The Yankees Injuries Last Year Weren’t as Devastating as They Seemed
The Yankees began the offseason with one big, expensive and necessary move. The signing of Gerrit Cole gave the Yankees the ace starting pitcher that they have so badly needed over the last three years. Yankees fans spent much of the next several months imagining a rotation of Cole, James Paxton, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and JA Happ joining one of the game’s best bullpens and a very potent starting lineup. Then came the news a few weeks ago that James Paxton was going to undergo surgery would cost him several months. He is projected to return to the rotation sometime in June, but something tells me that projection is a little too optimistic. This news both baffled fans who were puzzled as to why the surgery couldn’t have been sooner, but also made the rotation immediately less impressive.
Nonetheless, Yankees fans can take some succor in the idea that 2019 was, despite the team’s relative success on the field, an injury riddled season and that this year, if for no other reason than health, the team will likely improve. That thought might be comforting, but it is worth probing a little because the real story is more complex than that. Oddly, despite the sheer number of injuries, the impact of several those injuries on the 2019 season was much less than many think. For example, although the Yankees lost Miguel Andujar for essentially the entire season, his replacement, Gio Urshela, posted a 133 OPS+, played excellent defense and accumulated an impressive 3.4 WAR. It is possible that in the longer run Andujar will be the superior player, but it is unlikely he would have, if healthy, had a better year in 2019 than Urshela did. Similarly, Didi Gregorius was limited to only 82 games, but his injury freed up time for DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres who both had excellent seasons. A healthy Gregorius would have taken playing time away from either LeMahieu, Torres or Urshela all of whom had standout seasons in 2020. Even injuries to outfielders Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton, which seemed devastating at the time, had a limited impact because Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman and Cameron Maybin all played so well. Injuries to other players like Gary Sanchez and Luke Voit hurt the Yankees, but in the bigger picture, probably not all that much. The major exception to this was Aaron Judge, the team’s best hitter, who was limited to 102 games. A full season of Judge would have made the Yankees a better team, but Judge also missed much of 2018 due to injury. Given his size and body type, it is possible that Judge will wrestle with injuries throughout his career.
Clearly, a healthy Yankees team will have more depth and give manager Aaron Boone more options as the season progresses, but the overall impact may be surprisingly marginal. It is also not reasonable to assume the Yankees will be entirely healthy in 2020. All teams have injury problems, although most fans only notice injuries to players on their team.
The pitching is a little different story and likely had a bigger effect on the 2019 Yankees. Deilin Betances, Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery were lost for the entire season. This cost them depth in the bullpen and forced to use an opener at times. Having Severino back full time could be a big help, but he has not been consistently good since the first half of 2018. Additionally, with Paxton out, Severino’s potential return feels more like running in place than a big step forward. Similarly, Beitances’ return from injury won’t help the Yankees because he will be pitching for the Mets this year.
The Yankees, in part because of the largely self-inflicted turmoil in which the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox find themselves mired, and in part because they have added one of the best pitchers in the game to an already very good team, are still probably the best team in the American League as the 2020 season approaches. However, because of the injuries that were such a big part of the 2019 season, it is easy to ignore all the things that went right in 2019 including career years from LeMahieu, Torres, Tauchman, Domingo German and Urshela and unexpectedly strong seasons from Brett Gardner, Cameron Maybin and even Mike Ford. It is very likely that the Yankees will be healthier in 2020, but a lot of players will regress to their career means as well. This will balance itself out over the course of the season and lead me to believe they still need one more significant addition. 2020 is lining up to be a very good opportunity for the Yankees; and they should take every step now to make sure they can take advantage of it.
Photo: cc/Tanya Ford