MLB sources on Yankees’ starting pitching question marks — which could make or break a title

Taillon live BP spring training 2021

Taillon live BP spring training 2021

It’s an easy thing to say and Al Leiter knows it. But the Yankees starting rotation starts with Gerrit Cole, so the best way to begin talking about it might be this:

“If Gerrit Cole is healthy, we will be talking about Gerrit Cole as a Cy Young candidate,” says Leiter, the former big-league pitcher who threw for both the Mets and Yankees and now works as an analyst for MLB Network.

“He throws a boatload of strikes, gets into good counts a lot. There’s no backing down and he’s got the near-unhittable stuff every time out. I can’t say enough about that guy. I love watching him.”

Beyond Cole, however, there are no sure things, and that’s where it could get sticky for the Yanks. There’s risk associated with pitchers such as Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, whose careers have been slowed by injuries the past two years, and plenty of proving still to be done by the likes of Jordan Montgomery and Deivi García.

But for all the pinstriped hand-wringing over the rotation, there are observers in baseball who believe the Yankee starters will be good enough to supplement their fearsome offense. That could make them the class of the American League.

In their first outings of camp, Taillon and Kluber offered glimpses of why the Yanks thought it was worth perhaps risking their season on their arms. Taillon breezed through a perfect, seven-pitch inning in his spring debut and Kluber retired all six batters he faced in his, striking out three.

Sure, it’s one appearance. But it’s OK to at least start letting the optimism flow.

“Kluber, I really like him,” says a major league scout who spoke on condition of anonymity. “How could you not? He’s crafty. I’m not saying that he throws soft. But he understands the importance of movement, changing speeds and being unpredictable. I think this was a great pickup.

“And when he’s healthy, he’s got durability. Book it.”

Indeed, Kluber threw 200-plus innings every season from 2014-2018 before injuries limited him to one 2020 start for Texas and seven for Cleveland a year earlier.

But there’s reason for optimism that Kluber can deliver innings this year. Eric Cressey, the Yankees director of player health and performance, has worked with Kluber for years. While Dan O’Dowd, the former Rockies GM who is also an analyst for the MLB Network, calls Kluber “a lottery ticket” of sorts, he knows it’s meaningful that Cressey gave his seal of approval on Kluber coming to the Yankees.

“No one knows Kluber better than Cressey,” O’Dowd says. “So signing off on that, I can’t tell you how vital that is.”

And someone with Kluber’s experience will know how to navigate a comeback, says a big-league coach from a competing team, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Coming off the pandemic season of 2020, in which no pitcher threw a normal workload, older pitchers are better poised to return to former levels, the coach says. The same idea applies to Cole, who threw 91.1 innings last year (73 in the regular seasons, plus 18.1 in the playoffs), after three straight seasons of 200-plus.

“The veteran guys who have had a track record of throwing 170-180 innings are in a better spot to come back and do the same thing this year than the young guys who have never done that before,” the coach says. “For a guy like Cole, 2020 was a breather. He’s in a much better spot. And he’ll know when to back off. Younger guys don’t know how to control their effort level, the way someone like Cole does.”

With Kluber and Taillon, though, “the Yankees have to be realistic on what you can get,” O’Dowd says. Taillon, once a heralded prospect, is coming off his second Tommy John surgery and didn’t pitch in 2020 after throwing only 37.1 innings for Pittsburgh in 2019. He came into camp hoping to throw at least 120 innings this year.

Clearly, the Yanks will need innings from Montgomery, García, Domingo Germán and beyond, to hopefuls such as Michael King and Clarke Schmidt. O’Dowd predicts at least 10 pitchers will make starts for them and it might even be more than that coming off 2020.

“They have talent,” O’Dowd says. “I do say the Yankees need one of those guys to step up and become ‘a guy’ and turn into more than just a contributor, but maybe someone you’d feel good about starting Game 3 of the playoffs.”

Could that be the 5-foot-9 García, who was 3-2 with a 4.98 ERA last year in six starts? The Yankees believe in the 21-year-old righty. Others do, too.

“He’s a little guy who really has a lot of confidence,” says the scout. “He thinks he’s bigger than he is. I appreciate that. I think there’s something there. Really, really good changeup, throws to both sides of the plate. I think there’s a lot to like.”

O’Dowd calls García “more of a thrower than a pitcher. Needs to slow the game down. The stuff was there last year. How can he bridge that gap?”

Montgomery figures to be a big part of the rotation, too. He allowed one run over two innings in his spring debut. “I think he’s a solid contributor,” says O’Dowd.

Adds the scout: “He really wants to get to his changeup and curveball. He has to hit his spot and he’s looking to trick you to get you out. (Tom) Glavine and (Jamie) Moyer did it. You want to see more of it. I haven’t seen enough of it with him, but I root for guys who aren’t just going to throw their hat out there and dominate.”

The Yanks can count on an infusion of elite talent at some point over the summer, too — Luis Severino should be ready to return from Tommy John surgery. He already told reporters this spring that he’s “100 percent sure that I’ll be back to what I was in the past.”

Maybe it all goes right for the Yankees this year and the risks morph into sure things. Maybe they’ve got that coming, after all the injuries they’ve endured over the past few years.

Their title hopes might depend on it.

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