Yankees need Tanaka, Paxton to be much better than this

As splits go, this was half bad for the Yankees.

Because their rotation continued to go round with limited merit. Masahiro Tanaka did enough Tuesday to win the Subway Series opener, or the Mets did enough to lose it. Either way, when Aaron Boone praised his starter afterward, he was scoring on a curve more deceptive than any thrown by Tanaka — unless five runs in 6²/₃ innings is a new standard of Yankees excellence.

Still, Tanaka was brilliant in comparison to James Paxton, whose velocity was down and whose effectiveness was absent in the nightcap.

Following a 10-4 Mets response, Boone happy-talked that what he saw left him convinced Paxton is “close to being a dominant guy.” But after getting knocked out in 2²/₃ innings, Paxton more objectively analyzed: “I was not very good today. That was on me. I didn’t pitch a good game.”

Paxton had yielded just three runs (one earned) and no homers in his first five Yankee Stadium starts. Then, following the Yankees’ 12-5 Subway-opening triumph, Paxton’s first 11 pitches included a double by Jeff McNeil, a single by J.D. Davis and a three-run homer by Pete Alonso. For good measure, he allowed three more runs before exiting it the third.

Greater weight is on Tanaka and Paxton with Domingo German joining Luis Severino and Jonathan Loaisiga on the injured list and the Yankees’ decision not to stretch a few million bucks more to land Dallas Keuchel.

The Yankees are tied atop the AL East with the Rays despite having a 4.02 rotation ERA and ranking in the bottom third in innings pitched by starters. Only the non-contending Orioles, Blue Jays and Angels have a lower percentage of quality starts in the AL than the Yankees’ 31.8 (21 in 66 games). The cascading effect has overtaxed the pen.

More than any other area, the rotation has been the Yankees’ bugaboo as they try to pursue a title. They have thrived at unearthing undervalued lineup assets while overlaying one high-octane arm after another in the bullpen. But their rotation success rate has not been the same. It is not only that they failed with Sonny Gray, but that their process led to ignoring or falling short on starters such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Cole Hamels, Chris Sale and Patrick Corbin.

The Astros won a championship because they did get Verlander, and are well positioned to make another run because they also landed Cole after 2017. And to date, Wade Miley for one year at $4.5 million has outdone J.A. Happ at two years, $34 million out of last offseason’s free-agent market. Now the Yankees have shunned a former Astro, with Keuchel going to the Braves. I understand the Yankees’ position that either you have a process and discipline and a line you won’t cross or you don’t. But money is an organizational strength and, particularly without any long-term obligations (Keuchel did a one-year deal), the Yankees should financially flex to problem-solve in such an obvious phase of need.

“This is a little bit of a challenge right now,” Boone said of his rotation. “But we have guys capable of getting it done.”

The Yankees still hope to get Severino back, maybe Jordan Montgomery too. But who knows what either will be without having pitched yet in 2019. Maybe Madison Bumgarner will end up a Yankee. Heck, perhaps Zack Wheeler will. But that likely isn’t happening before late July and many teams will be vying for rotation help.

So for now this is about the main four — Paxton, Tanaka, Happ and CC Sabathia — who all come with health red flags that provide worry beyond performance. The Yanks are wielding Chad Green as an opener and hoping combinations of Luis Cessa, David Hale, Nestor Cortes Jr. and Chance Adams can provide tag-team length. It feels flimsy — flimsier if Paxton and Tanaka do not adequately portray No. 1-2 starters until something else arrives … if it arrives.

Tanaka was hurt by his defense against the Mets. His splitter was better than during most of his outings this season (six swings and misses), but bad enough still that McNeil launched one for a three-run homer. Tanaka had the tenacity and enough fastball and slider to protect the pen somewhat by dispensing a season-high 101 pitches.

Paxton lacked the stuff or craft to even keep the Yankees competitive. It was his second poor outing in a row and third since returning from the IL. When the Yanks acquired Paxton, they envisioned a co-ace with Severino, so good is his stuff. But Severino has been absent and Paxton has mixed excellence, meh and another IL trip in a 10-start Yankees term.

It is a part of a rotation that goes round and round without enough merit, but with plenty of reason for concern.

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