Acuña was having a down year, but so were many parts of a Braves lineup that was such a force last season. The Braves likely will go from a left field platoon of lefty Jarred Kelenic (98 OPS) and righty Duvall (93) to Kelenic playing full-time in left, Duvall in right and Michael Harris (91) in center. The unproven J.P. Martinez (44 career plate appearances) becomes the fourth outfielder.

4. It is not as if the Braves can jump out and use collateral to acquire an outfielder. The Braves are thin in the rotation with Spencer Strider out for the year and now AJ Smith-Shawver likely gone for two months. Bryce Elder, a 2023 All-Star, pitched poorly and was demoted, and the Braves are trying to find a fifth starter. Meanwhile, they are counting on converted reliever Reynaldo Lopez, oft-injured Chris Sale and 40-year-old Charlie Morton to hold it together around ace Max Fried. By late July, the Braves might be prioritizing a starter.

But if I were trying to get an early feel for the secondary outfield market — the kind in which the Braves shopped in 2021 and would be most likely to deal in this year — I would think:

Tommy Pham, White Sox: Chicago did not sign him until mid-April, but began getting calls right away. The White Sox could be a center of attention in July if star center fielder Luis Robert Jr. is healthy and marketed – both of which are possible.

Pham, a free agent at the end of the year, is almost certain to go from a cellar-dweller to the highest bidder.

Could the Red Sox’s Tyler O’Neill fit the Braves as a rental outfield bat? AP

Tyler O’Neill, Red Sox: Boston has played better than anticipated to stay around .500. But the Red Sox just might not have enough talent to hang in even the wild-card race. Even if they do, I think they would be open to move a walk-year player such as O’Neill.

Michael Conforto, Giants: The Braves already brought back Duvall. Would they try to do the same with Soler? Even if the Giants were willing, Soler has become a full-time DH, having not played an outfield inning this year, and the Braves already have a full-time DH in Marcell Ozuna. Also, Soler is signed for $26 million over the next two years.

Conforto, currently rehabbing from a hamstring injury, is a free agent after this season. But with center fielder Jung Hoo Lee possibly out for the season, the Giants might not be gung-ho to trade an outfielder.

Max Kepler, Twins: In Alex Kiriloff and Trevor Larnach, the Twins have two cost-controlled lefty-swinging corner outfielders. Kepler is more proven. He also is a free agent after the season. 

Harrison Bader, Mets: If the Mets stay under .500 and out of contention, they will be sellers for a second straight year, and a free-agent-to-be such as Bader almost certainly will be dealt.

Mark Canha, Twins: What was just written about the Mets also goes for the Tigers and Canha — if they are not in it, they will trade a walk-year player.

Harrison Bader may be on the move if the Mets stay out of playoff contention. Robert Sabo for the NY Post

Eddie Rosario, Nationals: He could join Duvall in getting a Braves reunion. Rosario is hitting just .174, but he has seven homers and eight steals in 151 plate appearances. He is a free agent again after this season. Jesse Winker, who also is free after the season, might be a better lefty-swinging option from the Nationals.

Brett Rooker, A’s: Big power, big strikeouts, questionable defense — is he this year’s version of Soler? The A’s remain in rebuild mode and should be trying to turn players such as Rooker into more future goods.

Hey, on that subject, Part 2

Acuña’s eight-year, $100 million extension has been often criticized for being too team-friendly. And my suspicion is even in missing long stretches with two devastating knee injuries, Acuña probably would have made more money going year by year than with the $100 million guarantee.

But remember this would have been Acuña’s walk year without the extension. What would teams have been willing to do long-term for a player as talented as Acuna but with all the uncertainty moving forward from these knee injuries?

Acuña is still just 26. Again, I suspect he would have made more money going year by year.

But the $100 million looks a little different now.

Last licks

The last Yankees lefty hitter to drive in 100 runs in a season was Robinson Cano in 2013.

The last Yankees lefty hitter to drive in 100 runs and hit 40 homers in the same season was Curtis Granderson in 2012.

The last Yankees lefty hitter to drive in 100 runs, hit 40 homers and bat .300 in the same season was Jason Giambi in 2002.

Soto is hitting .310, and he is on pace for 41 homers and 130 RBIs.

The last Yankee to reach 130 RBIs in a season was Alex Rodriguez in 2007, when he drove in 156 and won the AL MVP.

The last Yankees lefty hitter to do it was Tino Martinez with 141 in 1997, when he finished second for the AL MVP. In both of those years, by the way, the Yankees were upset by Cleveland in the Division Series.

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