As a part of the FanGraphs staff predictions for this season, I picked the Boston Red Sox to win the American League East, and the New York Yankees to pick up a wild card slot. All 32 of us picked the Yankees to make what would be a third consecutive trip to the postseason. And our preseason projections pegged the Bronx Bombers for 99 wins, the best record in baseball, and a whopping 66.4% chance of winning the American League East. The Yankees – on paper, at least – were and are good.
But life, they say, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. The Yankees have started slowly, yes, but a 2-4 record is hardly alarming when you’re less than a week’s worth of games into a 162-game season. More worrisome is the fact that the Yankees’ injured list is suddenly beginning to resemble an All-Star team in its own right. First, newly extended center fielder Aaron Hicks went from tweaking his back in Spring Training to receiving two cortisone shots to an indefinite injured list stint with a lower back strain. That’s not good, seeing as Hicks is the second most valuable center fielder in the American League since 2017, behind some guy named Mike Trout. Still, the Yankees are deep, and they could plug Brett Gardner into center field without suffering a major catastrophe.
If this had been the team’s only major injury, the team might have been fine, especially on the back of what was projected to be an elite starting rotation. But also-newly-extended ace right hander Luis Severino joined Hicks on the shelf late in Spring Training after suffering rotator cuff inflammation, and isn’t expected back until May. Shoulder problems, including rotator cuff injuries, are notoriously finicky in pitchers, and while there’s no reason to believe Severino’s injury is more serious that we know, we also don’t know how the hard-throwing right-hander will fare after returning from the injury, particularly after not having had a single Spring Training start. With C.C. Sabathia’s farewell tour on hold after offseason heart surgery, the Yankees’ rotation suddenly started to look a little thin.
But no matter. The Yankees still had a fearsome lineup and perhaps the best bullpen ever, right? But then Dellin Betances’ spring training fastball clocked in the high-80s, and it wasn’t long before a shoulder impingement was diagnosed as the cause of his missing velocity. So Betances joined the list of the Yankees’ walking wounded.
Of course, why should the pitching staff have all of the fun? On the same day, two lynchpins of the Yankees’ fearsome lineup – outfield adonis Giancarlo Stanton and sophomore third-sacker Miguel Andujar – both suffered significant, and potentially long-term, injuries. Stanton suffered a left biceps strain whilst swinging and missing in just the team’s third game of the season, and Andujar suffered a small tear of his labrum diving into third base in the same game. By the end of the team’s second series of the year against the Tigers, Troy Tulowitzki had joined the injured list as well with a calf strain.
How bad are the Yankees’ injuries? Right now, including Tulowitzki, New York has 11 players on its injured list; no other team has more than eight. Here’s the complete list, with 2019 Depth Charts projected WAR:
- Miguel Andujar (1.9)
- Dellin Betances (1.1)
- Jacoby Ellsbury (0)
- Didi Gregorius (1.6)
- Ben Heller (0)
- Aaron Hicks (3.2)
- Jordan Montgomery (0.2)
- C.C. Sabathia (1.4)
- Luis Severino (4.1)
- Giancarlo Stanton (4.2)
- Troy Tulowitzki (0.9)
That’s 18.6 projected fWAR on the injured list at one time, which is more than the 2019 projected WAR for the entire Orioles team. That might also be understating the value of these players; they posted a combined 26 WAR in 2018. Some of these injured list placements were expected; after all, both Gregorius and Montgomery are still recovering from Tommy John surgery and aren’t expected back until midseason, and outfielder Ellsbury fell into a temporal vortex and likely will never be heard from again. Still, that’s a contending team’s starting third baseman (Andujar), starting shortstop (Gregorius), the replacement for the injured starting shortstop (Tulowitzki), starting left fielder/designated hitter (Stanton), and starting center fielder (Hicks), along with its No. 1 (Severino) and No. 4 (Sabathia) starters, and primary setup reliever (Betances), all injured at once.
That’s a lot of WAR for any team to lose, even the Yankees, even temporarily; the team is missing the equivalent of one and a half Mike Trouts. So in some ways, it’s a minor miracle that even after losing that much talent, the team is still projected to win 95 games. In fact, owing to the Red Sox’s nightmarish West Coast trip, the Yankees’ odds of winning the division have remained relatively steady since Opening Day, though they have dipped slightly.
The good news is that the Yankees’ pitching staff is well equipped to weather the storm. Johnny Loaisiga and Domingo German have both impressed as replacements for Sabathia and Severino. Even without Betances, a bullpen featuring Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, and Aroldis Chapman is still fearsome, even if Chad Green has been hittable in the early going. James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka have been great. Sabathia is expected back before the end of April, with Betances back around the same time. Severino’s return is somewhat murkier, but projected around May or June. In short, the Yankees should still spend the bulk of their season with their pitching at least largely intact.
The larger problem is one you wouldn’t have anticipated going into the season: the offense. And unlike the pitching staff, help isn’t arriving any time soon. Stanton hopes to be back in early May barring a setback, but Andujar is without a timetable and still may require season-ending surgery. All of a sudden, an infield without a place for D.J. LeMahieu to play regularly just a week ago is deploying Tyler Wade as its starting second baseman. Didi Gregorius won’t be back until the second half.
With so many big bats missing, the result is about what you’d expect. The Yankees gave up just six runs in their most recent three-game set against the Detroit Tigers, but scored only five and dropped two out of three. Tuesday, a lineup featuring D.J. LeMahieu batting fifth managed just one run against Jordan Zimmermann; Wednesday, the team struck out 18 times against a Tigers pitching staff that ranked just 24th in pitcher WAR, 25th in FIP, and 26th in strikeout rate in 2018.
The second wild card gives the Yankees a considerable margin for error, as does their depth. It might all prove to be fine. That said, with Tampa Bay, a deep and talented team in its own right, off to a 5-1 start, and the Red Sox healthy, the Yankees might not have the luxury of treading water until their injured players return if their goal is to win the division. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez can’t carry the offensive load by themselves, and Greg Bird is himself injury-prone. Clint Frazier is talented, but untested and coming off a concussion that ruined his 2018. Unless the team is willing to use heavy doses of Mike Tauchmann and Tyler Wade moving forward, the Yankees may have no choice but to start looking for offensive help from outside the organization.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.