The Injuries of Nestor Cortes and Frankie Montas Will Test the Yankees’ Rotation Depth

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

No sooner had pitchers and catchers begun reporting to Tampa, Florida than the Yankees rotation sustained a double blow. On Monday, Nestor Cortes revealed that he had suffered a hamstring strain that will keep him from participating in the World Baseball Classic and sideline him for at least part of spring training. On Wednesday, the team announced that Frankie Montas will undergo arthroscopic shoulder surgery next week and at best will be limited to a late-season return. While the team has the depth to cover for both losses — indeed, their rotation currently tops our preseason Depth Charts by a full win — the Yankees can’t afford for much more to go wrong with the unit.

The 28-year-old Cortes is coming off a breakout campaign during which he made the AL All-Star team and blew past his previous career high of 93 innings. His 158.1 innings fell just short of qualifying for the ERA title but among AL pitchers with at least 150 innings, his 2.44 ERA ranked ninth, his 3.13 FIP eighth, and his 3.6 WAR tied for 10th. He missed a couple of turns due to a late-season groin strain that recurred in the Yankees’ final game of the season, their ALCS Game 4 loss to the Astros.

Cortes had agreed to pitch for Team USA in next month’s World Baseball Classic, and so like other participants in the tournament, he reported to camp on Monday, three days ahead of the Yankees’ official report date for pitchers and catchers. Upon reporting, he revealed that he had suffered “a low Grade 2” strain of his right hamstring while running sprints on February 6 near his home in Miami. He has been able to continue his throwing program, and manager Aaron Boone and pitching coach Matt Blake both told reporters on Wednesday that they believe Cortes will be ready by Opening Day; he even threw a bullpen on Friday morning. Looking ahead, the Yankees open at home against the Giants on March 30, and thanks to an off day on the 31st, they won’t need a fifth starter until April 5 against the Phillies.

If that’s the good news, the bad news is that Montas reported to camp still experiencing discomfort in his right shoulder, a problem that traces back to last summer. While still with the A’s, he left his July 3 start after one inning and was soon diagnosed with inflammation; the team didn’t officially place him on the injured list but he didn’t pitch again until July 21. He pitched twice before the Yankees sent a quartet of prospects (pitchers Ken Waldichuk, and Luis Medina, JP Sears, plus infielder Cooper Bowman) to Oakland in exchange for Montas and reliever Lou Trivino on August 1, but he didn’t make his Yankees debut until six days later following a stint on the bereavement list. He failed to make a single quality start in eight turns for the Yankees (he fell one out short in a game I covered) while pitching to a 6.35 ERA and 4.93 FIP. Another bout of shoulder inflammation finally sent him to the IL on September 20, and he served up a homer to Jeremy Peña in the ALCS opener, his lone postseason inning.

Dr. Neal ElAttrache cleared Montas to begin throwing in January, but he experienced further discomfort. On January 14, the New York Post reported that he was 8–10 weeks behind in his offseason training and would miss the first month of the season. With the problem still persisting, he’s now scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery on February 21. “If it’s just a scope, then there’s the potential he could be back late in the year,” Boone told reporters, but if he needs extensive repair, he could miss the entire season.

A good part of the appeal of acquiring Montas at the deadline was his additional year of team control; this wasn’t supposed to be a two- or three-month rental. But even with Trivino under control through 2024, it’s clear that the Yankees bought a lemon, and they’re extremely unlikely to come out ahead in this deal. Contrary to what the noisier corners of Yankee fandom will tell you, however, this does not make general manager Brian Cashman’s recent trade record a terrible one.

Certainly, the Yankees had some bad luck in the injury department when it came to last summer’s deadline acquisitions, but it’s not Cashman’s fault that Andrew Benintendi broke his wrist and played just 33 post-trade games before hitting free agency or that Scott Effross tore his UCL in October; the latter still has four years of control remaining. Moving beyond the injuries, the Jordan Montgomery/Harrison Bader swap looked bad at first when Montgomery — whom Montas was supposed to replace in the rotation — allowed one run in his first 25.2 innings with the Cardinals, but he was pretty ordinary afterwards, and Bader, who played just 14 regular season games after recovering from plantar fasciitis, went on to account for five of the Yankees’ 12 postseason home runs. He’ll be their starting center fielder this year.

Looking back to the 2021 deadline, the Andrew Heaney and Joey Gallo deals both went south quickly but the latter did at least yield a late-inning pitching prospect (Clayton Beeter) when New York foisted him upon the Dodgers, who couldn’t fix him either. The trial run with Anthony Rizzo yielded a fit that both sides agreed was worth continuing… twice. Most importantly, the deal for Clay Holmes netted a 2022 All-Star who offset the decline of Aroldis Chapman and remains under control through ’24.

Beyond deadline trades, the April 2022 deal for Jose Trevino also yielded a first-time All-Star, one who’s under control through ’25. The trade that created that particular catching vacancy, the March 2022 blockbuster that sent Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela to Minnesota, tilted slightly towards the Twins initially but neither player is with the team anymore, while Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Ben Rortvedt at least have a chance to improve upon the Yankees’ minimal return. The January 2021 trade for Jameson Taillon gave the Yankees two seasons worth of a solid fourth starter, though from among the four players dealt Roansy Contreras may yet prove more valuable.

Time will tell whether the Yankees miss any of the young players they dealt in those trades, the most notable of whom were in the 40-50 FV range according to Eric Longenhagen’s grades. What one can quibble with is the opportunity cost of going certain routes, but the choices that led them down the path to Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa, for example, owed to the team’s budgets and relation to the Competitive Balance Tax, decisions made by ownership. The Yankees’ decision to eschew the free agent market for premium left-side infielders such as Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Marcus Semien after the 2021 season (and Manny Machado after ’18) left them scrambling for alternatives, particularly as they decided to bank on prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, who weren’t ready at the time. And to bring it full circle, their belief in retaining both players instead of trading at least one had plenty to do with ending up with Montas last summer instead of Luis Castillo, for whom the Mariners dealt a four-player package headlined by 60-FV shortstop Noelvi Marte and then followed with a five-year extension.

Even with Cortes projected to throw a modest 168 innings en route to 2.7 WAR (down 0.9 from last year) and Montas just 18 innings, the Yankees rotation tops our Depth Charts rankings with a projected 16.5 WAR. Resident ace Gerrit Cole (199 innings) and newcomer Carlos Rodón (178 innings) both project to produce 4.6 WAR, tied for the third-highest total in the majors behind Jacob deGrom and Corbin Burnes. Cole is coming off an unremarkable season (3.50 ERA, 3.47 FIP, 3.3 WAR) but still misses bats galore, while Rodón ranked second in the NL in WAR (6.2) and first in FIP (2.25) in his second stellar season in a row. Luis Severino, who returned from a three-year stretch where he managed just 18 major league innings, threw 102 last year and is projected for 148 this year, with 2.3 WAR.

With Montas out, the current assumption is that 30-year-old Domingo Germán and 26-year-old Clarke Schmidt, both righties, will absorb most of his innings. Germán, who missed about half of last season due to a right shoulder impingement, pitched credibly (3.61 ERA, 4.44 FIP) in 14 starts and one relief appearance totaling 72.1 innings last year, taking over Severino’s spot in the rotation when the latter went down with a lat strain. Schmidt, a 2017 first-round pick who underwent Tommy John surgery just before he was drafted, finally stuck in the majors after cameos in ’20 and ’21. In 26 relief appearances and three starts totaling 57.2 innings, he posted a 3.12 ERA and 3.60 FIP. The Yankees shuttled him back and forth to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to stretch him out in midseason, but wound up needing him for only two starts during Cortes’ absence.

Germán’s experience makes him the favorite to break camp in Montas’ spot, but an impressive spring by Schmidt could earn him a longer look in the rotation. As to where the Yankees turn after that if something else goes wrong — in other words, when the real trouble begins — at this juncture it’s anyone’s guess, and this spring will probably shuffle the pecking order. The 40-man roster offers hints in the form of Matt Krook, a 28-year-old lefty groundballer who has spent the past two years in Triple-A; Jhony Brito, a contact-oriented 25-year-old righty who spent last year at Triple-A; Randy Vásquez, a 24-year-old righty who’s spent the past season-and-change at Double-A Somerset and who has the best curveball in the system according to Baseball America; and Deivi García, a 23-year-old righty who made a brief splash with the Yankees in 2020 but has struggled mightily since then. Here’s some of what Longenhagen wrote about the three besides García when they were added to the 40 last November:

The Yankees made him a minor league Rule 5 pick in 2020 and returned Krook exclusively to the rotation. While his command is still well below average, the length and depth of his slider makes it a plus pitch, and his upper-80s fastball sinks enough to keep it off barrels and generate a ton of groundballs (55% GB% overall for Krook in 2022); both pitches are aided by his funky delivery. He doesn’t have the command I’d ideally want out of a spot starter or multi-inning reliever, but his stuff is a great fit in either of those roles, especially the latter. He seems likely to begin 2023 as an optionable starter but could move into a bulk middle inning role throughout the year.

…Brito, who will be 25 in February, began 2022 at Double-A Somerset and finished it at Scranton, posting a combined 2.96 ERA between the two levels in 112 innings. Brito enjoyed a two-tick velo bump in 2022, with his fastball now averaging just south of 95 mph in the 92-96 mph range. In spite of his long arm action, Brito throws a ton of strikes and has an above-average power-sink changeup in the 85-89 mph range, which he turns over from a tilted-out, high arm slot, à la Michael Wacha. Neither of his two breaking balls is especially nasty, but Brito commands both his curveball and cutter/slider to his glove side with consistency, which should enable him to work hitters who struggle to identify those pitches. Aside from Yoendrys Gómez, Brito has the best long-term prospects as a starter among the Yankees 40-man occupants who don’t project for the Opening Day rotation. However, after he posted his second consecutive year with a walk rate under 10%, Randy Vásquez is making a strong argument to project as a starter despite his long, violent arm action.

Of course, the depth chart would offer more options had the Yankees not cleaned it out in some of the deals mentioned above, but they’ve done a solid enough job of developing back-end pitching that they can survive these injuries. Still, the loss of Montas smarts while serving as an ongoing reminder of the team’s recent disappointments.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

all that money and the Rays have better rotation depth

kick me in the GO NATSmember
1 year ago
Reply to  niren23

Better Analysis beats more money most of the time.

Joe Joemember
1 year ago

Not sure about this one even though I enjoy the sentiment.