The Yankees got a bit of a nasty surprise this week when their ace, Luis Severino, felt a twinge of pain in his right shoulder after throwing a slider while warming up for an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday. The team immediately shut down Severino for the next two weeks, meaning that Opening Day is out, and even if everything goes smoothly, he’s looking at a mid-to-late-April return to the rotation.
The team reported nothing of concern from Severino’s MRI, but I think that the situation is scary enough that the Yankees need to move more urgently in the direction of acquiring short-term rotation help. Severino is the one pitcher the Yankees cannot afford to lose, as he is both their best starting pitcher and their most durable one.
Since Severino’s 2017 emergence, he’s been responsible for 35% of the rotation’s WAR and has thrown 50 more innings than the runner-up, Masahiro Tanaka. Severino is also not the only Yankee starter with concerns; James Paxton is a terrific pitcher, albeit one with a significant injury history, and CC Sabathia is coming off heart surgery and really just a five-inning starter as he enters his grand farewell season. Without making an additional free agent signing, the Yankees already faced pretty good odds that they’d have to turn to one of their in-house options already, even if we no longer consider Tanaka’s elbow a ticking time bomb as we did a few years ago.
There are three pitchers the Yankees are likely to turn to as their Plan Bs: Jonathan Loaisiga, Domingo German, and Luis Cessa. Loaisiga was ranked as the No. 2 prospect by my colleagues Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel in their recent review of the team’s top prospects, and the ZiPS projections for Loaisiga agree that he’d be a capable fill-in, with a projected ERA+ of 96 as a full-time starter. He also pitched better than his 5.11 ERA in his brief major-league stint suggested, striking out 12 batters per nine for a 3.53 FIP (it’s extremely unlikely he’s actually a .383 BABIP pitcher).
There’s a catch, however. Loaisiga’s injury history is significant and he’s yet to throw 200 professional innings total despite being signed all the way back in late 2012. Johnny Lasagna was essentially a reclamation project, signed by the Yankees after the Giants released him in 2014. The Yankees have been extremely careful with Loaisiga and he only pitched into the sixth inning a single time in 2018, and that was the first time he pitched into the sixth since his first professional season in 2013.
ZiPS is less excited about either German or Cessa, projecting both with an ERA around 4.70, good for somewhere around a single WAR for an entire season. Cessa’s been one of the team’s backup plans for three seasons now, and with a 5.39 FIP as a starter and a 6.46 FIP after the first time through the order as a starting pitcher, he strikes me as a better relief candidate than rotation replacement. German’s start/relief splits are even larger than Cessa’s.
There’s also the hinted-at option of doing some relief games, especially if Severino’s injury stint is minimal. But is that worth risking burning up the bullpen over largely lower-leverage innings in April?
The hope is that Severino will be back soon, but that’s also not a firm guarantee. There are real consequences to waiting, in that the options available now are unlikely to still be there if Severino has an injury-related setback or reduced effectiveness.
The Yankees have rightly worried little about possibly over-equipping their bullpen, having well-above-average relievers with not enough high-leverage innings to go around, an issue they faced with Adam Warren in 2018. The Yankees are a team that’s fighting to win the argument of best team in baseball, in the same division as another such team, and that means the club ought to be a bit more risk-averse than, say, the Seattle Mariners or Arizona Diamondbacks.
After Opening Day, significant replacements for Severino are likely to involve trades rather than cash, and that’s a taller order, with the Yankees already trading off much of their minor league depth for major league talent, giving the team a lot less ammo to use in hunting a replacement starter. Further complicating matters is that the rebuilding teams have generally already traded most of their starters with value, and the ones remaining, like Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco, will be tricky to pry from their current employers.
These wins are crucial under baseball’s current playoff structure in which the penalty for making the playoffs via the wild card are massive. Winning the division is a lot more important than it was for the first two decades of the wild card era, and each lost win, in the Yankees’ position, has a real effect on those divisional probabilities.
ZiPS projects the Yankees to be the best team in baseball and assumed, before the Severino injury, a depth chart that would give the team an estimated 64.8% chance of winning the AL East, with the Red Sox at 33.4%, the Rays at 1.8%, and the Jays and O’s… uh… less. On the flip side, if Severino were to miss the season — there’s nothing to indicate this is likely at this moment, mind you — it would eliminate the current projected edge the Yankees have over the Red Sox.
|Severino Return Date||Yankees’ Division Probability|
|Out for Season||49.9%|
Those projected probabilities aren’t insignificant. In fact, only a single free agent signed in the last three offseasons has had more of a projected impact on a single team’s one-year bottom line playoff probability: Bryce Harper, and by only a few percentage points. And remember, these probabilities are assuming that Severino returns exactly as the pitcher projected going into the season.
Zack Greinke may be the most interesting trade target available, but even with Arizona picking up some of his remaining contract in return for better prospects in return, if you don’t want to spend money on Dallas Keuchel, you’re going to likely need to spend even more for Greinke.
Keuchel is the best free agent option remaining and has faced a rather cool market. Any dreams of a nine-figure contract for the former Astro have likely been scuttled by reality. Similar to Jake Arrieta going into last season (signed on March 12th), I don’t think there’s a significant risk that Keuchel decides to spurn the existing offers and sit out 2019, waiting for an injury emergency.
Similarly to the Arrieta-Philadelphia projection, ZiPS doesn’t project Keuchel as a No. 1 starter for the Yankees and he couldn’t fully replace Severino. ZiPS suggests that a three-year, $69 million contract would be a fair offer to Keuchel. Arrieta signed for three years and $75 million with an opt-out after the second year with incentives to allow the Phillies to buy out the opt-out.
Doing the same with Keuchel wouldn’t hamstring the Yankees or reduce their options in the future. Sabathia’s gone after 2019 and Paxton’s a free agent after 2020. In the best-case scenario, in which Severino comes back at the earliest opportunity and nobody else gets injured, is having six good starting pitchers a problem that has ever plagued any club in history?
The Yankees have given every indication that they would prefer not to spend any more money this offseason. I’d have preferred to not have to buy a new air conditioner when the old one fried on a 95-degree day a couple of years ago. We don’t always get the scenario we like, and Severino is arguably the player the Yankees can least afford to lose. Sometimes, being thrifty is downright expensive.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.