Is New York Yankees' rotation after Gerrit Cole reliable enough?

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. Cole 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 the velocity and spin rates he hit before the forearm and shoulder injuries that cost him most of the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

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 American League 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 games 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 (in 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. Here are 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 No. 2 starters for our 95-win teams was 1.6 WAR. Cole was worth 6.7 WAR during 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 determining factor for 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 Corey Kluber & Co., though.