Yankees' rotation deserves as much hype as lineup

January 17th, 2023

We know the Yankees can always hit, and will almost always hit home runs in big numbers. They’ve hit more home runs than any team in history, they just saw Aaron Judge break the Yankees and the American League home run record with 62 and they led the world in home runs again last season with 254. You always start there with the Yankees, with the best home run numbers. But what if they have the best starting pitching in the league this season?

Wait ... what?

Of course, they just reportedly lost Frankie Montas, who was supposed to be their No. 5 starter, for the first month of the season because of recurring shoulder problems. But the four pitchers ahead of him in the rotation -- Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodón, Nestor Cortes, Luis Severino -- have the chance to be the strongest front four the Yankees have had in exactly 20 years.

Here was the Yankees' rotation that year, with Andy Pettitte as the ace:

Andy Pettitte: 21-8
Mike Mussina: 17-8
Roger Clemens: 17-9
David Wells: 15-7

That is 70 wins -- a lot -- for the top four guys in Joe Torre’s rotation in a season when the Yankees ended up winning 101. The irony here is that the No. 5 man for Torre in ‘03, Jeff Weaver -- pitching in relief -- gave up a walk-off home run to Alex Gonzalez of the Marlins in the 12th inning of Game 4 of the World Series on a night when the Yankees had the chance to go up three games to one. The further irony is that in Game 6, when the Marlins closed the Yankees out, a kid named Josh Beckett blew the Yankees away at Yankee Stadium and looked like the best pitcher in the world.

Since 2003, the Yankees have played in the World Series only once, winning it in '09. By the time they got to the Series, their rotation was three men: CC Sabathia (19-8 in the regular season), Pettitte (14-8) and A.J. Burnett (13-9). Sabathia was the star of all of them in that postseason run, taking his place with other Yankees star pitchers who had carried their teams in October and, in Sabathia’s case that year, into November.

Between then and now, the closest the Yankees have come to making the Series was in 2017, when they were up vs. the Astros, three games to two, in the American League Championship Series. Their two best starters that year were Sabathia, still, at the age of 36, and the 23-year-old Severino. They both won 14 games for Joe Girardi. But Severino got lit up by the Astros in Game 6, and Girardi pulled Sabathia with one out in the fourth inning of Game 7 after he’d given up five hits and walked three, even though CC gave up only one earned run that night. And none of it mattered much in the end, because the Yankees scored just one run in the last two games and got outscored, 11-1.

The next season, playing a great Red Sox team in an AL Division Series, the Yankees came back to Yankee Stadium tied with the Red Sox at one game apiece. The starters in the last two games of their season were once again Severino and Sabathia. Different year, same results. Severino again got lit up in a game the Yankees ended up losing, 16-1. Sabathia gave up five hits again in his three innings, two walks this time and three earned runs. The Yankees lost the game, 4-3, and lost their season in the process.

Now the Yankees appear to be loaded, at least on paper, even with their obvious concerns about Montas. This is what general manager Brian Cashman said on the day the Yankees introduced Rodón as Aaron Boone’s No. 2 behind Cole:

"The best starting rotations are the ones when you have a deep talented staff, and every day, yesterday’s starter hands the ball off and the competitive spirit to his teammate and says, ‘Now top that.’ If you can get a collection of talented pitchers that have that type of capability and makeup, that’s when some magical things have a chance to happen.”

There was nothing magical against the Astros last October, when it was Cole and Cortes who were the starters in the last two games of the Yankees' season. But everybody knows what Cole can do when healthy, even coming off a 13-8 season. Cortes was the surprise pitching star of the Yankees' season with a 12-4 record and a 2.44 ERA. Severino made 19 starts after he came off the injured list, with a 7-3 record and 112 strikeouts in 102 innings. Now Rodón -- 14-8 record, a 2.88 ERA and 237 strikeouts in 178 innings with the Giants -- joins the party.

Almost all of the time since the Yankees did last win the Series, they haven’t had enough pitching. They never had the starters to drag them across the finish line the way Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez did against the Phillies when the ’22 Series was two games apiece, and the way Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton did against the Yankees in that ’17 ALCS.

The Yankees absolutely always have enough stick. Maybe this time they have the arms to go with it. Long time since it’s been like that at Yankee Stadium.