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The New York Yankees started the day as the favorite to win the American League and a good bet to win the World Series. Then came the two words that no baseball team wants to hear this time of year: Tommy John. And now, the question for the Yankees is just how much tougher their path to the World Series has gotten.
The team announced Tuesday that Luis Severino, their ace before Gerrit Cole signed a $324 million contract and came to town, needs Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2020 season. The Yankees have to be feeling like it’s 2019 all over again.
They’re lucky Cole is in pinstripes and throwing heat, because the Yankees have already lost James Paxton for the first two months of the season because of an injury. The Yankees did a fine job withstanding injuries last year, winning 103 games despite a walking wounded team that was without Severino for most of the season because of a shoulder injury that showed up during spring training. The injury woes were widespread, as Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and others missed significant time.
Remember, the Yankees are also without Domingo German, who is serving a domestic violence suspension until June. It was German who came out of nowhere to help the injury-ravaged Yankees stay competitive last season, and they may just need that again in 2020.
This year was supposed to be different. Cole, Severino and Paxton would lead one of the best rotations in the league. Judge, Stanton and Gleyber Torres would be as daunting a group of hitters that exists in MLB. But already the Yankees are starting to show that “winning the offseason” doesn’t mean much when February slaps you in the face.
Without Severino, the Yankees should still be considered AL East favorites, thanks to the Red Sox trading Mookie Betts and David Price. The Tampa Bay Rays, the assumed second-place team, project at 12 wins behind the Yankees by Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA model, and while Severino’s injury doesn’t make the Yankees *that* much worse, this should at least add a bit more drama to the division race.
Then again, the New York Yankees don’t exist to win division titles. They exist to win championship rings, and that task did get tougher without their second-best pitcher. And look around the league. The Dodgers are a World Series-or-bust team. The Twins and Braves have big expectations. The Astros, despite everything that’s happened since October, are still a World Series threat.
At the very least, the Yankees lost their spot as sure-thing World Series favorite on Tuesday.
The Yankees without Severino: the best case
It’s a luxury that the answer to the question of what the Yankees do now is ... nothing.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman has already said Severino’s spot will be filled inside the organization since the Yankees rolled into spring training with J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery as big-league-tested rotation depth.
There was some chatter that the Yankees could trade Happ after they signed Cole, but they kept him around for exactly this reason. He’s not amazing, but he’s better than what’s on the open market right now, and the Yankees know what they’re getting with him.
The best-case scenario is Paxton is back in June and so is German. They can hit the All-Star break with Cole, Masahiro Tanka, Paxton, German and Happ or Montgomery, whoever is pitching better.
But is anybody in Bronx willing to bet on best-case scenarios these days? After last year?
The Yankees without Severino: the worst case
How about the worst-case scenario?
Paxton and Severino being hurt to start the season gives the Yankees very little wiggle room. Another injury and they're zapped. A starter struggles to start the season and you’ll start to hear the chatter on talk radio and see the headlines on the back page.
Deivi Garcia, Jonathan Loaisiga, Michael King and Clarke Schmidt are further down the list of possible starters for the Yankees in 2020. Chad Bettis is trying to make a comeback in New York. But it’s tough to pay all that money for Gerrit Cole and then be hoping for a lottery ticket to turn into a fifth starter.
There are some names you might know on the free-agent market that the Yankees can sign, but nobody that will make you want to buy season tickets. Among them: Collin McHugh, Clay Buchholz, Andrew Cashner, Matt Harvey and Aaron Sanchez.
If the Yankees want to be bold, there is another way: Swing a deal.
Clint Frazier, the former top prospect, still seems expendable in the current Yankees formation. Is he enough to pry away Matthew Boyd from the rebuilding Tigers? Could they make a deal for Robbie Ray from the Diamondbacks? He’s been on the trading block for a while now, but the D-backs are trying to win too, so that seems somewhat unlikely — at least at this point in the season.
The Yankees seem content to be patient and they have the depth to do, especially in February.
But as the calendar flips, opening day comes and goes and the expectations in the Bronx remain sky-high, it’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees might feel the same squeeze as they did in 2019. And whether they’re willing to let another season with World Series parade expectations end in disappointment.
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