Yankees Opening Day Roster Projection 3.0: Solving the fifth starter issue with a star

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays
New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays / Cole Burston/GettyImages

Opening Day is so close you can almost taste the crisp bodega beer, gin and tonics at Billy's, and mouthwash at Billy's after having one too many gin and tonics.

The Yankees have less than a week to settle on a crew to head to Houston for the opener, and while their starting pitcher has been announced, plenty of battles remain either open or wide open. There will likely be a backup infielder active next Thursday who isn't currently on a roster (or anyone else's), not to mention a starting pitcher void that can be solved the easy way or the hard way. Despite early injuries, the bullpen is now coming into focus a bit, but don't discount the ripple effects of the rotation race on that outcome, either.

Pending late injuries, though, there are several players who've already made significant stamps on the preseason, and have earned their tickets back to the bigs. With the caveat that said late injuries literally always happen and can strike at any time (ban foul balls off feet), this is how the roster's looking this late in the game, as the Yankees head into the home stretch.

Yankees Opening Day Roster Projection 3.0

Yankees Rotation: Carlos Rodón, Marcus Stroman, Jordan Montgomery, Nestor Cortes Jr., Clarke Schmidt

With Montgomery inexplicably still available approaching April, and the two sides somehow talking again after likely ruling one another out 25 times during this offseason fiasco, the Yankees have no excuses remaining not to target their former left-hander. He doesn't want the short-term, high-AAV deal that sank their Blake Snell pursuit. He has very few, if any, rumored suitors (beyond the Yankees). Boston is Bostoning all over the place. The Astros claim they won't pivot. The Giants are, finally, done. The Angels could and should be involved, but don't seem to be (and don't seem all that appealing). Perhaps the Cubs? It takes far too long to produce even a realistic rumor. Maybe five years with an opt-out after three satisfies both parties? It certainly isn't as bleak as some of the rest of Boras' offseason misfires.

Don't worry, Will Warren fans. Signing Montgomery wouldn't block your favorite rookie from getting a chance. It just might delay his arrival a bit. Controversial take? By midseason, the Yankees will be looking to limit Cortes' innings, not just Schmidt's, if the left-hander continues to struggle to get past the middle-innings hump. Opportunity will knock soon for everyone remaining in the fifth starter pool. But the Yankees have to make a move here if they have a chance to.

Yankees Bullpen: Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loaisiga, Ian Hamilton, Caleb Ferguson, Victor González, Luke Weaver, Nick Burdi, Luis Gil

Weird group! If you wanted a shakeup from 2023 to 2024, it's ever-present in the bullpen. Though it seems likely that Luis Gil/maybe Dennis Santana will lose his spot when Tommy Kahnle returns relatively quickly, every Kahnle injury takes longer to rehab than the manic righty claims it will. Santana, who might've cinched a roster spot with Thursday's work against the Braves if the Yankees don't add a starter, is erratic, but also occasionally electric. You can do worse with a last man in a bullpen (but ... as the Dodgers have proven with their repeated demotions of the righty in recent years ... a contender can't do much worse).

For those counting, that would make three 2023 Dodgers in the Yankees' Opening Day eight-man fireman unit. Not sure if that's a good or bad thing; whenever the Dodgers give up on a player, they typically end up having made the correct judgment. Hopefully, the acquisition of Jorbit Vivas is worth all the trouble in the end. We'll go with Gil here as the final name over Santana. He's earned a roster spot, in whatever capacity the Yankees are able to grant him one.

Burdi has been the star of camp, spinning his absurd upper-90s fastball at a heretofore unseen rate. He's always had first-round-pick pedigree when healthy, but the harrowing scope of his injury history (thoracic outlet, which usually kills careers, as well as two Tommy Johns) should encourage the Yankees to ride his hot hand while it lasts, but plan for backup, too.

Yankees Opening Day Lineup (in order?): Alex Verdugo, Juan Soto, Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo, Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Volpe, Jose Trevino, Oswaldo Cabrera

The Yankees hoped to lead DJ LeMahieu off for the opener, even though it felt like, when the veteran was healthy, they had stronger options at this juncture. It might be Anthony Volpe's role someday soon. Gleyber Torres has some pros to offer, especially if he continues spraying the ball around the field the way he's done in camp. For the opener, how about Verdugo, who hasn't raised his OPS much this spring, but seems to be finding an effective baseline with his batting average? A single or two, or perhaps a double down the line into no-man's land, would help tremendously to set the table.

The expectation should be that LeMahieu will land on the IL to begin the season, though he should be activated once that window expires, as long as all goes well. A bone bruise -- especially one as severe as Aaron Boone let on, and especially in an already problematic foot -- is a bigger deal than the team wants to admit.

Don't sleep on the possibility that Giancarlo Stanton could play a shallow left field in Houston, allowing Aaron Judge to get some time off his feet in this tone-setting four-game series (or, fingers crossed, at least water-treading).

Yankees Bench: Austin Wells (for Game 1, but not beyond), Trent Grisham, Donovan Solano, Tony Kemp

Behold, the reason the Yankees didn't spend money on Michael Lorenzen!

$4.5 million for ~80-100 3.90 ERA innings is certainly a valuable use of money (though the need is diminished if the team splurges on Montgomery, rendering all of this speculation irrelevant). But, if you're trying to plot out your 110% taxed spending at the margins, and you already know you've lost Oswald Peraza and LeMahieu, then perhaps you'd rather split that money on two different versatile infielders. Solano has been sitting on the open market for months after hitting .282 with a 110 OPS+ with the 2023 Minnesota Twins, racking up 1.7 bWAR in the process. He's a clutch contact bat who can even cover first in a pinch. It's like if Urshela wasn't already on someone's roster.

The Reds let both Kemp and Josh Harrison go earlier this week, and probably wish they had the duo back after the injury news on Matt McLain worsened (post-Noelvi Marte suspension and Edwin Arroyo surgery). The lefty in Kemp, previously connected to the Yankees, feels like a more plausible fit here, as long as Cincinnati doesn't backtrack. Could always use more versatility behind Opening Day starter Frankie Montas!

Wells won't be the designated "backup" for very long; there's a good chance that, thanks to the absolute heater he's on this spring, he grabs the starting reins soon and never looks back. Add in the recent praise for his defense and offseason work, and he just might be the hidden Yankees gem that somehow flies under the radar under baseball's biggest spotlight.