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Is New York Yankees rotation after Gerrit Cole reliable enough?

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Early on in his start Monday night against the Toronto Blue Jays on a clear evening in Dunedin, Florida, New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole was fighting to get in a good groove. He allowed a run in the first inning on two opposite-field ground-ball singles and an infield groundout, but it was more the frustration visible on his face as he left a couple of breaking balls up in the zone that suggested the Jays better get to him when they had a chance.

Toronto got the first two runners on in the bottom of the second, a golden opportunity to stretch that early lead. Cole then found that groove exactly when he needed it. He fanned Alejandro Kirk on three pitches, getting him looking on a slider at the bottom of the zone. He struck out Josh Palacios swinging on a 98 mph heater above the top of the zone. He struck out Marcus Semien swinging on a 2-2 changeup on the outside corner. Three different pitches — slider, fastball, changeup — all in great locations.

The Blue Jays had let Cole off the hook. He jumped off the mound after striking out Semien, sprinted to the dugout and cooled himself in front of a big fan. Cole threw 43 pitches the first two innings, but found his fastball command, tightened up the slider and retired the final 15 batters he faced, settling for eight strikeouts and three hits allowed over six innings, as the Yankees won 3-1 with catcher Kyle Higashioka driving in all three runs on two home runs. He needed just 55 pitches to get through the next four innings and on his 98th and final pitch, Cole painted the black with a 99.2 mph fastball.

“I just thought we settled in, really nothing more than that,” Cole said. “Some big misfires in the first, but not a ton of bad pitches in the strike zone. In the second, a much better grouping of pitches, kind of a combination of sliders early and a solid approach.”

This is the story of the Yankees 10 games into the season: Cole looks every bit like one of the top three starting pitchers in the game. The rest of the Yankees rotation, however, remains a huge question mark. Domingo German, who started New York’s third game of the season, was already relegated to the team’s alternate site after allowing four home runs in two rough outings. Jordan Montgomery had an excellent first start and then allowed two home runs and hit two batters in a so-so second start. Corey Kluber has struggled with command and is still seeking pre-injury velocity and spin rates.

Cole has a 1.47 ERA in three starts while the other starters have combined for a 5.28 ERA. All small sample size stuff, of course, and Jameson Taillon, who has the upside of a No. 2 starter, has yet to make his second start. Still, nothing in the early going has settled the concerns of Yankees fans on how everybody lines behind Cole.

Can the Yankees meet their preseason projection of 95 wins — or more — without a solid, reliable No. 2 starter? It’s an important question because the gap between 95 wins and, say, 90 wins is obviously significant. A 95-win season makes the Yankees heavy favorites to win the AL East; drop down to 90 wins and the Rays, Blue Jays and perhaps even the Red Sox are much more likely to be breathing down their necks.

I looked at all the teams to win at least 95 wins from 2010 to 2019 — that’s 42 teams — and checked the value of their No. 1 and No. 2 starters, based strictly on Baseball-Reference WAR and not on games started or innings pitched (looking for quality over quantity). There are two results to consider here: The difference in WAR between the top two starters and the combined WAR of the top two starters.

Let’s start with the latter. The 42 teams averaged 8.6 WAR from their top two starters – I was a little surprised it wasn’t higher. A 2-WAR pitcher is about a league average starter, so we’re looking at, on average, four to five wins above average between the top two starters for our 95-win teams. The top five and bottom five totals on this list:

Top five

1. 2011 Phillies (102 wins): 17.3 WAR (Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee)
2. 2019 Astros (107 wins): 14.1 WAR (Justin Verlander and Cole)
3. 2010 Phillies (97 wins): 14.0 WAR (Halladay and Lee)
4. 2017 Nationals (97 wins): 13.7 WAR (Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez)
5. 2017 Indians (102 wins): 13.1 WAR (Kluber and Carlos Carrasco)

Bottom five
1. 2018 Brewers (96 wins): 3.4 WAR (Jhoulys Chacin and Wade Miley)
2. 2018 A’s (97 wins): 3.8 WAR (Sean Manaea and Edwin Jackson)
3. 2019 Yankees (103 wins): 4.8 WAR (James Paxton and German)
4. 2014 Orioles (96 wins): 5.0 WAR (Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez)
5. 2019 A’s (97 wins): 5.0 WAR (Mike Fiers and Brett Anderson)

The Yankees can just look at their recent past to realize you can win not only 95 games but 103 without a top-flight 1-2 combo. In 2019, Paxton went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA in 29 starts (2.6 WAR) and German went 18-4, but with a 4.03 ERA in 24 starts (2.2 WAR). Thanks to a dominant bullpen and offense that slugged 306 home runs and led the AL with 943 runs, the Yankees won the AL East.

The average gap between the No. 1 and 2 starters for our 95-win teams was 1.6 WAR. Cole was worth 6.7 WAR his final season with the Astros in 2019, so he reasonably projects as a 6-win pitcher in 2021. There is likewise a reasonable belief that the No. 2 starter for the Yankees will not be a 4-win pitcher, so if Taillon or whoever ends up as their No. 2 is a league-average pitcher, that’s a potential 4-WAR difference from Cole. The top five biggest differences from our teams in the study:

1. 2011 Tigers (95 wins): 6.1 WAR (Verlander and Doug Fister)
2. 2015 Cubs (97 wins): 5.5 WAR (Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester)
3. 2011 Yankees (97 wins): 3.5 WAR (CC Sabathia and Freddy Garcia)
4. 2010 Rays (96 wins): 3.1 WAR (David Price and Matt Garza)
5. 2010 Phillies (97 wins): 3.0 WAR (Halladay and Lee)

Is there anything to conclude from this? It’s true that the drop from Cole to the Yankees’ No. 2 starter could be rather exceptional for a 95-win team … which suggests, if nobody steps up behind Cole, the Yankees are likely to win fewer than 95 games. On the other hand, Cole plus a league-average No. 2 is historically good enough to front a 95-win team.

Maybe the best answer is this: It’s the rotation depth that will be the ultimate arbiter of how many games the Yankees win (assuming a high-powered offense, which we should note has yet to kick into gear). As he showed on Monday, Gerrit Cole will be great if he stays healthy. We still have a lot to learn about Kluber and company though.

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Philadelphia Phillies’ Bryce Harper exits game vs. Toronto Blue Jays with shoulder soreness

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Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper left Saturday’s 4-0 road loss to the Toronto Blue Jays with right shoulder soreness and is listed as day-to-day.

Harper left the game before the bottom of the fourth inning, when Scott Kingery took over in right field. He last batted in the third inning, striking out for the second time.

“[The soreness] came on tonight,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “He came to us, smart. You don’t want to make it worse. Got him out. Hopefully it’s just day to day.”

Harper wasn’t the only Philadelphia player to depart early.

Andrew Knapp pinch-hit for Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto in the eighth. Girardi said Realmuto had a sore left wrist.

Realmuto left Tuesday’s game against Washington after taking a foul ball off his left knee and felt ill with a fever Wednesday night. After not playing Thursday, he was the DH in Friday night’s series opener with the Blue Jays.

Harper, 28, is off to a red-hot start in his third season with the Phillies, slashing .318/.449/.582 with seven home runs and 11 RBIs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Los Angeles Dodgers get Yoshitomo Tsutsugo in trade with Tampa Bay Rays

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers acquired infielder Yoshitomo Tsutsugo from the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday for a player to be named or cash.

Tsutsugo, 29, has struggled in the majors since coming over from Japan. He has a .187 batting average in two seasons, including .167 in 27 games with Tampa Bay this season. Tsutsugo also has no home runs and 27 strikeouts in 87 plate appearances.

The defending World Series champions have been seeking veteran role players as they have struggled with injuries throughout the season. Tsutsugo can also play the outfield for the Dodgers, who also reportedly agreed to terms with Albert Pujols on Saturday.

To make room for Tsutsugo on the 40-man roster, the Dodgers transferred infielder Edwin Ríos to the 60-day injured list. Ríos will be undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery next week.

The Rays made another trade earlier, dealing right-hander Hunter Strickland to the Los Angeles Angels for a player to be named or cash after activating first baseman Ji-Man Choi from the injured list.

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Admitting there will be ’emotions involved,’ Washington Nationals pitcher Jon Lester enthused to start in former home, Wrigley Field

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Returning to Wrigley Field on Monday for the first time since departing the Chicago Cubs as a free agent, Washington Nationals starter Jon Lester is over any hard feelings he had upon leaving.

Lester, 37, was never offered much in the way of a new contract with the Cubs before signing a 1-year, $5 million deal with Washington.

“It’s natural,” Lester said. “I had to get over some stuff leaving Boston. Chicago was my home for six years. We have a house there. My kids grew up there. You invest in a city, you invest in that place that you’re working. Yeah, there’s emotions involved.”

Lester is often cited as arguably the best free-agent signing in franchise history, but nostalgia couldn’t keep him a Cub. After the team declined a $25 million team option for 2021, the 16-year veteran sat and waited for a new offer that never materialized. Worried about how late it was getting in the offseason, Lester signed with the Nationals.

“The hard part of this game is the business side and you have to separate your heart and business,” Lester said. “Sometimes that can be difficult. It’s only natural to go through a phase where you question certain things, but once you separate that and realize it’s a business … it is what it is.”

Lester is happy to be pitching on Monday, in the opener of a four-game series. He can get it over with and then relax and visit with friends with whom he won a World Series in 2016, breaking a 108-year championship drought for the franchise. But he’s most excited to see a fan base he never got to say goodbye to last season due to COVID-19 protocols.

“I look forward to it,” Lester said. “I’m glad fans are in the stands. It’ll be nice to see the faces in the stands and get back to normalcy there.”

As for facing his former teammates, the trash-talking began in spring training as Lester is most excited about staring down first baseman Anthony Rizzo. The two share a bond; both were drafted by the Boston Red Sox and both beat cancer while with that organization.

“That will probably be the matchup that will stand out the most to me,” Lester said. “I might have to invent something out there. I’m pretty much inventing stuff as I go as it is. Maybe throw a knuckleball or two or mix something in like that.”

Lester won 77 games for the Cubs, including Game 5 of the 2016 World Series against the Cleveland Indians, then came on in relief in Game 7, which the Cubs won in 10 innings. It cemented his legacy in Chicago.

He was asked what it means to be considered such a great free-agent signing.

“It’s a huge compliment,” Lester said. “I don’t know if it’s true. It’s flattering.”

Lester will see his former catcher in the Cubs’ dugout: David Ross is now the manager of his former team. The two are close friends.

“The guy is super special to me,” Ross said. “I hope the fans give him the welcome back he deserves. He means a lot to this organization. I think fans recognize that. Cubs nation that I know will be super appreciative and give him the love that he needs.”

Besides pitching against the Cubs, Lester’s biggest concern is finding where he needs to go when he gets to Wrigley Field.

“The biggest thing for me is making sure I walk into the right dugout,” he said.

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