TAMPA — Congratulations if you survive swimming among hungry great white sharks. Bravo. All of that.
Do you want to try it again?
Because here are the Yankees in the deep water once more. The team that set the major league record for most different players placed on the injured list (30 in 39 different stints), yet still won 103 games and the AL East, has a roster under attack anew.
Perhaps what doesn’t kill them will make them stronger — and the roster longer — like last year. Maybe it is just in this group’s baseball DNA to be resourceful, to find fortitude when that is most in need. But suddenly they are facing having to find the starting pitching versions of Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela.
The Yanks revealed Tuesday that Luis Severino needs Tommy John surgery. He is not going to pitch in 2020. So here they go again.
The Yanks drastically changed their medical personnel in the offseason after leading the league in MRIs. Yet, the ache James Paxton felt in his back last postseason and Severino in his arm were treated conservatively through the breadth of the offseason before ultimately leading to surgeries; late enough to cost Paxton the beginning of 2020 and Severino likely the beginning of next year.
With Severino and Paxton as Nos. 2 and 3 starters behind Gerrit Cole, the Yanks were envisioning a rotation becoming as long and powerful as their lineup. Now, Severino is gone and Paxton is due back around June, about when Domingo German’s suspension for violating MLB’s domestic abuse policy concludes (he is out for 63 more games). This is how a season begins in which the Yankees have the majors’ largest payroll and expectations.
If the Yankees knew for sure they were getting back Paxton and German in June at high levels for the rest of the season, then they would be fine. They would double down on their thankfulness of signing Cole, not trading J.A. Happ and having the dependable Masahiro Tanaka, then plug in behind them with youngsters and openers.
But how can they believe in Paxton, who has yet to show durability in the majors or know what version physically/mentally they are getting out of German after his transgressions and public humiliation? They are now an injury to Cole, Happ or Tanaka from moving from crisis to catastrophe — unless those Tauchmans and Urshelas of pitching are coming from an organization in which Severino is the best starter developed in a quarter of a century; since Andy Pettitte.
With Severino and Jordan Montgomery out most of last year, the only pitchers who signed their first pro contract with the Yankees to start more than eight games in the majors in 2019 were Ivan Nova, Caleb Smith and Tanaka — Manny Banuelos was next at eight (German was originally a Marlin). Producing quality starters has been a weakness.
Montgomery was an exception as a 2017 rookie revelation. He seems all the way back from Tommy John surgery that cost most of the last two years. He would have to flop in March not to be the No. 4 starter. Luis Cessa, Mike King and Jonathan Loaisiga (all originally from outside the organization) are now competing with Deivi Garcia for the fifth-starter job. Montgomery went from non-roster and nowhere to fifth starter in ’17, so maybe the rising Clarke Schmidt can do the same. Or perhaps the Yanks can turn to their deep pen again by using Chad Green as an opener. Or maybe Chad Bettis or Nick Tropeano can be the pitching Urshela.
Brian Cashman said the solution must come internally, that there is no trade market at this time of year. Though now the Yanks will be monitoring just when (if?) a Johnny Cueto, Matt Boyd or Mike Minor becomes available. The Yankees need the Miguel Andujars and Clint Fraziers among others to play well in the majors or Triple-A, because even after guaranteeing the largest pitching contract ever in Cole, the Yanks just might have to add more starting pitching as the year progresses.
It is the fragility of the position. At this time last year, Severino was viewed as one of the majors’ 10 best starters, which led to lots of wonder why he accepted the Yanks’ four-year, $40 million extension rather than go year to year. He will now have five total starts (two in the postseason) in the first two seasons of that contract — so the money in the bank is at least a partial salve for not playing. The Yanks stepped outside of their familiar pattern by giving pre-free agency extensions last February to Severino and Aaron Hicks (seven years, $70 million). Both have hardly played since. Both have needed Tommy John surgery.
The Yanks prospered mainly without them last year. Hicks is due back around this midseason, Severino not at all. In this year of the grandest expectations, the Yanks are already minus three of their six best starters — Severino for all of 2020 — a formula for how the AL favorites could suddenly stop looking quite as formidable.
In 2019 the Yankees found answer after answer as their roster was consumed by injury. They are back swimming with sharks.