The Yankees’ path to a second straight AL East title got a bit easier with Red Sox’s trade of Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, but they won’t emerge from this week unscathed. On Wednesday, the team announced that lefty James Paxton, their most effective starter in 2019, will be out of action for three to four months after undergoing surgery to alleviate a herniated lumbar disc. Even with the addition of Gerrit Cole to the fold, this is a loss that will test the Yankees’ depth.
The 31-year-old Paxton, whom the Yankees acquired from the Mariners in a four-player deal in November 2018, had an uneven first season in pinstripes. He surrendered 29 runs and 12 homers in the first innings of his 29 starts, and was cuffed for a 6.38 ERA and 5.84 FIP in June and July, shortly after he returned from a 25-day absence due to left knee inflammation. Even so, he was strong enough on either side of that two-month stretch that he still finished the season with 3.5 WAR, a 3.82 ERA, and 3.86 FIP (the last two both good for an 83 on their respective “minus” scales), all tops among the team’s starters; he was the only one to take a substantial workload (150.2 innings, third on the team) while finishing with either an ERA or a FIP under 4.28. Indeed, in a season where Luis Severino was limited to a grand total of 12 innings due to a bout of rotator cuff inflammation and then a Grade 2 strain of his latissimus dorsi, Paxton was something of a staff savior.
Paxton wobbled a bit through three postseason starts, allowing five runs in 13 innings while striking out 20. The first two were shortened, but he was at his best in Game 5 of the ALCS against the Astros. With the Yankees down three games to one, he worked around four walks and a wild pitch to turn in six innings of one-run ball while striking out nine; the team won 4-1 and sent the series back to Houston. His October work came on the heels of a bout of nerve irritation in his left glute, which forced him from his final regular season start after just one inning and led to a cortisone shot. Per the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, his surgery is connected to that issue.
1/Cashman told me that Paxton first experienced pain the final week of the reg season, received treatment in Texas that he responded to and pitched especially well v. the #Astros in the playoffs. Was managing in the offseason, but problems arose anew a month ago
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) February 5, 2020
2/the advice was again injections and conservative treatment to see if surgery could be avoided, but pain lingered and Paxton underwent the surgery today. #Yankees
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) February 5, 2020
Via the Yankees:
Earlier today, LHP James Paxton underwent a microscopic lumbar discectomy with removal of a peridiscal cyst. The surgery was performed by Dr. Andrew Dossett in Dallas, Texas. His approximate timeline to return to Major League action is 3-4 months.
— Yankees PR Dept. (@YankeesPR) February 5, 2020
The timeline of three to four months is relative to the surgery, meaning that a best-case scenario puts Paxton back in pinstripes in early May, or June at the latest. Of course, there’s always the possibility of a setback, and Paxton isn’t exactly known for his durability. In his seven major league seasons, he has yet to reach the 162-inning threshold to qualify for the ERA title even once, and has averaged a modest 142 innings over the past four seasons. He’s made an annual thing of trips to the disabled/injured list: a strained latissimus dorsi (2014), a strained tendon in his left middle finger (’15), a left elbow contusion (’16), left forearm and pectoral strains (’17), a lower back strain (’18) and the aforementioned knee inflammation (’19). His latest trip means that he’ll extend his dubious streak in the final year before he reaches free agency.
With Paxton on the shelf for at least the season’s first month, the Yankees’ rotation depth will be put to the test. Already, the team will be without Domingo Germán for the season’s first 63 games (i.e., until June 5), continuing his hefty 81-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. Behind Cole, Severino, and Masahiro Tanaka — who had a bone spur removed from his elbow in October — the most likely candidates to round out the rotation to start the year are lefties J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery:
Prior to the announcement of the injury, the Yankees rotation topped our Depth Charts rankings with a cumulative projection for 19.2 WAR. With Paxton’s innings projection dialed down from 185 (talk about fantasy, given the history above) to 130, they’re now second behind the Nationals.
The 37-year-old Happ, who appeared to be on the trading block in December, after Cole signed his record-setting $324 million deal, is coming off his worst season since 2014, one in which he was roughed up for a 4.91 ERA and 5.22 FIP in 161.1 innings. Though his average fastball velocity declined only slightly (from 92.7 mph to 92.1) and his swinging strike rate remained just above 10%, his strikeout rate plummeted from a career-best 26.3 % to just 20.7% while his walk rate held nearly constant around 7%. Meanwhile, his home run rate soared, from 1.37 per nine innings to 1.90. According to general manager Brian Cashman, when Paxton reported discomfort upon ramping up his workouts about a month ago, the Yankees decided to hold onto Happ as insurance.
The 27-year-old Montgomery started 29 games as a rookie in 2017 and more than held his own, pitching to a 3.88 ERA and 4.07 FIP in 155.1 innings, good for 2.6 WAR. He made just six starts in 2018 before undergoing Tommy John surgery and finally made it back to the majors on September 15 last year, about 15 months later; he pitched four innings in two appearances nine days apart. While rehabbing, he worked on ironing out his mechanics, which he described as “pretty rough.”
If Happ and Montgomery can’t cut it, or the team otherwise needs to dig deeper, familiar faces Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa, and rookies Deivi Garcia and Michael King — all righties — could be in the mix. The 27-year-old Cessa, who’s otherwise ticketed for a long relief spot, is the most experienced of the bunch, with 232 career innings and 19 starts from among his 86 appearances. In 43 appearances last year, all in relief, he pitched to a 4.11 ERA and a 4.87 FIP. The 25-year-old Loaisiga, who made four starts and 11 relief appearances last year, posted a 4.55 ERA and 4.95 FIP in 31.2 innings, with a tantalizing 26.6% strikeout rate thanks to an outstanding curveball against which batters went just 4-for-40 with a double while swinging and missing 20.4% of the time.
Garcia, who doesn’t turn 21 until May 9 and lists at just 5-foot-9 and 163 pounds, is the team’s top pitching prospect and was number 61 overall in our late-season rankings on THE BOARD. Splitting time between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A last year, he rode his high-spin combination of a 91-97 mph fastball and curve, a newish slider, and a solid changeup to a 4.28 ERA while striking out an eye-opening 33.5% of all hitters in 111.1 innings. King is a 2016 12th-round pick by the Marlins who was the return in the Garrett Cooper/Caleb Smith trade in November ’17. A command-and-control guy who gets by on a two-seam/changeup combo, he placed 29th on the team’s prospect list last February as a 40 FV prospect. The going-on-25-year-old was limited to 48 innings at four stops last year due to a stress reaction in his elbow, but he did make his major league debut with two scoreless innings on September 27 versus the Rangers.
While the injury is a significant bummer for Paxton, it rates as something closer to a modest inconvenience for the Yankees, who have their contingency plan in place. So long as Paxton is able to return within the timeframe that’s been laid out, everything should turn out all right for the pitcher and the team.
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.