By Ernie Palladino
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At least Brian Cashman won’t have to answer questions about Jenrry Mejia when the Yankees report to their Tampa spring training camp Thursday.
Those questions will be left for Sandy Alderson; the whys of how the Mets tenaciously hung onto two-time PED loser Mejia, only to see the short reliever become history’s first player to incur a lifetime ban for a third strike. Better still might be the speculation on how anyone with half a brain could be so dumb as to repeat his usage of an old-school steroid like Boldenone.
That’s like a .300 hitter thinking fastball, getting fastball, and taking fastball right down Broadway for Strike 3. Ridiculous.
Alderson gets those queries, though they will be muted by the fact that the Mets’ bullpen became so strong with the addition of left-hander Antonio Bastardo, the re-signing of lefty specialist Jerry Blevins, and the return of closer Jeurys Familia that Mejia had become a mere spare part. His absence will have no impact whatsoever on their future.
The questions Cashman and Joe Girardi must answer will be far more pointed in light of the news from last Thursday. Masahiro Tanaka is still not ready to throw off a mound following offseason arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow. He has yet to progress from throwing off flat ground, and the pitcher, himself, proclaimed his doubts about being ready for opening day.
If the rotational issues stopped there, the next six weeks might have offered a bit more of a comfort level than they currently do. But they don’t. Though Cashman bolstered the infield with the Starlin Castro trade, increased lineup flexibility by adding Aaron Hicks, and pulled off what could turn into the deal of the century for closer Aroldis Chapman, the starting rotation looks identical to last year’s.
That’s a problem.
It’s not just Tanaka’s elbow, which, by the way, will still cause Girardi some agita because of the partially torn ulnar ligament that could tear completely at any time. The Yankees managed to dodge a premature ending last year, but what are the chances an injury like that can hold up two years in a row?
Then, there’s the rest of the group.
CC Sabathia, coming off alcohol rehab and a 6-10 mark that continued a decided slide downhill, turns 36 in July. The left-hander’s effectiveness last year was hampered by the brace he wore on his creaking landing knee, and only returned when he cast it off, along with caution, at the end of the season.
Michael Pineda remains an injury risk, though when his fastball is on, there’s nobody better. One wouldn’t have thought that after his last 20 starts, which followed a 5-0 beginning with a 7-10 ending interrupted with a strained flexor muscle in his right arm.
Nathan Eovaldi was nothing if not inconsistent in 2015. Ivan Nova had a poor return from Tommy John surgery and would probably be better off stashed in the bullpen for long relief. But if Tanaka isn’t ready to start the season, Nova may have to enter the rotation.
Luis Severino, for all the waves of anticipation he created with a fine rookie outing, is still young and learning.
So the Yanks’ rotation looks just as risky a proposition as it did heading into 2015, and Cashman did nothing to improve it in the offseason. While the overall picture looks good — better hitting, slicker fielding, and potentially the greatest back of the bullpen the major leagues has ever seen — it could all be undermined if the starters can’t get past the fifth inning.
Girardi needed at least one more starting pitcher, and Cashman gave him zero. In fact, he sent an effective swingman, Adam Warren, to the Cubs in the Castro trade.
If the Yanks go into training camp with any glaring weakness, it lies in the starting rotation. And Cashman will have to answer for that, especially if Tanaka’s slow progression experiences even the slightest reversal as spring training marches toward the April 4 opener against the Astros.
Somehow, it looks like Alderson will have a softer time. It’s always easier answering questions about losing spare parts than keeping essential-but-shaky ones.
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