With last month’s news that Frankie Montas’ shoulder inflammation will keep him out of action at the beginning of the season, the Yankees have a spring training battle on their hands.
Domingo German and Clarke Schmidt are poised to duke it out for the final spot in the starting pitching rotation. German — now 30 years old with 70 big-league starts under his belt — has the seniority and experience over Schmidt, who turns 27 in a few weeks and has started just five games in his disjointed MLB career.
When Montas is done making his injury tune ups and ready to pitch in actual games again, both German and Schmidt will sashay back to the bullpen, and it’s possible that Schmidt spends even more time in the minors given that he has one more option remaining. Both pitchers are extremely useful members of the depth department, providing insurance for the unfortunately inevitable injuries that come from the inherent damage that pitching does to people’s arms. When the Yankees do get back to full strength, any 10-day stint on the injured list after that can be patched up by inserting German or Schmidt.
But the fallacy of depth is that it exists just because you’re familiar with the replacements. The whole point of having depth is for the guys supplying the depth to actually be, you know, good. When manager Aaron Boone told the YES Network that Montas was “probably going to be a little bit behind”, he sent a clear message that one of German or Schmidt will need to step up and carry part of the load in April and May.
If that man is to be German, as most predict it will be, he needs to make the most of what could be his last opportunity to be a Yankees starting pitcher. German has already had an interesting offseason, watching the team not only bring in Carlos Rodon to vacuum up some of the innings that would have gone to him, but also losing his No. 55 jersey number to the new acquisition.
In his career, German has a 4.52 ERA with a .745 opponents’ OPS in 70 games as a starter. As a reliever, while he’s only done it 22 times, German’s ERA is a much more palatable 3.31 and the guys in the other dugout only manage a .609 OPS. Though the sample is small, there’s evidence that his stuff works out of the bullpen, where he’ll be stationed when Montas is healed.
But the Yankees stand to have eight legitimately capable relievers, not including German, once Michael King is back to feeling like himself. That means that German’s presumed cameo in the rotation to begin the season could be an audition for other teams. German has used bullseye command for his entire career to become a master at limiting walks, throws one of the most spin-heavy fastballs in the league and has a very strong curveball and changeup duo at his disposal.
Whether it’s a team that thinks they’re one back-end starter away from making some playoff noise (the Padres, Cardinals and Twins all come to mind), or a club that wants to fill another seat in their bullpen, there will certainly be some interest in German if he comes out of the gate in a full gallop. With the Yankees being fairly pitching-rich, plus German’s 2020 domestic violence suspension not exactly making him someone they’re desperate to keep around in the clubhouse, a deal that nets them the corner outfielder they need makes a world of sense.
German, Schmidt, and their castoff ex-teammate Miguel Andujar each fall into the category of too qualified for the minors but perennially flightless birds at the major league level. Part of that is the Yankees’ doing, as the franchise has never given Schmidt consistent playing time and didn’t with Andujar either before designating him for assignment in September. His suspension and injury history have zapped any consistency out of German’s last three years as well, and with his clock ticking toward unrestricted free agency after the 2024 season, this season is a massive determinate in how the rest of German’s career will play out.
If Schmidt has a spring training that’s too good to ignore, winning the final rotation spot over German, it seems like the best course of action to just forget about starting and make German a full-time reliever at that point. When he’s working out of the bullpen, knowing that he doesn’t have to shuffle his pitch mix as much, German can rely much more on the curveball, his best offering.
There’s no shame in being a relief pitcher, especially today when every team needs a bushel of them to have any shot at winning the World Series. But that’s what this year is about: figuring out whether German should focus on being a curveball machine in the middle innings or a traditional starter who has to use all of his pitches to make multiple trips through the batting order.
With several roads diverged in his Yankee Stadium locker — one as a starter, one as a reliever, one that leads him to another stadium altogether — German’s early 2023 performance will decide which one he takes. It’s not hard to envision him giving the squad five or six solid starts until Montas comes back, then taking a spot in the bullpen and forcing Schmidt to Scranton yet again. It’s also not hard to envision those starts underwhelming, ceding the role to Schmidt and placing German on the trade block.
The only thing we really know for sure is that all of this will play out sooner rather than later, representing the biggest fork in the road of the right-hander’s career.
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