Yanks' rotation could make Bronx cheer -- or get a Bronx cheer

Prospects with untapped upside, enigmas with big-time talent, an ace at a crossroads ... the Yankees' staff could be better than you think. Or even worse. Getty Images

How does Brian Cashman look at Luis Severino? Just take Severino's 2016 stat sheet, crumple it up and toss it in the trash.

“If you evaluate his entire pro career, last year is the abnormality,” the New York Yankees GM said. “If you turn the clock back and don’t include those last six months, then he was one of the high-end projected starters in the game, with production to boot, in a pennant race."

After rocketing into the Bronx in 2015, Severino was one of the worst starters in baseball last year. As a rookie in 11 starts in 2015, Severino went 5-3 with a 2.89 ERA. In 2016, in the same number of starts, Severino was 0-8 with an 8.50 ERA. Severino will enter spring training in 2017 without any guarantees.

"He still possesses all that upside and ceiling, but obviously he will have to re-prove that in 2017 to earn a spot in the rotation at the major league level," Cashman said. "If not, the expectation is that he would go to Triple-A.”

Severino, 22, is a microcosm of the Yankees' starting rotation heading into the new year: He could either be a young star and an apparent fixture for years to come, or end up beating the bushes at Triple-A Scranton.

Welcome to the Yankees' 2017 starting staff. A group with more questions than a news conference.

With Cashman unlikely to add another quality starter before spring training, the Yankees will have a good amount of potential, but just as much, if not more, uncertainty.

They have three fixtures, who all could be very good, but are a little wobbly. Masahiro Tanaka is an ace with a preconditioned elbow injury and an opt-out at the end of the season. They have a revived, but soft-throwing, CC Sabathia. And they have an enigma named Michael Pineda, whose talent unfathomably and continually came undone last season when he had the upper hand. Those three, barring injury, will make up the bulk of the Yankees' five-man rotation.

After that, as the Yankees stand now, they will have five guys fighting for the final two spots. Cashman declined to name favorites among a group that includes Severino, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green and Adam Warren.

From the looks of it, Severino, Cessa and Mitchell have the inside track on the jobs, though Severino must prove this spring that he's more the 2015 version of himself than the 2016 one.

Cashman is high on Cessa, who had a 4.35 ERA in 17 appearances (including nine starts) last season. Cashman described Cessa, 24, as a "plug-and-play-type guy," meaning the Yankees feel confident his four-pitch repertoire will be primed to begin the season. He could be a serviceable fifth starter, and perhaps something more.

Mitchell, like Severino, has upside. He was cruising toward a spot on the Opening Day roster last spring when a toe injury cost him most of the year.

“He was probably one of the best arms going in the state of Florida, forgetting our camp,” Cashman said. “He was throwing extremely well.”

Mitchell, 25, showed more potential at the end of the season, with a 3.38 ERA in five starts.

Green, meanwhile, will need to show he's healthy after dealing with elbow issues at the end of last season. Warren, old reliable, is probably destined for the bullpen, but can't be counted out quite yet.

The Yankees' offense could be better in 2016 with the subtractions of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and full seasons of Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird. The bullpen, with Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances, figures to be a strength.

The starting pitching, though, is why few will pick the Yankees for the playoffs. Pineda, a free agent at season's end, could be a make-or-break guy. The Yankees have fielded plenty of trade offers for him this winter, because other clubs look at him as a "buy-low" candidate. The Yankees have held on to him, hoping he can figure out how to stop getting beat when ahead in the count.

If Pineda can team with Tanaka for a legit one-two punch at the top of the Yankees' rotation, they might be better than people think. Will that happen? That's another one of those questions.