After a quietly successful debut in 2018, the New York Yankees’ No. 2 prospect must now fight to be noticed in Spring Training.
Jonathan Loaisiga had everything going for him in 2018. The Nicaraguan right-hander spun a fine major league debut against the Tampa Bay Rays in June. With the back end of the New York Yankees rotation hurting, the then-23-year-old dubbed “Johnny Lasagna” appeared to have found a regular spot on the main roster.
Cue a nagging shoulder injury flaring up after four starts, and everything changed. Loaisiga went from being the toast of New York to forgotten faster than a pitch from Steve Nebraska. He missed two months of action and returned to rough results. Loaisiga posted a 10.80 ERA in five relief appearances in September and now must have an effective Spring Training.
That’s because the entire dynamic of the Yankees’ pitching staff has changed. Gone is the inconsistency of Sonny Gray. No more will manager Aaron Boone and GM Brian Cashman have to worry about the back of the rotation thanks to adding James Paxton and retaining J.A. Happ.
Throw in a bullpen stacked higher than Scrooge McDuck’s money clip, and Loaisiga could be left behind before Spring Training even begins. Despite a small slice of success in the majors, he could soon get lost in the shuffle as Boone struggles to pick 25 men for Opening Day.
Regardless of who makes the cut, one thing is certain. Boone and Cashman need to keep Jonathan Loaisiga in their back pocket for whenever he’s needed.
Jonathan Loaisiga’s MLB debut against Tampa Bay was mentioned earlier, and more context needs to be provided. The young righty issued four walks in his first start but otherwise looked great. He tossed five shutout innings and allowed three hits while striking out six in New York’s 5-0 victory.
Loaisiga struggled his next start against the Seattle Mariners, failing to get out of the fourth inning, but that looked flukish. Why? Well, going up against the young and feisty Philadelphia Phillies next, Loaisiga had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning. He allowed a single hit through 5.1 innings and struck out eight with two walks in a 4-2 victory.
And Loaisiga would struggle through one more start before going down with a stiff shoulder and missing two months. Just as quickly has his surprising MLB debut began, the show was over.
Any of Jonathan Loaisiga’s struggles in his first four starts can be traced to inexperience. At the time of his debut, he had never played higher than Double-A ball. On top of that, Loaisiga only went 3-1 with a 3.93 ERA in nine career Double-A starts. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but rather give an idea of just how much pitching help the Yankees needed last year prior to the Happ and Lance Lynn trades.
Not only that but Loaisiga also has a history of arm troubles. He missed the 2014 and 2015 seasons with injuries and appeared in just one game in the Yankees’ system in 2016 before needing Tommy John surgery. Moreover, he isn’t exactly athletically built at just 5-foot-11, 165 pounds.
Throw in overall inexperience, not to mention four starts’ worth of tape to go off of, and it’s no wonder Loaisiga struggled after coming back in September.
Why he's needed
Now, with pitchers and catchers officially reporting on Thursday, consider the state of the Yankees’ roster. Five rotation slots are already accounted for, plus whichever starting lineup Boone picks for Opening Day, so that makes fourteen. Now, consider the certain bullpen slots: Chad Green, Dellin Betances, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman.
That brings the grand total to 19, and backup catcher Austin Romine makes 20. Five spots remain, of which at least one should go to a pitcher. The Yankees can easily fill this role with a tested veteran in Tommy Kahnle, but he can rarely go more than an inning. No, the bullpen needs a mop-up arm who, when called upon, can eat some innings.
Jonathan Loaisiga, to be blunt, is perfect for this role. He has experience as a starter and will surely get to start some games in Spring Training, and was better than last year’s 5.11 ERA suggests.
Not only that, but look at the Yankee starters this year. CC Sabathia is 38 years old and has balky knees and hamstrings. Paxton has a history of missing time with different aches and pains. We all know the story of Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow. Even pitching coach Larry Rothschild sounds worried about the starting rotation’s help and keeping Jonathan Loaisiga in the bullpen provides a safety valve in case of emergency.
The numbers support
And despite struggling in September, Loaisiga actually looked pretty good during his first run in the majors. Per FanGraphs, he posted a K/9 of 12.04 and his groundball rate (GB%) was a respectable 49.2 percent. Loaisiga’s strand rate was also an impressive 62.1 percent, not at all bad for a youngster with no Triple-A experience.
Throw in an average fastball velocity of 96 miles per hour and O-Swing% of 34.1 percent, and Jonathan Loaisiga already has the tools to pitch and keep up in the majors. All he really needs is further experience and reps on that level so he can continue learning his craft.
All in all, the Yankees’ success doesn’t hinge on Jonathan Loaisiga making the big league roster out of Spring Training. Guys like Kahnle and Stephen Tarpley definitely have an advantage, so a traditional mop-up guy isn’t an absolute necessity. Enough depth exists for the bullpen to be, basically, whatever Boone wants it to be.
But Loaisiga is New York’s No. 2 prospect for a reason. He turned a lot of heads last season and shouldn’t be buried just because of offseason moves.
Jonathan Loaisiga deserves a fair shot and shouldn’t be forgotten, even if it means starting the season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre.