This past Sunday, as many will recall, was the Super Bowl. One of the cornier advertisements of the evening, courtesy of Jeep, featured Bill Murray parodying his famous role as the protagonist in the 1993 cult classic Groundhog Day. It’s fitting that just a few short days later, Yankees fans find ourselves stuck in a horrifying time loop of our own – the nightmarish bear trap of injuries that slowly and ineffably choked the 2019 season to death has reared its ugly head before pitchers and catchers could even report to Tampa. James Paxton will reportedly miss three to four months after surgery to correct a herniated disc and remove a cyst. Two ailments that flared up during the stretch run and contributed to Paxton’s abrupt removal in his last regular-season start and the decision to give Masahiro Tanaka the ball in ALCS Game 1. For now, we’ll plan to see Big Maple in June, though with the way last season went, I take no injury prognosis for granted anymore.
Until Paxton and, presumably, the domestic violence-implicated Domingo Germán return to the fold, the Yankees will have to get creative with the fifth starter slot. Even without Paxton, New York boasts a formidable top three with Gerrit Cole, a hopefully-healthy Luis Severino, and Tanaka anchoring the rotation. J.A. Happ, somehow still wearing pinstripes after an active winter of transactions around baseball, will slide into the fourth spot. The last is a question mark, so let’s take a rapid-fire look at some of the candidates, both realistic and remote.
The man affectionately known as Gumby is the favorite to assume a place in the rotation during Paxton’s absence. Unlike his competitors, Montgomery has a track record of success as a major league starter. He put together an impressive rookie season of 29 starts back in 2017, hurling 155 innings and posting a highly respectable 3.88 ERA and 4.07 FIP (89 ERA-, 91 FIP-). Montgomery is a finesse lefty, attacking hitters with a five-pitch mix and especially effective breaking balls (.175 BAA on curves, .170 on sliders in 2017). His peripherals certainly don’t blow you away:
But he’s no slouch. Montgomery went under the knife for Tommy John surgery less than two years ago and didn’t impress in his return to the mound late last season. If he can rediscover his reliable 2017 form during camp, the debate over who should assume the fifth-starter mantle won’t last long.
Now 25 years old, Loaisiga has electric stuff and, all else being equal, undoubtedly a higher ceiling than Montgomery. But he’s had his own issues staying on the field since making his major-league debut in the summer of 2018. It’s too bad because he has the tools and raw talent to succeed in the majors: a high-velocity, high-spin fastball and sharp curve that misses bats are a lethal combination. Loaisiga got plenty of looks out of the bullpen down the stretch last year and even made appearances in the postseason. His slight frame (he’s listed at just 5’11 and 165 pounds) and durability question marks seem to make relief a foregone conclusion long term. Nobody’s a bigger fan of Loaisiga than I, and at this point, even I’m fairly convinced that that’s where he’ll end up. I’m not sure the injury risk justifies another attempt at making him a starter. The kid’s a stud, though, and has a bright future in the pen if that’s where fate takes him.
King came over in the Caleb Smith trade with Miami, a transaction that feels positively prehistoric at this point. He burnished his prospect shine over the last couple years and even made his major-league debut on September 27 in Texas, where he tossed two innings and surrendered an unearned run. King has a prototypical pitcher’s build, a solid sinker-slider combo with great command, and plenty of minor league experience. He’s not a sexy prospect by any stretch, but he’s the type of guy who could stick as a back-end starter anywhere. If Montgomery and Loaisiga falter or head back to the injured list, King is a worthy replacement option.
Now the fun begins! Devi, who began popping up on top prospect lists early last year and hasn’t stopped since admittedly, underwent some significant struggles when he bumped up to Scranton and had to start dealing with the rocket ball (5.40 ERA in AAA). And he’ll probably never cease facing concerns about his diminutive stature. But man, is the 20-year-old a thrill to watch. The curveball is the big draw (65 FV on the 20-80 scouting scale per both MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs), but Garcia started deploying a slider last year and flashes a plus changeup as well. Is he going to make the big club out of camp? Almost certainly not. Does he need considerable fine-tuning in Scranton? Absolutely. But I expect Garcia to make an impact at the big league level in some capacity in 2020. Just a few strokes of bad luck and we’re seriously talking about him for this role. The way last year went, that’s never out of the realm of possibility.
The 2017 first-rounder hasn’t ever pitched above Double-A, and it would take a borderline nuclear catastrophe to get him anywhere near the Yankees’ rotation. But he seriously impressed in his three starts for Trenton last season, striking out a batter per inning in his first taste of the upper minors. The experts are duly complimentary: Baseball America leapfrogged Schmidt over Garcia in its preseason MLB Top 100, ranking Schmidt 62nd and Garcia 65th. The Yankees extended a non-roster invite to Schmidt, so he’ll open the Grapefruit League season at Steinbrenner Field before likely hopping over to Himes Ave at some point during the spring. Schmidt needs more seasoning, but his star is on the rise. He’s certainly a prospect to watch as we bide our time until Paxton’s hopefully complication-free return.