Banged-Up Yankees Lose Judge But Gain Ground

Amid a slew of injuries, the Yankees have managed to keep themselves afloat. But while taking three out of four from the Royals and climbing above .500 (11-10) this weekend, they suffered a major blow: Aaron Judge, their most valuable position player in each of the past three seasons (including this abbreviated one), strained a left oblique muscle during Saturday’s victory, further depleting a lineup that right now might not pass muster for a split squad spring training game. Including pitchers, the team now has an MLB-high 13 players on the injured list.

The 26-year-old Judge, who earlier in the game had connected for his fifth home run, dunked a single into the right field corner in the sixth inning but was in obvious pain by the time he reached first base, and exited the game immediately:

Prior to Sunday’s action, the Yankees placed Judge on the injured list, and manager Aaron Boone called his injury “pretty significant” while declining to speculate on a timetable for his return. Per, a 2017 study led by former Dodgers athletic trainer Stan Conte found that for even a Grade 1 oblique strain, the least severe, position players miss an average of 27 days. A quick-and-dirty survey of the injury logs of the outfielders on the Yankees’ roster via the Baseball Injury Consultants database yielded stays ranging from 11 to 45 days, including a 19-day one for Judge in September 2016; for that one, however, the tally of days lost stopped with the end of the season.

This is the second year in a row that Judge, who hadn’t missed a game in 2019 prior to his injury, will miss a significant chunk of time. Last year, despite losing seven weeks to a chip fracture in his right wrist and playing in just 112 games, he led all Yankees position players in WAR (5.1), hitting .278/.392/.528 (149 wRC+) with 27 homers. He was producing at a similar clip this year (.288/.404/.521, 146 wRC+, 1.0 WAR) before the strain.

Now, he’s just the latest casualty on a roster that’s missing its top five position players by WAR and home run totals, one that colleague Sheryl Ring characterized as a MASH unit a few weeks ago. Here’s a quick look at the team’s intended lineup, ranked by projected WAR at the outset of the season, as compared to the lineup they fielded against the Royals on Sunday:

The, Uh, New Look Yankees
Regular Pos Proj WAR 2019 Games Status Sunday Proj WAR
Aaron Judge RF 5.1 20 IL (oblique strain) Clint Frazier 0.1
Giancarlo Stanton DH 4.2 3 IL (biceps strain) Luke Voit 1.9
Aaron Hicks CF 3.8 0 IL (lower back strain) Brett Gardner 1.7
Gary Sanchez C 3.6 11 IL (calf strain) Austin Romine 0.4
Gleyber Torres 2B 2.8 20 DJ LeMahieu 2.0
Luke Voit 1B 1.9 20 Mike Ford 0.1
Miguel Andujar 3B 1.9 0 IL (torn labrum) Giovany Urshela 0.2
Brett Gardner LF 1.7 19 Mike Tauchman 0.1
Troy Tulowitzki SS 0.9 5 IL (calf strain) Tyler Wade 0.1
Total 25.9 6.6

Teams have been fined for fielding more representative lineups during spring training. Whether Torres was simply given Sunday off due to a 7-for-35 slump or transported to an off-site bunker so as to preserve organizational continuity in the face of further carnage is unclear.

The above table doesn’t even reflect the losses of shortstop Didi Gregorius (projected for 1.7 WAR in just 70 games) to Tommy John surgery, first baseman Greg Bird (0.3 WAR) to plantar fasciitis, and outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (who didn’t appear in a single game last year) to hip surgery, to say nothing of the injuries to staff ace Luis Severino (latissimus dorsi strain), Dellin Betances (bone spur in shoulder), and Tommy John recipients Ben Heller and Jordan Montgomery. Thus far, the only Yankee to come off the injured list to contribute has been CC Sabathia, who after undergoing offseason surgeries to clean up his right knee and to clear a blocked artery in his heart made his season debut on April 13 and has since made two strong starts.

For as patchwork as the Yankees’ lineup is, it’s scoring a respectable 5.19 runs per game, good for fourth in the AL, thanks in part not only to a soft schedule — the Orioles, Royals, Tigers, and White Sox account for 16 of their 21 games — but to hot streaks by the depth pieces that general manager Brian Cashman has assembled. LeMahieu, who signed a two-year, $24 million deal in January, has hit .306/.366/.431 (113 wRC+) in 82 PA while splitting his time about evenly between second base and third. Urshela, who arrived on a minor league deal befitting his career 57 wRC+, has hit .281/.378/.406 (115 wRC+) in 37 PA while flashing brilliance at the hot corner. Tauchman, a March 23 acquisition from the Rockies who had previously managed just a 17 wRC+ in 69 PA with Colorado in 2017-18, has hit .242/.342/.636 (152 wRC+) with three homers — two of them three-run shots — in 38 PA.

In an outfield/DH rotation where three of the four principals are currently down, it’s the play of the 24-year-old Frazier (339/.358/.661 with a team-high six homers and 163 wRC+ in 67 PA) that may be the most important. Acquired from the Indians in the Andrew Miller trade in July 2016, he homered in his major league debut and hit a walk-off homer in his sixth game but had otherwise largely scuffled in his previous exposure (89 wRC+ and -0.4 WAR in 183 PA) in 2017-18. A concussion he suffered while diving for a ball last February wound up limiting him to 69 games at all levels, with just three after the All-Star break due to ongoing complications. The Yankees didn’t know what to expect from him coming into the season, and for the sake of insurance retained Gardner on a one-year, $7.5 million deal even after rejecting his $12.5 million option. Now, Frazier’s not only hitting as though he intends to stick around, he’s fifth in the league in slugging percentage and 12th in wRC+.

Drafted fifth overall out of a Georgia high school in 2013, with top-100 list appearances in four seasons, Frazier was expected to be a hit. By contrast, the 28-year-old Tauchman is a deep cut, a 10th-round 2013 pick who made Carson Cistulli’s Fringe Five list in August 2017. Though he’s 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Tauchman hit just eight home runs in his first four professional seasons, including one homer in 527 PA at hitter-friendly Albuquerque in 2016. Nonetheless, his combination of speed, contact skills, and ability to control the strike zone drew some attention around these parts, and he’s since added considerably more power (a combined 36 homers, .563 SLG and 146 wRC+) while keeping his strikeout rate in the 15% range during two repeats of Albuquerque. Wrote Alex Chamberlain in February:

It’s one thing to break out. It’s another thing to break out and put together one of the Minor Leagues’ best power-contact seasons in the last decade. And it’s yet another thing to break out and not only sustain those gains but also improve on them: in 2018, Tauchman hit for more power, struck out less often, and improved his walk rate more than 50%. Tauchman, as firmly a non-prospect as anyone, had maybe two of the best individual power-contact seasons at Triple-A of the last decade.

Perhaps unremarkably given their track record of assembling competent outfields, the Rockies never really gave Tauchman a real shot in Colorado; he pinch-hit 31 times while starting a total of eight games. Due to the Yankees’ injuries, he’s already more than doubled his career total of starts, and he joined Dave Kingman (1977) as the second Yankee whose first six hits all went for extra bases. The Yankees hope he can be this year’s version of Voit, a diamond plucked from the rough of another organization if not necessarily one fated to spend two months as the league’s top hitter. As for Voit, he’s riding a modest .224/.344/.408 (105 wRC+) while continuing a 32-game on-base streak dating back to last season, the longest active streak in the majors.

Some of the cavalry is en route. Sanchez, off to a strong start (.268/.333/.732 with six homers) after a forgettable 2018, is about to start a rehab assignment and could join the Yankees as early as Tuesday. Stanton could return during their nine-game West Coast road trip as well. Hicks, expected to begin facing live pitching soon, won’t return until May, and the Yankees hope for the same for Andujar, who is having an easier time hitting than throwing, and could return in a DH/first base capacity.

While the bullpen hasn’t been the same without Betances (who might not be back until June) or a working version of Chad Green (12.27 ERA, 8.14 FIP), the team has nonetheless yielded just 3.90 runs per game, fourth-best in the AL. And for as badly as injuries have hit the Yankees, their AL East rivals aren’t unscathed. The second base situation of the Red Sox (9-13) is a black hole, and their rotation, already a mess, just lost Nathan Eovaldi to the injured list due to loose bodies in his elbow; he could require surgery. The division-leading Rays (14-8) are currently without reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, and just lost hot-hitting Austin Meadows to a right thumb sprain, that while being swept at home… by the Red Sox. All of which suggests that depth is going to be a significant factor in this year’s AL East race. Despite their wounds and their early hiccups, the Yankees have to like their chances.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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I hope you’re right, but it’s important to remember the Yankees just finished a 21-game stretch (15 at home) against teams with a weight winning percentage of .413. Also included in that mix are four opponents who rank at the bottom of the league in ERA, which might explain why the offense hasn’t suffered as much as you’d expect. My take is much less sanguine. Unless the injuries heal quicker and more completely than currently expected, or the team makes a trade or two, it seems as if the ceiling is now about 90 wins.