New York Yankees Masahiro Tanaka
(Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

The New York Yankees should consider the following starting rotation for their Division Series matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Josh Benjamin

The New York Yankees are out for redemption in the American League Division Series and it could all come down to pitching.

The Bronx Bombers have a date with the Tampa Bay Rays in San Diego. That’s right, the same Rays who went 8-2 against New York this season en route to the No. 1 seed in the American League, not to mention the American League East crown.

Most important of all, Tampa Bay did this on the back of strong pitching and ranked third in the majors with a 3.56 ERA. Even more impressive is the Rays accomplished so much with only three true full-time starting pitchers.

The Yankees pitching staff, meanwhile, was streaky all year and ranked 14th in MLB with a 4.35 ERA.

But that was during the regular season. The postseason is a different animal. New York is fully healthy, with both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton back from season-altering injuries. After outscoring the Cleveland Indians 22-12 in a two-game sweep, the Yankee lineup is ready for anything.

But a good lineup needs even better pitching. Should manager Aaron Boone set the following rotation, the Yankees might just advance once again.

Gerrit Cole (7-3, 2.86 ERA)

This goes without saying. Gerrit Cole is pitching Game 1. The Yankees’ marquee free-agent signing performed as advertised in the abbreviated 2020 season and was dominant in the Wild Card round as well.

Against the Rays in 2020, however, Cole was not at his best. He was 0-1 with a 4.96 ERA in three starts against them and just wasn’t himself. On top of that, Cole has never registered a win against Tampa Bay in his entire career.

Yet, expect Cole’s fortunes to change. In all three of his appearances against the Rays, his catcher was Gary Sanchez. In 2020, Cole’s ERA with Sanchez behind the plate was 3.91.

The Yankees then paired him with backup catcher Kyle Higashioka for the final month of the season, and Cole pitched to a 1.00 ERA in those circumstances. If we include the playoffs, that mark is still an impressive 1.32.

Plus, this series isn’t quite a neutral site for Cole. He grew up in southern California and owns a 1.46 ERA at Petco Park. Throw in his 11.6 K/9 in 2020, and Cole is a shoo-in to start Game 1 for the Yankees.

J.A. Happ (2-2, 3.47)

This is the part where some readers are probably thinking I should be committed. J.A. Happ is almost 38 years old, prone to bad outings, and is not a clear-cut No. 2. Why would the Yankees have him follow Cole?

Believe it or not, there is a method to my madness.

Happ rebounded from a roller coaster 2019 season to be shockingly effective in 2020. Luck had a lot to do with it, what with his 4.57 FIP being paired with a .223 BABIP. Happ’s hard-hit rate (Hard%) additionally dropped 10.8 points down to 29.2%, and he established first-pitch strikes (F-Strike%) 65.3% of the time.

And though Happ did not face the Rays in 2020 and owns a modest 4.06 ERA against them, he too tends to pitch well in San Diego. He has a 1.40 ERA across three career starts at Petco Park and though that may not matter in the playoffs, it is indeed something to consider.

But more importantly, Happ did a masterful job of controlling the strike zone this season. Granted, he overachieved, but also didn’t allow a single walk in a third of his 2020 starts. Against a Rays squad in a series where controlling the strike zone is important, having his precision follow Cole’s dominance could put Tampa Bay on its heels.

In which case, advantage Yankees.

Masahiro Tanaka (3-3, 3.56)

The Yankees will play Game 3 of this series under one of three circumstances. They’ll either be up 2-0 in the best-of-five series, down 2-0, or tied 1-1.

In any of these circumstances, Masahiro Tanaka is the guy Boone wants on the mound. He is the epitome of a big-game pitcher and owned a 1.78 postseason ERA entering Game 2 against Cleveland. Even with Wednesday’s subpar outing, that number is still a respectable 2.70.

Most important of all, however, Tanaka has done incredibly well against the Rays in his career. He is 11-5 with a 3.31 ERA against Tampa Bay and has even thrown two shutouts against the Rays in recent years. He got lit up by them for five earned runs back on Aug. 18, but he didn’t have his signature slider that night.

But look at it this way. If the Yankees enter Game 3 up 2-0, Tanaka has the stuff to keep the momentum going and shut the door. If they’re down 2-0, a sharp Tanaka outing ups their chances of staying alive rather than rolling the dice on Happ sporting his best control that day. In a 1-1 tie, he can be an absolute momentum shifter.

It’s a risk, but no risk means no reward in the playoffs. In this case, Tanaka is one of few pitchers worth gambling on in a big game.

Deivi Garcia (3-2, 4.98)

We’re now at the point of the theoretical five-game series where no matter who the Yankees pick to start, it will be met with scrutiny.

In this case, however, the answer is Deivi Garcia. The 21-year-old righty made his Yankees debut in August and the rest is history. His ERA may seem high, but don’t be fooled. It’s inflated because Garcia allowed ten earned runs over his final two starts. Take them out of the equation, and his ERA drops to 3.28.

Garcia also offers a nice mix of pitches for someone his age. He throws a fastball at about 92 miles per hour, per Fangraphs, and also mixes in a curveball, slider, and changeup. His curve and change are particularly sneaky, as Baseball Savant shows a combined whiff rate (Whiff%) of 60.2 on both of those pitches.

But here’s where Garcia matching up with the Rays gets interesting. Tampa Bay was done with the Yankees for the regular season by the time he debuted. All they have to go off of is his game tape.

Now, consider the Rays ranked 29th in MLB in strikeout rate (K%) this year. They are very much a free-swinging team. If Garcia has the Yankees in a position to win or tie the series in Game 4 and his stuff is at his best? Game over.

Jordan Montgomery (2-3, 5.11)

Jordan Montgomery is nicknamed “Gumby” for two reasons. The first is he’s tall, lanky, and lovably awkward at 6-foot-6, 225 pounds. The other is given how up-and-down he was all season, it was hard to tell whether it was him or our favorite clay-molded friend pitching on a particular day.

First things first, let’s go easy on Montgomery. Remember, 2020 was his first year back after missing close to a year and a half recovering from Tommy John surgery. In a standard 162-game season, his ERA would likely be much lower. His 3.87 FIP proves such, and his .320 BABIP further proves he ran into a lot of bad luck this season.

But let’s talk about Game 5. No off days means both teams are going to be gassed, particularly a Rays squad that relies heavily on the bullpen. This means both teams will absolutely go for broke in Game 5 and throw everything but the kitchen sink at the wall in hopes something will stick.

Tempting as it may be to have the younger, more dynamic Garcia on the mound, Montgomery’s experience has the advantage. Relying on a rookie to get the job done in a decisive playoff game is simply too boom or bust, especially given Garcia’s recent struggles.

Now, consider Montgomery’s control. He posted a 1.84 BB/9 and had he qualified to be among league leaders, he would’ve ranked sixth overall. He allowed soft contact 26.1% of the time, which would’ve ranked him second only behind Minnesota’s Kenta Maeda. On a good day, his usually low-90s fastball can sometimes touch 95 miles per hour.

He isn’t a perfect pitcher but in a decisive Game 5, Montgomery is a better option for the Yankees than people realize.

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