TAMPA, Fla. -- In one sense, the first on-field decision Aaron Boone will make that will affect the fortunes of the 2018 New York Yankees will be naming his Opening Day starter.
He’s not ready to make that call just yet.
The Yankees currently have three starters who have made Opening Day starts in their careers, and that doesn’t include Luis Severino, who emerged as the team’s best starter in 2017 and started the wild-card game. Masahiro Tanaka has started the previous three openers for the Yankees; CC Sabathia has made 11 Opening Day starts in his career, including six in a row with the Yankees from 2009 to 2014; Sonny Gray started two openers while with the Oakland A’s.
The players might tell you they don’t care who gets the first ball, but it’s definitely an honor many pitchers look forward to receiving.
“The one good thing with our guys -- with other teams it’s more obvious sometimes who’s going to start Opening Day -- we have guys like Tanaka and CC that have been aces of the staff,” Boone said Saturday. “We have Sevy who became what he became a year ago. Sonny Gray has been a guy … so to me, the order in which they pitch isn’t necessarily as big a deal.”
In general, the Opening Day starter is usually the guy who had the best season the previous year. That would clearly be Severino, who went 14-8 with a 2.98 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting. On the other hand, Tanaka and Sabathia are veterans, while Severino just completed his first full season in the majors. He also struggled in the postseason while Tanaka, after an up-and-down season in which he posted a 4.74 ERA and served up 35 home runs, dominated in three playoff starts, allowing just two runs in 20 innings.
“A lot that goes into [the decision] will be where these guys are physically, how we want to build in rest and off days as we look at the first month or two of the season, and we’ll look a little bit how they match up maybe against some teams,” Boone said.
He said he and pitching coach Larry Rothschild have already started looking into all of that, but he wouldn’t tip his hand. The Yankees begin their season in Toronto with a four-game series before opening up at home against Tampa Bay on April 2. There are no off days in there, so the fifth starter would actually get the home opener.
The Yankees have just three off days in April, but two of those are early in the season, after Games 5 and 10. Games 11, 12 and 13 are in Boston, so the schedule lines up that Boone could go through his rotation twice and then have his first three starters pitching the three games in Fenway.
As it happens, Tanaka and Severino threw side-by-side bullpen sessions on Saturday, with Tanaka throwing 38 pitches and Severino only throwing 10 to 15 at less than max effort. One of the Japanese reporters told me that Tanaka has already thrown seven times, including a couple times in Japan before he came over. He’s ahead of Severino now, but that doesn’t mean anything this early in spring training.
For what it’s worth, the Yankees were cautious with Severino last April, as he started just four games and pitched just once on four days rest, but he was unproven then and now he’s a year older -- he turns 24 on Tuesday -- and coming off a 200-inning season.
Asked if there was any need to monitor Severino’s innings, which jumped from 151 in 2016 to 209 (including the postseason) last season, Boone said, “Sure, we’ll be careful, but there’s not any innings limit or anything like that. He’s a guy that’s physical and wants to be known not just as a great pitcher, but a horse in the rotation.”
So, no decision yet. Best guess? The Yankees reward Severino for his outstanding 2017 season. Then they give Sabathia the ball in the home opener as he begins his 10th season in pinstripes.