NEW YORK — When the New York Yankees host the Cleveland Indians on Monday night, new ace Luis Severino will face off with Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber — the type of matchup you could see in Game 1 of a playoff series.
Severino, still just 23 years old, has long been the most important young arm in the club’s revitalized farm system. The Yankees have some starting pitching prospects, but no sure thing. On top of that, they have contract situations that have their rotation in flux heading into 2018.
CC Sabathia and the injured Michael Pineda are free agents. The team’s former ace, Masahiro Tanaka, can opt to be a free agent — though his poor season might force him to opt in on the $68 million remaining over the next three years on his current deal.
This uncertainty is one of the reasons the Yankees were willing to spend a little more in terms of prospects. Heading into next season, the rotation will likely be headed by Severino and Sonny Gray. Tanaka could be looking to bounce back in pinstripes, while Jordan Montgomery, in the midst of a strong rookie season, will also likely have a spot.
This impending situation has made it important for Severino to not only develop into a viable major league starter, but to become a No. 1. Currently, he is: There is no question that — if the Yankees make the playoffs and manager Joe Girardi has his druthers — Severino would receive the ball in Game 1 of the Yankees’ postseason. And on Monday night, he will face off with the type of No. 1 he can expect to see in October.
“I don’t say, ‘I’m the ace,’” Severino said. “We have veteran guys here, like CC, like Tanaka. The progress I have made, I’m happy about that. I had a terrible year last year.”
Severino was in Triple-A just a year ago, where he finished 3-8 with a 5.83 ERA. All eight of his losses were as a starter, while he didn’t win a game he began. And while the talent was still there, there was creeping doubt about whether he could be a starter. The Yankees have struggled to develop many starters, with guys like Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ivan Nova having some success but never really taking the baton from the past generation led by Andy Pettitte.
Now, though, Severino is doing just that, as the Yankees have the inside position to return to the playoffs for only the second time since 2012. He did it, he said, by finding a way to stay consistent with his delivery and developing a third pitch: the changeup. He credits pitching coach Larry Rothschild mostly, with an assist from Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, for giving him the confidence and the insight to be consistent. Even when a starter can touch 100 mph, a third pitch is a necessity, and Severino found it in the change.
The Yankees will also have a bullpen — especially if Aroldis Chapman can find his form — that would potentially be a big weapon in October. That said, even a team like the 2016 Indians, with Andrew Miller and the rest in the bullpen, had Kluber to anchor everything. Klubot, as he is known, could give the Indians strong game after strong game.
Severino could be asked to do just that for this 2017 Yankees team.
“It would mean a lot,” said Severino, who is 11-5 with a 3.10 ERA.
On Monday night, Severino will see how he measures up to Kluber.