The Backup Rotation

If baseball had an injury-free mode, setting a starting rotation would be pretty simple. Step 1) Pick your best five pitchers. Step 2) Let them take turns pitching every five days until the season ends or you trade for someone better.

Of course, real life doesn’t work that way. Like any other team, the Yankees deal with injuries both large (Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi) and small (nagging strains and pulls that cause missed starts here and there). They’ll continue to deal with pitchers getting hurt in 2018 as well, even though everyone appears healthy at the moment.

Sometimes the Yankees trade for replacements, such as Sonny Gray or Jaime Garcia. Other times they just need a spot start or two and call on someone from AAA or the bullpen. Over the course of a season these spot starts add up and have a substantial impact on the team’s performance. Here are the spot starters from the last three years:

2017 GS 2016 GS  2015 GS
Luis Cessa 5 Luis Cessa 9 Chris Capuano 4
Chad Green 1 Chad Green 8 Bryan Mitchell 2
Bryan Mitchell 1 Bryan Mitchell 5 Chase Whitley 4
Caleb Smith 2

You are forgiven if you don’t remember most of these pitchers as starters. They really weren’t very memorable, as we’ll explore further below. Nevertheless, they account for 41 of the Yankees last 486 GS, or 8.4% of their games. This doesn’t even include Luis Severino’s 11 awful starts in 2016. He actually started the year in the rotation so it’s hard to call him a fill-in. Plus, he’s great now, so let’s not dwell in the past! Besides, these spot starters don’t need any help looking bad. Here are their combined numbers for each season:


IP/G H/9 R/9 ERA HR/9 BB/9 K/9
3.96 9.59 6.56 5.80 1.51 4.54 7.82


IP/G H/9 R/9 ERA HR/9 BB/9 K/9
5.14 9.24 5.02 4.46 1.91 2.55 7.17


IP/G H/9 R/9 ERA HR/9 BB/9 K/9
3.83 12.21 7.04 6.57 1.41 3.76 8.22

In 2017 and 2015, they averaged less than 4 IP per start. In all three seasons, they were extremely prone to home runs and yielded a lot of base runners in general. No matter how you slice it, this is a lot of bad pitching.

What does this mean for the 2018 Yankees? For one thing, they should pray for health and hope to minimize spot starters as much as possible. But it also means there’s an under-the-radar opportunity to make a significant improvement to the team. They should expect probably 10-20 spot starts from minor leaguers or stretched relievers. If they can clear the low bar set by their predecessors, the Yankees could steal an extra few wins.

The Spot Starters

Most of the pitchers listed above were never supposed to be anything special. Chad Green turned into a fantastic reliever of course, but he wasn’t a great prospect as a starter. Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell were similarly unspectacular prospects- the kind of guys who are supposed to ride the AAA shuttle. This year, the Yankees “B Team” features more highly touted prospects than in the past.

Domingo German

German came to the Yankees in the Martin Prado-for-Nathan Eovaldi trade, then promptly missed the 2015 season with Tommy John surgery. Since then, he’s reestablished himself as a noteworthy prospect. He relies on an electric high-90s fastball with good movement. His curveball and changeup are still progressing, and his command still needs work. If he can solidify the secondary pitches he’s got the upside of a mid-rotation starter. If not, the fastball alone should get him some action out of the bullpen. He did see some time in the majors last year in a mop-up role, and he’s enjoyed a pretty good Spring Training so far. Because he’s already on the 40 man roster, he should get one of the first calls to grab a spot start in the big leagues.

Luis Cessa

Yes, Cessa is still kicking around the 40 man roster. His 4.73 DRA through 106.1 IP is less than impressive, but it could be worse (take a look at the Reds starters). He’s been hit pretty hard through three starts this spring. Barring injury, he’ll begin the year in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, but he’s almost certain to start a few games in pinstripes. The Yankees have a constant 40 man roster crunch, so he’ll continue to resurface until he’s traded or DFA.

Chance Adams

Perhaps the Yankees’ best pitching prospect, Adams has completely conquered the high minors. Baseball Prospectus ranked him the #3 prospect in the organization and #51 overall on their top 101. As noted by the BP prospect team, “Adams may have already been one of the Yankees five best rotation options this summer when they were giving starts to the Luis Cessas and Caleb Smiths of the world.” However, he’s not yet on the 40 man roster, though he certainly will be before the season ends.

Domingo Acevedo

Acevedo is a 6’7″ righty who’s been clocked as fast as 103 MPH. He dominated AA bats last year and should spend the bulk of 2017 in AAA. He needs to work on his violent delivery that looks nearly certain to cause future arm problems. Regardless, he’s on the 40 man roster already, so he should get a chance to show his impressive stuff in the majors at some point.


Clearly, the collective potential of this group is much higher than the spot starters of years past. Except for Cessa, who is what he’s always been, these pitchers all have a chance to become impact major leaguers. If they can simply not get rocked in the handful of games they start in 2018, it will be a major improvement. That could be enough to make a difference in a tight pennant race.

Photo credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

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