The Healthy Yankees

On the eve of the season, if you had been asked to name the two most important Yankee starting pitchers, top reliever, most promising prospects and top five position players you very well might have named Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka in the first category, Aroldis Chapman for the second, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar for the third and spent a bit more time on the last category. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez would have been easy choices, but Didi Gregorius would have found his way onto this list as well. The fifth spot would have been a tossup between Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner, but I would have gone with Gardner.

Some might want Clint Frazier on the list of prospects or gone with Sonny Gray over Tanaka as the second starting pitcher, but there would have been a lot of consensus around most of the list. This is significant because all of the players on my list above have one important thing in common-they have all been healthy thus far in 2018. The nature of baseball, exacerbated by internet induced myopia is to always bemoan injuries to players on your team, while ignoring the good fortune involved when the best players remain healthy. Just as fans generally focus on the misfortune of losing a good player to injury while overlooking those among their team’s best players who stay healthy, most fans only notice their own team’s injuries while ignoring the reality that all teams lose players to injuries over the long season and in most cases this more or less evens out. For example, this year the Red Sox and Dodgers both have key players who have either not played at all yet or will be out the rest of the season with injuries. 

The Yankees have had their share of injuries this year as Greg Bird, Clint Frazier, Brandon Drury, Jordan Montgomery and others have spent time on the disabled list or recovering from injuries, but none of these injuries have been to a genuinely central player. Bird had won the first base job, but was the fourth best power bat on the team when spring training began. Montgomery is a valuable back of the rotation starter, but very far from being an ace, while Drury is an intriguing role player, but not much more. On balance, the Yankees have been lucky to have eluded major injury to one of their key players. Indeed that is one of the reasons they have the second best record in all of baseball.

The Yankees are by any measure a very good team, but so far in 2018, the loss of an unproven young first baseman for the entire season to date notwithstanding, they have also been a very lucky one. It is possible that luck will continue for the rest of the season, but it is more likely that over the next 110 games or so the Yankees will lose a few of their best players to injuries as most teams do over the course of the long season. The Yankees have enough depth that they could well survive this. Frazier is ready to step and and probably play respectably if Stanton, Judge or Gardner were hurt. Torreyes, Drury and Walker are not great players but will not destroy the team’s chances if they have to take over second or third base for a month or so. Injuries to any of the key pitchers would raise more questions for the Yankees, but unfortunately injuries to pitchers, over the course of the season, are better understood as a constant than as a variable.

Thus, when assessing the Yankees chances going forward, while it may be fun to think about who gets sent down when Bird comes back or where Drury fits in when he’s healthy, the question that will likely make the difference this season for the Yankees is how they will adapt to the all but inevitable injuries that await them. This will also represent the biggest test rookie manager Aaron Boone will have to face. If, for example, Chapman or Chad Greene gets hurt, the team will probably not be able to land a top notch closer, but will have to mix and match and rebuild the bullpen in mid-season. Jordan Montgomery’s injury is unfortunate, but an injury to Severino or Tanaka would have a very different impact on the team, either forcing the Yankees to make a trade for a proven starter or to begin thinking about 2019.

No team can plan for every contingency or predict which sudden or strange injuries can reshape their season, but most good teams have to wrestle with those problems when they arise. Thus far the Yankees have done many things right in 2018, but they’ve also gotten many good breaks and stayed relatively healthy. The true test for this team will come if that changes.

Photo: cc/Keith Allison