Despite many failed attempts at producing a top arm from its farm system, the New York Yankees may have mustered a gem in Luis Severino.
By Bryan Pol
The New York Yankees have seen their share of highly touted arms never translate their successes to the major league level.
When called up in 2007, Joba Chamberlain was simply electrifying.
Over 24 innings, Joba posted an otherworldly 0.38 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP, striking out 12.8 batters per nine innings. Chamberlain became a folk hero overnight, which amounted to cheeky slogans (“In Joba We Trust”) and calls for his becoming the heir apparent to Mariano Rivera.
Despite the thrills he could produce as a setup man to Rivera, Joba was transitioned to the starting rotation by May of 2008, in a season when he was impressive as a starter (his ERA and ERA+ was 2.65 and 170 respectively), even outdueling Red Sox ace Josh Beckett at Fenway in a late July start by hurling seven shutout innings, allowing only three hits and striking out nine batters in a 1-0 Yankee win.
By August, Chamberlain injured his rotator cuff and was never quite the same. The Yankees, toying with his role with the club, switched Joba back to the bullpen by 2009 (by which he set up Rivera in New York’s last World Series run), put him into competition for the fifth spot in the rotation in 2010 (which he lost to another touted arm, Phil Hughes), and reverted him back to relief in 2011 (to pitch the seventh in setting up newly acquired Rafael Soriano and Rivera), a year in which he tore an elbow ligament and required Tommy John surgery. By 2014, at age 28, Joba left for Detroit, where he pitched to mixed results. Designated for assignment earlier in 2015, Joba signed, and failed to catch on with, the Toronto Blue Jays. Last week, Joba signed a minor league contract, along with Wandy Rodriguez, to help the Kansas City Royals return to the World Series.
The aforementioned Phil Hughes, promoted in 2007 at 21, was groomed to be the Yankees’ next true ace, in the days before CC Sabathia, just on the cusp of Andy Pettitte’s twilight years with the franchise. Hughes had modest success with New York, earning a 56-50 record in pinstripes with a 4.53 ERA, hardly the numbers to support his cause as the Yankees’ top starter. At his best, Hughes was a solid fourth starter in New York, even tasting great success as a late-innings reliever in 2011 with the club. Like Joba, Hughes was gone by 2014, signing a contract with the Minnesota Twins. While there, Hughes has posted a 26-18 record and a 3.92 ERA in 55 starts over the course of two seasons, even notching the lowest single-season strikeout-to-walks ratio in MLB history.
Despite the relative up and down campaigns managed by Chamberlain and Hughes, general manager Brian Cashman had his sights on the Killer Bs Era, a changing of the guard that simply never was. Included in this Killer Bs bunch was Andrew Brackman, rated as the organization’s number three prospect in 2011, the only season in which he pitched in the bigs (allowing no runs over 2 1/3 innings), Manny Banuelos, now of the Atlanta Braves (traded in January as a part of a deal that brought in a great bullpen arm in Chasen Shreve), who missed the entire 2013 season with a torn elbow ligament, and Dellin Betances, who has earned two consecutive All-Star nods as the Yankees’ set up man, arguably the best at the position in the majors. Despite Betances’s massive success in New York, he, too, was initially pegged as a starter in New York, only to “settle in” as a bullpen arm.
While the Yankees have witnessed various pitchers perform admirably in pinstripes by way of free agency, including Mike Mussina and CC Sabathia, New York has further observed failures in Jaret Wright, Carl Pavano, AJ Burnett, Jose Contreras, Randy Johnson, and Kevin Brown while their farm system has produced little in the way of major league ready talent for the rotation.
Which brings us to Luis Severino.
On the eve of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, news broke that Ivan Nova was battling injuries, and number two starter Michael Pineda would be immobilized by a forearm strain, similar to one that put closer Andrew Miller on the disabled list for a month’s time (just last night, Pineda made his first rehab start with the Double A Trenton Thunder). Unfortunately, the likes of Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake, and David Price were already acquired by other teams, leaving the Yankees with no recourse in the way of landing an arm to aid them during Pineda’s untimely departure.
Which brings us to Luis Severino.
Given the numbers Severino was accruing in the minors–a 9-2 record, a 2.45 ERA, and a 0.99 WHIP in 19 starts in Double A and Triple A in 2015, where, at the latter level, he was 7-0 with a 1.91 ERA–there was no denying he deserved a chance at a call-up, despite many prognosticators suggesting he would not fully be ready until 2016. Even so, pitching coach Scott Aldred of the Scranton/Wilkes Railriders had tinkered with Severino’s mechanics, resulting in the polished form Yankee fans have enjoyed over his first three starts in the majors.
Despite his relative inexperience, Baseball America acknowledged Severino as the Yankees’ third best prospect at the start of the 2015 campaign, and the 23rd best in the majors. At 21, Severino has two plus pitches in his repertoire, a mid-90s fastball with movement down and in against righties and away from left handers, and a nasty changeup with as much polish as his devastating fastball. His third offering, a below-average slider, needs work, and should he be able to perfect the pitch in spring training, Severino would have three outstanding pitches worthy of future ace status and a guaranteed spot in the Opening Day rotation in 2016.
In his three starts, all of which the Yankees lost, Severino has been far more than a mere stopgap plugging a leak until Pineda’s return. Despite an 0-2 record, in starts by which he has received little to no run support (twice the Yankees plated only one run in two of his starts), Severino has managed a 3.18 ERA, striking out 18 batters over 17 innings pitched.
Severino left an August 11 start against Cleveland after the sixth inning, handing a 2-1 lead to the bullpen, a margin the oft-unhittable Betances relinquished in the eighth. While the Yankees lost to the Indians in sixteen innings, Severino was primed to notch his first MLB win despite his highest hit allowance (7) and lowest strikeout total (2).
Severino’s last two starts, against Cleveland and Toronto on the road, were of the quality persuasion (by which he allowed three runs or less over six innings). Each start had come while the Yankees were in a divisional freefall, where the Bombers lost a 7 game lead in the AL East in twelve days. During this stretch, the Blue Jays won eleven straight behind a newly galvanized rotation, lead by newly acquired ace David Price, and lineup, fortified by the Troy Tulowitzki deal.
Severino, in front of a pennant-hungry, raucous Rogers Centre crowd of 46,792, had a chance to finish the Jays with a sweep on Sunday, especially behind his nine strikeouts, but in light of a troubling third inning, when he allowed a Josh Donaldson RBI single and two-run homer by Jose Bautista, the Jays’ offense proved too much for the youngster. Even so, Severino finished strong, striking out four of the last six hitters he faced, including sluggers Bautista, Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin, who have accumulated 58 dingers amongst them. Despite a 3-0 deficit and in spite of his relative baptism by fire, Severino has conveyed a moxie that betrays his inexperience.
Aside from the Donaldson single and the Bautista homerun, the Jays only mustered another ball to leave the infield, and Severino, whose filthy stuff broke three bats against Cleveland, appeared to break two more on Sunday.
Luckily, Cashman has gone on record to state that Severino will not have his innings or pitch counts limited, as he was already restricted while starting the season in Trenton. His pitch total on Sunday, 105, suggests that Cashman’s proclamation is viable, and with the Yankees in the throes of a divisional battle with Toronto, Severino will continue to be called upon to support Masahiro Tanaka, who all but sealed his fate as the Yankees’ ace with a complete game victory on Saturday, Nova, Nathan Eovaldi, and Pineda, when he returns.
Severino’s addition to the rotation puts manager Joe Girardi in the comfortable position of not having to rely too heavily on a fading CC Sabathia, the former ace who has accumulated an ERA over 5.00 the last two seasons. While the organization may not feel comfortable inserting a $25 million arm into its bullpen, the Yankees have the luxury of doing so with Sabathia, while calling on Severino, a pitcher in the mold of Pedro Martinez, to lengthen its rotation that can now go four or five deep when all pitchers are healthy.
Consequently, Severino’s achievements in the crucible of a pennant race proves that he, not Sabathia, deserves a spot in the rotation for the foreseeable future.
Pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who saw very little of Severino in spring training (the kid only threw 2 2/3 innings in Tampa), has sung the young Domincan’s praises upon his early August call-up.
Rothschild, remarking on the work Aldred has done with Severino, noted, “The velocity stays the same when he’s smooth as when he tries to throw harder and he [has] located better.” Furthermore, Rothschild added, in reference to Severino’s confidence, “Yeah, you can tell. [His] body language, the look in the eye, everything. When you’ve been around a little bit, you can see competitiveness. Just in talking to Scott [Aldred], he says it’s pretty on point. It’s been good. You could see he’s competitive, which is a really good quality to have coming up.”
In all, the young Severino has done plenty to impress, and will have the chance to earn his first major league win when the Indians visit the Stadium this weekend in celebration of Jorge Posada Day (on Saturday) and Andy Pettitte Day (on Sunday).
Severino’s potentially starting on Sunday would be fitting: Pettitte was the last prospect of note to build a sustainable career as a major cog in the Yankee rotation. Aside from Tanaka, Severino has as good an opportunity as any to be the man Girardi can trust every fifth day in the rotation.
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