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The Yankees’ Injury Curse Doesn’t Appear to Have an Offseason

While New York should be able to survive Luis Severino’s Tommy John surgery, losing another starter pushes them to the brink of a pitching disaster 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Baseball fandom in February brings a host of emotions: hope, excitement, relief for a long winter to finally turn to spring. Superseding the positives, however, is ubiquitous anxiety about injuries. The worst part of spring training is seeing favorite players shelved before their seasons begin.

At least Yankees fans are familiar with the feeling after last season’s unprecedented flood of roster pain, when the club set an MLB record with the number of players it sent to the injured list.

The first major injury of this spring struck the pinstripes on Tuesday, with the announcement that starter Luis Severino needs Tommy John surgery. Forearm discomfort that reportedly began in last season’s playoffs persisted through his first bullpen session last week, and further testing confirmed the worst potential outcome: Severino will miss the entire 2020 season.

With no hedges or exceptions, this news is a calamity for the career of a promising young pitcher with a growing list of injuries. It’s not quite so dire for the Yankees, at least taken by itself—although it pushes them, only in February, to the brink of disaster.

On a personal level, Severino’s setback is a true shame. Few pitchers better reflected this high-velocity, high-strikeout era than Severino, who combined his representative skill set with tremendous success on the mound.

Severino finished third in Cy Young voting in 2017, his first full season as a starter, and ninth the year after. His surface stats were pristine, his underlying numbers even better; he excelled in every area under a pitcher’s control, collecting better than a strikeout per inning while avoiding walks and home runs. Among starters, only Noah Syndergaard threw a faster fastball than the budding Yankees ace, and only a few pitchers—Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer among them—spun a more valuable slider.

The only active pitchers who collected more bWAR through their age-24 seasons are Zack Greinke, Félix Hernández, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Madison Bumgarner. In FanGraphs’ version of WAR, which centers on underlying stats like strikeouts, walks, and homers rather than pure runs allowed, only Hernández, Kershaw, and Bumgarner outdid Severino through that age.

Before the 2019 season, Severino signed a four-year extension that bought out his arbitration years and included a fifth-year team option—but then his troubles began. He missed all of last spring with shoulder inflammation, which then begat a lat strain that kept him out for the summer, and Severino ultimately didn’t pitch on an MLB mound until mid-September. He threw just 12 regular-season and 8 1/3 postseason innings and, for good reason, never quite looked like himself in that stretch.

One lost season is, if not desirable, at least typical for modern pitchers. But Severino’s upcoming surgery poses a much more tremulous trajectory. He didn’t lose just a chance to continue improving in 2019. He’ll also lose 2020, and probably most of 2021, too, given the procedure’s standard recovery timeline.

In other words, Severino could well lose the bulk of three consecutive seasons to injury. For context, he’s thrown just three seasons’ worth of innings in his MLB career. Tommy John recovery is standard practice now, but as his injuries mount, it’s also conceivable that Severino will never again reach his 2017 heights on the mound.

For the Yankees’ 2020 chances, Severino’s injury seems just as meaningful at first. Earlier this month, they already learned that fellow starter James Paxton would miss the first month or two of the season after he underwent back surgery, and Domingo Germán is out until early June after violating MLB’s domestic violence policy. Top free-agent signee Gerrit Cole is the new ace, Masahiro Tanaka’s entering his contract year, and J.A. Happ is still around as the first depth arm to throw—but that’s three-fifths of the Yankees’ potential best rotation now unavailable.

With spring training already underway, the Yankees won’t find any quick fixes in free agency, as the best remaining starters are Andrew Cashner, Jason Vargas, and Collin McHugh. Maybe McHugh can fill the Nestor Cortes Jr. role from last season and work as a “bulk” pitcher with Chad Green as an opener—but he also ended last season hurt.

The trade market could prove more fruitful, though noteworthy trades aren’t common at this time of year. The Yankees have long held interest in Arizona southpaw Robbie Ray, and a deal that sends Ray to the Yankees and outfielder Clint Frazier to the Diamondbacks would make all sorts of sense for both sides. Arizona already has six starters for five spots, making Ray expendable, and could use a right-handed bat to help balance the outfield, with lefties David Peralta and Kole Calhoun both slated to start every day. Frazier doesn’t have a spot in the Yankees outfield and needs a new home after ample turmoil in New York.

But general manager Brian Cashman said Tuesday that he doesn’t expect to respond to Severino’s injury with a trade. “You rely on your depth,” he explained—and he knows better than anyone, after the Yankees survived last season’s onslaught of injuries. For the 2020 rotation, that depth will be tested as the Yankees fill two rotation spots from options that include:

  • Jordan Montgomery, who underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2018 and threw four innings last season
  • Jonathan Loaisiga, who carries major injury and workload concerns, having never thrown more than 68 2/3 innings in a season—and that tally came all the way back in 2013
  • Luis Cessa, who didn’t start a game last season and profiles best as a long reliever, according to manager Aaron Boone
  • Mike King, a prospect with two career MLB innings
  • Deivi Garcia, a prospect with zero career MLB innings

None of those pitchers is a sure thing—of course not, or else he would have been in the rotation before Severino’s injury—nor are Tanaka and Happ, now the no. 2 and 3 starters, who combined for a 4.67 ERA in 63 games last season and suffered acutely from the leaguewide home run surge.

Highlighting only the drawbacks of the Yankees’ internal replacement options masks their considerable upside potential, though. Montgomery was an underratedly solid pitcher before his injury (115 ERA+); Loaisiga boasts tantalizing pure stuff, if only he can harness it consistently; King and especially Garcia should develop into useful major leaguers someday, and now just might operate on an accelerated timeline.

Garcia might be the Yankees’ best prospect, and his performance over the next month and in the early season could prove crucial, if he’s ready to climb quickly to the majors. What the 5-foot-9 right-hander lacks in size, he makes up for in strikeout ability: In 2019, he whiffed 39 percent of opposing hitters between High-A and Double-A, before regressing a bit upon exposure to the top minor league level (only a 25 percent strikeout rate in 40 Triple-A innings). Overall, only five minor leaguers with at least 100 innings pitched struck out a higher concentration of batters than Garcia, and four of those five pitched at lower levels than the Yankees farmhand.

The issue with Garcia—and King, and touted Double-A hurler Clarke Schmidt—is that he might not be ready right away. Absent the team’s current needs, the Yankees’ prospects would likely benefit from further refinement in the minors before a midseason promotion—but the club’s rotation should fill out by then, with Paxton and Germán set to return. The problem is in the short term, not the long.

Yet the specifics of the problem are also a reason not to worry quite so much. The Yankees’ rotation won’t be in dire straits for all that long; on a WAR scale, the difference between Loaisiga and a more dependable pitcher over the course of, say, 10 starts isn’t much more than a single win.

FanGraphs still projects the Yankees rotation as fourth best in the majors. It helps to count on Cole, the best-projected individual pitcher, and all the Yankees’ replacement options project for a performance better than actual replacement level.

And the Yankees already have experience succeeding without Severino’s services. They won 103 games last season, when he made only three starts, and they didn’t have Cole then, either. In fact, the Yankees posted their highest win total in a decade despite their starters ranking in the bottom half of the league in fWAR, behind every other playoff team except the Brewers.

The rest of the team was simply that dominant—their relievers were no. 2 in fWAR, a fraction of a win behind the Rays, and their lineup scored the most runs in baseball despite all the missed time by Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and other stars.

Those advantages remain. Seven of their top eight relievers in innings pitched last year are still on the roster (the only exception is Cortes Jr., the most expendable of the bunch), and the lineup looks among the best in the majors once again. The likes of Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela might not hit quite as well as they did a season ago—but Stanton and Miguel Andújar combined for only 30 games played and three home runs, and their bats can certainly compensate for regression elsewhere in the lineup. The Yankees could fill a lineup with nine dependable hitters and still have Tauchman, Frazier, and Mike Ford left over.

The loss of Severino thus doesn’t sap the Yankees of their status as AL East favorites. They should still win in the range of 100 games and remain in contention for their first World Series trip since 2009. The surgery merely reduces the club’s margin for error, in case more injuries overrun the roster like last year, or the team isn’t so lucky again on the field—no team overperformed its underlying stats by as much as New York did last season—or the Rays and Red Sox exceed expectations. (If only Boston hadn’t just traded its best player for overstated salary savings.)

The injury doesn’t necessitate a rash response or panic move. The Yankees have sufficient depth and talent to survive his season-long absence, provided the new rotation remains intact until reinforcements arrive in May or June. It’s more of a bummer for the player himself—and an early alarm for the team, lest it lose any more contributors. Maybe package Cole in bubble wrap until the season begins.