On a recent a zoom conference call, New York Yankees Pitching Coach Matt Blake spoke with a limited number of baseball writers to discuss the status of the team’s current pitching rotation.
With “Spring Training 2.0” less than a day away, of the many pertinent issues that Blake addressed over the 20 minute period, of great importance was the physical positioning of ace Gerrit Cole and how the rest of his starting hurlers will be tackling the challenges that lie ahead in the new norm. The New York Yankees are set to compete in a shortened season of 60-games, that will be played in empty ball parks throughout cities across the United States.
“He looked good today,” Blake said when referencing Cole’s physical form during the workout held yesterday afternoon. “He’s moving right along in his progression. We kind of set the bar for kind of what we’re going to build on, targeting three weeks out and getting ready for the regular season. He’s in a really good spot, and the nice thing is it doesn’t take fans in the stands to get him amped. We’re good there.”
Prior to Thursday’s practice, the last time that Cole was on the mound at Yankee Stadium, he was a member of the Hoston Astros, hurling before a raucous crowd of almost 50,000 people in the American League Championship series.
According to Blake, Cole completed three simulated innings in which he faced a series of batters. This was Cole’s first time rehearsing this drill in over three months. At the plate, Cole battled teammates Luke Voit, Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge. It was reported that Cole’s best pitches hit the targeted strike zone. The pitches registered between 95 and 99 mph on the radar gun.
“He’s pretty close to game speed,” Blake said of Cole. Cole signed with the Yankees during the off-season for nine years to the happy tune of $324 million. “I think we’re game-ready with velocity. Now it’s kind of just fine-tuning it and sustaining over longer pitch counts. I think he feels good about where he is. He’s always a critic of himself, tightening things up like a certain pitch to a certain location. I think we’re building a nice baseline for him.”
Right-hander Adam Ottavino was also present at Thursday’s workout. It was revealed during the virtual presser that Ottavino and Cole had been working out together, despite the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ottavino pitched two innings in the session. The other righty, and probable second starter, Masahiro Tanaka was on hand as well. Although he didn’t pitch, but as per Blake, Tanaka is expected to hit the mound on Independence Day [Saturday]. As for the southpaw James Paxton, he is still recovering from back surgery. Paxton had some issues in his lower back that required immediate attention. However, the medical procedure was completed nearly five months ago. As a result, the media became privy to the fact that Paxton will be attending summer camp in the weeks to follow. It was unclear if this summer camp is like a rehab of some sort.
“[James] Paxton was obviously one that was really critical for us to be able to build up,” Blake said. “He’s in a really good spot. He’ll be one of the most built up coming in here. Knock on wood, we feel good about the health of our team coming into camp. Now getting them in and building them up will be the critical period, where we want to make sure we don’t push them too fast.”
When asked if the Yankees were going with a 4-or 5-man rotation, Blake expressed that he hasn’t made a formal decision yet. But with three weeks to go before opening day, Blake obviously has some time to experiment with the formula that he is currently strategizing. Albeit speculation, the Yankees anticipated starting rotation would consist of Cole, Tanaka, Paxton, J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery. The Yankees do have several viable options to fill up the slots of number three through five in case that something unforeseen were to transpire. Those other choices include, but aren’t limited to Deivi Garcia, Michael King, Clarke Schmidt and Jonathan Loaisiga.
“As we look at some of the matchups and how some of the guys are performing or feeling coming out of the gate, I think there’s definitely some different routes we can go,” Blake said. “An opener is something that we’ve been using here in the past, and we’ve got some really interesting options if we went that route or a bullpen day, so I do think all those things are on the table.”
It was also mentioned that because of the current health crisis, Blake may be required to have an alternate starting pitcher ready to go on gameday, in case that the scheduled starter arrives at the park feeling ill.
“That’s a good question. I think there is a lot of unknowns and uncertainty with what we are approaching here,” Blake so eloquently expressed. “I think as many contingency plans as possible is obviously a good way to go. We haven’t really gotten to the point where we discuss having ‘starter b’ in case the starter tests positive for some reason or feels ill. But I do think obviously that the depth of our staff and the upper level depth that we had coming into the year, that might be in play for us. At least it gives us some outs and flexibility to make adjustments as needed. Those are all good questions that we are going to figure out as we go.”
To reiterate a point that Blake had made, starting pitchers will only have three weeks to get to where they would normally be in seven weeks. But from a standpoint of both stamina and endurance, pitchers will max out at the completion of three innings or whenever 60 pitches have been thrown. This protocol is in place to prevent overexerting any of the pitchers prior to the sprint that’s set to take place over the course of 66 days. However, this practice could very well carry into the regular season. It’s a realistic possibility that the Yankees may have to rely on their bullpen often at the commencement of the regular season. This routine could stay in place until all of the starting pitchers have grown accustomed to pitching for long durations safely. And whenever Blake is comfortable.
“There’s a lot of ground to cover in this next 21-day period or so, but I think the general plan would be to err on the side of caution,” Blake said. “I hope that we can get four to five innings out of some of these guys, and we’ll see what else transpires in the meantime.”