TAMPA, Fla. -- Three years ago, Jordan Montgomery arrived in Yankees camp as a relative unknown, viewed as a long shot to make the Opening Day roster. The left-hander’s arsenal and poise forced a spot to open, and his resulting regular-season performance has not been forgotten.
Though Montgomery was limited to four big league innings last year following recovery from Tommy John surgery, the 27-year-old is viewed as the front-runner to grab the No. 5 spot in the rotation in the wake of an injury that is expected to keep starting pitcher James Paxton out for three to four months.
“Things always happen, so the more arms you have, the better,’’ Montgomery told reporters this week at the Yankees’ Minor League complex, where he is preparing ahead of Wednesday's report date for pitchers and catchers. “I’ve got to be ready.”
General manager Brian Cashman said that he sees an open battle developing for the No. 5 spot, with Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino and J.A. Happ locked into the first four spots in the rotation. The vacancy developed when Paxton experienced a recurrence of the discomfort that first prompted treatment in late September, eventually requiring spinal surgery.
“There’s a competition now for whoever wants to step up and take it,” Cashman said.
Manager Aaron Boone said on Thursday that he believes Montgomery is already established as a capable big league starter, based upon his performance over the 2017-18 seasons. In 35 starts prior to surgery, Montgomery was 11-7 with a 3.84 ERA (116 ERA+), striking out more than twice as many batters (167) as he walked (63). Montgomery touched the mound twice last year in the Majors, including a Sept. 24 start against the Rays.
“Monty has proven himself at this level,” Boone said. “For him to get back last year was big, just for his frame of mind. We weren’t expecting him to necessarily pitch for us last year, but we felt like he was doing so well that it would be good for him to get out there and pitch. The fact that he was able to get back, get some work done and get into some games was big for him and his mindset moving forward. I feel like he’s had a really good offseason.”
Cessa is coming off a solid season in which he served as one of the Yankees’ long relievers, posting a 4.11 ERA (108 ERA+) in 43 games, spanning 81 innings. The right-hander struck out 75 against 31 walks, permitting 75 hits. Cashman said that the Yanks plan to again have Cessa compete this spring as a starting pitcher, with the option of returning to the bullpen if necessary. Cessa turns 28 in April, and his 232 big league innings are the most of any candidate in the group.
Rated as the Yankees’ top prospect by MLB Pipeline, Garcia’s electric arsenal forced promotions all the way to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season, where the 20-year-old righty posted a 5.40 ERA in 11 games (six starts). Garcia dominated at the Class A and Double-A levels, and though Boone is eager to get a look at a hurler who has drawn comparisons to Pedro Martinez, the manager is being careful not to set expectations too high. It’s likely Garcia will return to the high Minors to begin the year, though his Major League debut is forecast for 2020.
King’s reputation as a strike-thrower has accompanied his rise through the Minors, including his big league debut last September. A 24-year-old right-hander who relies upon finesse to generate ground balls, King was 3-2 with a 5.48 ERA in 11 games (eight starts) at four levels of the Yankees’ system during an injury-shortened 2019, including a 4.18 ERA in four Triple-A games. King was acquired from the Marlins in a December 2017 trade that sent first baseman Garrett Cooper and right-hander Caleb Smith to Miami.
The Yankees continue to debate whether Loaisiga best projects as a starter or a reliever, as he has filled both roles at the Major League level. The 25-year-old right-hander is 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA in eight career starts for the Yankees and has compiled a 5.13 ERA in 16 relief appearances, with nearly identical strikeout-to-walk numbers. Like Cessa, the Yanks plan to have Loaisiga enter Spring Training as a starter and could consider him a bullpen option if necessary.
Down the line
Whoever wins the fifth-starter competition may have only a few weeks to savor that victory. Paxton had surgery on Wednesday and is expected to begin throwing in about six weeks, with an estimated big league return set for May or June. In addition, the Yankees expect to have right-hander Domingo Germán return from suspension in the first week of June. Germán will not be present during Spring Training and can resume working out at club facilities 30 days prior to his activation date.