The 2019 Yankees won 103 regular season games despite receiving just three starts from Luis Severino. The 2020 Yankees will have to make do in an even more extreme fashion. On Tuesday, general manager Brian Cashman announced that doctors have recommended that the 26-year-old righty undergo Tommy John surgery; he will do so on Thursday. His injury further depletes a rotation that was already slated to start the season without either James Paxton or Domingo Germán, taking a bite out of the Yankees’ playoff hopes — though they’re still heavily favored to win the AL East.
More than anything, losing an electrifying two-time All-Star for a full season or perhaps even longer is just a bummer. Pitchers, man…
The latest turn in the ongoing Severino saga began last Thursday — coincidentally, the pitcher’s birthday — when the Yankees announced that he had been shut down due to forearm soreness, an issue that he’d first reported following his ALCS Game 3 start against the Astros last October but one the team believed to be transient. When Severino continued to experience soreness in the offseason before beginning his throwing program, the team had him travel to New York to undergo MRI and CT scans, neither of which revealed any significant problems. In the wake of last week’s shutdown — during which manager Aaron Boone revealed that Severino had a loose body in his elbow that had previously been asymptomatic — Severino underwent a dye contrast MRI, which revealed a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament as well as pain in the area. Thus, Severino will go under the knife of Dr. David Altchek at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
On the heels of back-to-back All-Star campaigns in 2017-18, during which he received Cy Young votes and ranked fifth in the majors in combined WAR (11.0) and FIP (3.01), Severino has basically lost two straight seasons, and probably a bite out of a third as well. Shortly after signing a four-year, $40 million extension that bought out all four of his arbitration years, he was sidelined by a bout of rotator cuff inflammation, and while rehabbing, he suffered a Grade 2 strain of his latissimus dorsi. Long story short, he didn’t make his 2019 season debut until September 17, in the Yankees’ 152nd regular season game, but his return gave a battered rotation a much-needed boost. Severino threw a total of 12 innings across three starts, striking out 17, then made starts in Game 3 of both the Division Series against the Twins (four shutout innings) and the ALCS against the Astros (4.1 innings and two runs). Despite his discomfort, he was slated to start Game 7 of the ALCS, but José Altuve’s walk-off home run off Aroldis Chapman — the one that has baseball’s conspiracy theorists abuzz, to say the least — short-circuited that plan.
Though they signed Gerrit Cole to a record-setting $324 million deal in December, the Yankees’ rotation was already filling up with question marks prior to Severino’s injury. In early January, MLB announced that Germán, who was placed on administrative leave last September 19, would be suspended for a total of 81 games for violating the league’s domestic violence policy, making him eligible to return for the Yankees’ 64th game of the season, on June 5. In early February, the team announced that Paxton would be out three to four months after undergoing surgery to alleviate a herniated lumbar disc, placing him back in pinstripes in early May or June.
As with the team’s conservative treatment of Paxton — who experienced a bout of nerve irritation in his left glute during his final regular season start, the first publicly acknowledged sign of further troubles — it’s fair to question the way the Yankees slow-walked their discovery of Severino’s tear. Yes, the team did check Severino out over the winter, but why did the dye contrast test, which is still minimally invasive when compared to surgery, take so long to administer if he was still experiencing discomfort? Getting clarity with regards to his status even a month earlier would have helped the team plan accordingly, perhaps preventing the pitcher’s absence from leaking too far into the 2021 season. With two of the team’s top three starters going under the knife in February, this season already feels like a continuation of last year’s ongoing medical drama, during which a record 30 players landed on the injured list a total of 39 times.
Barring further injuries, the Yankees will line up their rotation behind Cole with some combination of righty Masahiro Tanaka, who himself is coming off an inconsistent season (4.45 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 2.7 WAR) as well as October surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow; lefty J.A. Happ, who had his worst season since 2014 (4.91 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 1.3 WAR) and was on the trading block in December before the team began worrying about Paxton; and — barring an addition from outside the organization — two pitchers from among the a group that includes lefty Jordan Montgomery and righties Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Cessa, Deivi Garcia, and Michael King.
I wrote about all of those pitchers in the context of Paxton’s injury, so I won’t rehash that information here, but it’s worth noting that the team did recently sign former Rockies righty Chad Bettis to a minor league deal. The sinkerballing Bettis made just three starts from among his 39 appearances in 2019, and struggled mightily (6.08 ERA, 5.16 FIP in 63.2 total innings) before undergoing season-ending surgery to correct impingements in both hips in September, but back in 2015-16, he posted a combined 4.57 ERA (97 ERA-) and 4.11 FIP (95 FIP-) in 400 innings, respectable numbers for a pitcher who called Coors Field home. Diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2016, Bettis has failed to recapture his top form since, but the combination of a change of scenery, better health, and multiple openings on the staff could get him a longer look.
Also drawing increased mention as a rotation candidate is Clarke Schmidt, a 24-year-old righty who was the team’s first-round pick out of the University of South Carolina in 2017, about six weeks after undergoing his own Tommy John surgery. Schmidt, who missed our Top 100 Prospects list (he was the last prospect cut) but placed on others (51st via The Athletic, 62nd via Baseball America, 88th via MLB Pipeline), has just 114 professional innings under his belt, including just 19 in three season-ending starts at Double-A Trenton, and he’s not yet on the 40-man roster, but it’s increasingly clear that the team sees him as a potential contributor in the near future.
Confident in the team’s depth, Cashman has said that he’s not interested in any of the remaining free agent starters on the market, and to be fair, the pickings are pretty slim. Only five produced positive WAR in 2019:
|Pitcher||Thr||Prev Team||Age||IP||ERA||FIP||WAR||Proj WAR*|
|Andrew Cashner||R||Red Sox||33||150.0||4.68||4.66||1.8||0.6|
|Aaron Sanchez||R||Blue Jays/Astros||27||131.1||5.89||5.25||0.8||0.9|
|Clay Buchholz||R||Blue Jays||35||59.0||6.56||5.62||0.1||0.9|
There are useful pitchers among that group, but health is always a question mark for some of them, and presumably anyone signed at this stage would be at least a few weeks behind schedule, lessening his utility to the Yankees in the early going. For now, it may be a moot point, though a setback or an additional injury could change the equation.
Before the Paxton injury was announced, the Yankees’ rotation topped our Depth Charts rankings with a projected 19.2 WAR. With 56 of the Big Maple’s innings and all 168 of Severino’s now redistributed — primarily among Happ, Germán, and Montgomery — the rotation is still ranked a more than respectable fourth at 18.9 WAR; note that since the initial publication, ZiPS projections have been factored into the calculations alongside Steamer, so this isn’t quite an apples-to-apples comparison.
More significantly, the loss of Severino puts a notable dent in the team’s playoff chances. Via Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS-based version, which he unveiled last Friday, and his follow-up tweet from Tuesday, here’s how the AL East’s top three teams have shifted:
|Team||DIV||WC||PLAYOFF||WS WIN||DIV||WC||PLAYOFF||WS WIN|
As Dan noted, the “before” odds were based on an estimate of just 120 innings from Severino in the wake of last week’s news; the complete loss of his services has knocked the Yankees’ odds of winning the AL East down by 13%, with their odds of winning the World Series dropping by 4%. They’re still the favorites, just less heavily so, and with every injury, their margin for error becomes narrower. After a season in which they succeeded despite their record number of injuries, nobody is pushing the panic button yet, but the loss of Severino, one of the team’s brightest young stars, is a big blow nonetheless.
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.