Thew New York Yankees reported to Spring Training looking like a legitimate World Series contender. Yet it took just a few short weeks for that status to be seriously challenged.
The Yankees have had a litany of injuries that have affected the shape of their starting rotation as well as their lineups, and entered the start of play on Friday with a 5-7 record after being swept by the Houston Astros.
With two key pieces of their staff still out and multiple young position players sidelined until May or later, can New York hang on to remain competitive in the American League East?
Slow goings for the rotation
First, the Yankees lost ace starting pitcher Luis Severino to right shoulder inflammation, and he has since been shut down for at least six weeks following a long-toss session that went awry and caused a lat strain. This is hardly a good sign for a 25-year-old who relies on the consistent velocity of his fastball to set up a wipeout slider.
Severino had an atrocious second half in 2018 after looking like the leading candidate to win the AL Cy Young award before the All-Star break. Still, he had strung together consecutive seasons with more than 30 starts, and looked to be well on his way to stardom. However, this latest injury is a major setback.
New York has also been waiting for C.C. Sabathia to return from a knee injury and heart proecedure that has kept him out since Spring Training. Sabathia announced that this season would be his last as a big-league pitcher, and he has been pleasantly productive over the course of the last three seasons.
Sabathia was supposed to anchor the back half of the Yankee rotation and give New York another steady lefty behind James Paxton and J.A. Happ. However, New York is being extremely cautious in not rushing Sabathia back given his age and the necessity of having him be fully healthy.
The injuries to Severino and Sabathia have put an immense amount of pressure on Tanaka, Paxton and Happ to carry the load. Tanaka has gotten off to a strong start, but Paxton and Hap have faltered early.
Paxton has seen an uptick in velocity in recent seasons, which has made him more of a strikeout pitcher. But he has also given up three homers in his 15 innings of work, while Happ has conceded three homers in just 8 1/3 innings.
Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga have actually performed very admirably in filling in for Severino and Sabathia on short notice. That said, the Yankees would feel far more comfortable not having to rely on a pair of mid-20s at the back end of the rotation, particularly with Paxton and Happ figuring things out.
Can Judge, Sanchez and Torres carry the load?
Scoring runs was never going to be an issue for the Yankees, and indeed they have scored the third-most runs in the American League thus far. Yet that output pales in comparison to the potential of a wholly intact and healthy lineup.
Since Opening Day, the Yankees have lost Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andujar, Troy Tulowitzki and Giancarlo Stanton to injury. All of that comes on top of Didi Gregorious remaining out until after the All-Star break, as he is recovering from a Tommy John procedure that he underwent last October.
Andujar was the runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year award after hitting .297 wth 27 homers and breaking a Yankee rookie record previously held by Joe DiMaggio by hitting 47 doubles. But he will be out until sometime in June with a slight labrum tear.
The oft-injured Tulowitzki suffered a calf strain in the first week of play and will be out until at least May. With Gregorious already out and Andujar and Tulowitzki both on the shelf, New York has had to rely on Tyler Wade to play up the middle with Gleyber Torres while shifting D.J. LeMahieu to the hot corner.
Similarly, the injuries to Hicks and Stanton have forced manager Aaron Boone’s hand in the outfield, with Brett Gardner continuing to struggle.
Clint Frazier has played tremendously, and may force Gardner out of the lineup once Stanton and Hicks return. Even with Frazier filling and and LeMahieu finding his doubles power early, the bulk of the offensive production will still need to come from Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres.
As we have seen in the last two seasons, Judge is fully capable of handling his own. Though he has not done anything otherworldly, he is currently running the highest walk rate of his career while showing a tremendously patient approach at the plate. The power surge will undoubtedly come from Judge, it is just a matter of when.
Whether Sanchez and Torres can dramatically increase their production remains to be seen. Sanchez has already clubbed six homers, but he has also dealt with a few nagging injuries and is coming off a season in which he played just 89 games in addition to having his hustle and resolve questioned. Can he stay healthy, and will he show that same ability to hit for average that he did in 2017?
As for Torres, there is no doubt that he is a future star. He had a breakout rookie campaign in 2018 , but is going to have to make a large second-year leap, especially in these early months. How he performs in April and May could propel him to superstar status.
Still plenty of reason for optimism
Sure, the sweep at the hands of the Astros was a tough blow for a team that had finally started gaining momentum of their own with a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles. Despite that, Yankees fans have reason to believe their team will still find a way to win despite the injury bug nipping at their heels.
Sabathia’s return to the rotation should provide veteran leadership and consistency, and both Paxton and Happ should see improvement.
The same can be said of the bullpen unit, which has seriously disappointed although they have been mostly healthy (minus Dellin Betances). The Yankees had the best bullpen in baseball last season in terms of fWAR, so it is hardly surprising that they are struggling when Chad Greene, Jonathan Holder and Zach Britton are all struggling to find their groove.
While the lineup has been the most hampered by these injuries, Hicks and Stanton should return within three weeks, and Frazier in particular is capitalizing on his opportunity while validating all of the promise that has surrounded him as a top prospect in the Yankee system.
Not to mention, the Red Sox continue to disappoint in the midst of a 3-9 start, and there are not many teams that can stack up to New York’s talent in spite of how many players are still out.