Injuries Are Throwing the AL East for a Loop

While getting good performances from players in spring training is nice, it’s really more of a bonus. The most important part of spring training is getting players healthy for Opening Day. For the Red Sox and Yankees, injuries are piling up. The most recent bit of news for the Yankees comes in the form of trouble for Aaron Judge, who felt pain in his right pec while swinging, putting his status for Opening Day in doubt. On the Red Sox side, Chris Sale, who was already under a slower throwing program that would put him on the injured list to start the season, has a sore elbow after throwing and is being sent for an MRI. While we wouldn’t want to go overboard on the impact of these injuries given the timelines are very much unknown, everything we think we know about the AL East could go sideways.

The Yankees’ rotation has already been hit hard, with Luis Severino set to miss the season recovering from Tommy John surgery and James Paxton out until at least May and potentially longer after back surgery. Domingo Germán is also out for the first 63 games of the season due to a domestic violence suspension, but Gerrit Cole at the head of the rotation followed by Masahiro Tanaka gives the team some wiggle room to stay afloat and rely on a potent offense. But that potent offense isn’t quite as potent without its two best hitters.

Here are the projections for Yankees hitters this season.

Yankees Position Player Projections
Name PA wOBA Bat Fld WAR
Aaron Judge 574 .376 26.8 8.7 4.8
Gleyber Torres 630 .362 21.8 -7.6 4.2
DJ LeMahieu 665 .333 6.6 5 3.5
Giancarlo Stanton 546 .378 26.6 0.1 3.3
Gary Sánchez 456 .348 10.3 -7.7 2.5
Gio Urshela 567 .319 -1.1 0.9 2
Brett Gardner 518 .318 -1.6 -1.4 1.7
Luke Voit 455 .345 9.2 -0.9 1.5
Mike Tauchman 364 .317 -1.4 5.1 1.3
Aaron Hicks 224 .333 2.2 0.1 1.1
Mike Ford 175 .344 3.4 -0.1 0.6
Kyle Higashioka 141 .295 -3.3 1.5 0.6
Miguel Andújar 476 .319 -1.3 -3.4 0.5
Clint Frazier 196 .314 -1.4 -1.3 0.2
Thairo Estrada 56 .288 -1.6 0 0.1
Erik Kratz 13 .285 -0.4 0.1 0
Chris Iannetta 51 .283 -1.7 -0.8 0
Tyler Wade 133 .275 -5.4 -0.2 0
Total 6240 .338 87.8 -2 28

That offense would be one of the better ones in the game. Take away Stanton and Judge and the team falls outside of the top 10 and something close to the middle of the pack. While the team got by with only around 500 plate appearances from Stanton and Judge last season, it’s not reasonable to expect that Urshela (132 wRC+), LeMahieu (136), Tauchman (128), and Gardner (115) will all hit as well as they did a year ago while Edwin Encarnación and Cameron Maybin also provided good offense before their departures in the offseason. Andújar’s return is promising but far from a guaranteed source of production. Hicks is out for months. The best-case scenario for the Yankees is just minimal time missed for Stanton and Judge and they produce something like what they are expected to when they return. Until they come back though, the Yankees lineup looks very average. If they miss a lot of time, the team could be more like an 88-90-win Wild Card contender than a presumptive division champ like they were before the injuries to Severino and Paxton.

Even the pitching projections don’t really bake in some of the team’s downside risk. Here’s the current starting pitching projections for the Yankees.

Yankees Starting Pitching Projections
Gerrit Cole 214 3.18 3.07 6.7
Masahiro Tanaka 180 4.45 4.53 2.7
J.A. Happ 139 4.59 4.70 1.8
James Paxton 129 3.83 3.83 3.0
Domingo Germán 103 4.71 4.75 1.3
Jordan Montgomery 103 4.56 4.72 1.2
Jonathan Loaisiga 38 4.17 4.22 0.7
Deivi Garcia 28 4.95 5.04 0.3
Michael King 9 4.82 4.94 0.1
Chad Bettis 9 5.04 5.21 0.1
Total 953 4.16 4.19 17.8

That 17.8 WAR is still among the top five in the game, but it is still relying on three wins from Paxton, improvement from a 37-year-old Happ, and Germán to return to 2019 levels after his suspension. Cole is giving the team a tremendous head start, but this group is likely closer to average than excellent as the season begins. The bullpen should still be great, but the division isn’t an inevitability for the Yankees, and there’s no guarantee that the team’s injury reinforcements do as well as they did last season.

In theory, the Yankees troubles would provide an opening for the Red Sox, but they have some bad news of their own. After trading Mookie Betts and David Price, the Red Sox still looked to be an upper-80s win team with an okay shot at the playoffs. If the team loses Sale for any length of time, it’s hard to see that happening. While Jay Jaffe rang some alarm bells analyzing the news that Sale would start the season on the injured list, there was still some hope that Sale would return to form.

Perhaps this was all just a blip for Sale, where the combination of his cumulative workload, his shortened post-World Series offseason, and the 2019 rabbit ball turned his 2019 season into a downer, and after an extended break and enough time to ramp up, he’ll be fine. Still, his struggles stand out due to both his exceptional track record and the proximity of his five-year, $145 million extension. In 2017, his first season with the Red Sox, he became the first AL pitcher to notch 300 strikeouts in a season since the turn of the millennium (308, all told ) and led the majors in innings (214.1), FIP (2.45) and WAR (7.6), though he faded somewhat down the stretch and finished second to Corey Kluber in the AL Cy Young voting. It was the sixth consecutive season that Sale received Cy Young consideration as well as All-Star honors. He spent most of 2018 as the frontrunner for the award, starting the All-Star Game for the AL and carrying a 2.04 ERA and 2.08 FIP into late July, but shoulder inflammation limited him to just five starts and 17 total innings in August and September, and he lasted more than four innings in just one of his three postseason starts, though he helped the Red Sox win the World Series. He finished second in the AL in WAR (6.2) and would have ranked second in ERA (2.11) and first in FIP (1.98) had he not fallen four inning short of qualifying.

With Sale pitching 151 innings and putting up 4.4 WAR, the Red Sox were projected to have the 20th best rotation in baseball with a solid season projected for Eduardo Rodriguez and something close to average for Martín Pérez and Nathan Eovaldi. After that, Ryan Weber, Tanner Houck, Matt Hall, Kyle Hart, and Hector Velázquez were projected to combine for a lot of below-average innings. If the Red Sox lose Sale, they quickly look like a low-80s win team very likely to miss the playoffs.

Not yet touched by any major injuries, the Tampa Bay Rays could very well emerge as favorites for the division if they can make it through spring mostly healthy. They look to be a couple games behind the Yankees on paper, but if New York doesn’t get its injured stars back in a timely fashion, that advantage evaporates. The offseason can be fun and it’s full of rumors and speculation and dreams about potential lineups and rotations, but nothing beats watching the games and letting the season unfold. As we get closer to the start of the season, the Yankees are probably wishing for more time to get ready.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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2 years ago

Blake Snell just had a cortisone shot in his elbow, so the Rays might be affected, too.

2 years ago
Reply to  barnecles

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2020 AL East champions … the Toronto Blue Jays!???

2 years ago
Reply to  LenFuego

What???!!! No love for the Orioles???

2 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

I’m pretty sure even the Orioles’ moms are rooting for the Blue Jays in this situation

2 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

Coronavirus speculative fiction can be dark, but I haven’t to this point heard anything THAT dark.

J. Paquin
2 years ago
Reply to  LenFuego

For the love of Vlad I hope you’re right!