Tuesday afternoon the New York Yankees were dealt a blow when staff ace Luis Severino . He received a cortisone injection and anti-inflammatories, and will not pick up a baseball for at least two weeks. Severino will open the season on the injured list rather than make his second consecutive Opening Day start.
Here's what manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including NJ.com's Brendan Kuty, following Severino's injury:
"I feel like the MRI went well. Obviously any time a starting pitcher and a guy like Sevy walks off while he's warming up to start a game, you always get worried and concerned about that. But it sounds like the shoulder's pretty clean. It's just the inflammation issues. If that's the case, then hopefully two weeks is something that will do the trick and he can ramping back up with his throwing program. But we'll re-evaluate at the same time at that two-week point to see if all that inflammation is out of there."
The Yankees were already slated to begin the regular season without fifth starter CC Sabathia, who is working his way back from offseason knee and heart surgery. Now they'll start the season without Severino as well. Opening Day is still three weeks away and already the Yankees are down two of their five projected starting pitchers. That's not good.
I suppose the good news is Severino's injury is not something more serious, and Opening Day is still three weeks away. That gives the Yankees some time to find a solution and come up with a plan, and put that plan in place. A few years ago Chien-Ming Wang suffered a hamstring injury late in spring training and forced the Yankees to start Carl Pavano on Opening Day. For real.
Thus far the Yankees have said they will look to replace Severino from within, which is what every team says in this situation. When an important player gets hurt, the last thing you want to do is publicly declare you're looking to make a trade or sign a free agent. That's a good way to reduce your leverage. The Yankees will go with internal options, wink wink, nudge nudge.
“What I’ve got is what I’ve got.”— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) March 6, 2019
Brian Cashman reaffirms the Yankees’ position that they’ll be going with the pitching depth they have while Luis Severino is shelved. He did say never say never, but gave no indication he’d be turning to free agency to fill Severino’s spot.
There is no shortage of available options for the Yankees to fill out their rotation prior to Opening Day, though some solutions are more viable than others. Here are five ways the Yankees can address their suddenly Severino-less and Sabathia-less starting staff.
Splurge for Keuchel
The dots were connected immediately. Severino cut short his warm-ups Tuesday and headed for tests, and instantly there was speculation the Yankees would sign free agent Dallas Keuchel. The "an important player got hurt so go out and sign the best free agent to replace him" line of thinking has existed since the dawn of free agency, and Keuchel is quite clearly the best starting pitcher sitting in free agency.
In a vacuum, yes, a contending team in the game's largest market should absolutely splurge for someone like Keuchel in the wake of Severino's injury. There is no such thing as too much pitching depth (what are the chances Severino is the Yankees' only rotation injury this year?) and Keuchel is, at worst, a quality workhorse starter who will chew up innings and keep the ball on the ground in homer-friendly Yankee Stadium. At best, he has Cy Young upside.
The Yankees have operated on a generous yet fairly strict budget the last two years, so much so that they only halfheartedly pursued Manny Machado and did not pursue Bryce Harper at all. They showed zero interest in Keuchel over the winter. Not one single rumor. The Yankees traded for James Paxton and made a run at Patrick Corbin, and when that didn't work out, they pivoted to J.A. Happ on a short-term deal.
Keuchel is a Scott Boras client and Boras is no idiot. He smells the blood in the water. He and Keuchel are not going to give the Yankees a break on a short-term deal after Severino's injury. They're going to squeeze as much out of them as possible over as many years as possible. The Yankees may not act or talk like it, but they're a bit desperate here. Losing Severino hurts.
Simply put, signing Keuchel would require the Yankees to bust through the self-imposed payroll limit that stopped them from making serious runs at Corbin, Machado, and Harper. Is it possible? Yes. Unlikely? Also yes. Big money knee-jerk signings have not been this team's M.O. for a long time now.
Be pragmatic with Gonzalez
Keuchel is far and away the best free-agent starter still on the market. The second best is veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez, someone the Yankees have tried to acquire in the past (unlike Keuchel) and someone they maintained interest in over the winter (also unlike Keuchel).
Gio Gonzalez has been discussed at least by some Yankees people, even before Luis Severino was scratched with shoulder “discomfort.” Rotation depth one of their only issues.— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 5, 2019
Gonzalez is more likely to sign an affordable one-year contract than Keuchel and the general sense is he is better able to move into a swingman role once Severino and Sabathia return. That potential flexibility works well for the Yankees, as does the expected lower financial commitment. Keuchel figures to be more of a multi-year signing. Gonzalez could be a one-year stopgap who wouldn't require a dramatic shift in the team's payroll plan.
Mine the scrap heap
Aside from Keuchel and Gonzalez, the free-agent market has very little to offer in terms of establish big-league starters at this point. Six current free agents other than Keuchel and Gonzalez made multiple big-league starts last season. The list:
Jackson was easily the most effective of those six, pitching to a 3.33 ERA in 17 starts and 92 innings with the Athletics. He also had a 5.32 ERA in 531 2/3 innings from 2013-17, so last year's performance is an outlier compared to recent years. Shields chewed up 204 2/3 innings for the White Sox last year, but he also has a 5.17 ERA with nearly two home runs allowed for every nine innings pitched over the last three seasons.
In recent weeks veteran starters like Jason Hammel (Rangers), Francisco Liriano (Pirates), Ervin Santana (White Sox), and Josh Tomlin (Brewers) all signed minor-league contracts. Those deals are essentially a spring training free trial. They go to camp, show what they can do, and if the team likes what they see, they add them to the MLB roster. If not, they walk away with no strings attached. Even before the Severino injury, Yankees GM Brian Cashman told Joel Sherman of the New York Post he's made several minor-league offers in recent weeks.
Without saying to whom, Brian Cashman revealed, "We've been offering those [minor league deals to starters] out like Chiclets." The Yankees GM said even the secondary veterans at this late date continue to hold out for major league deals.
Minor-league contracts for veterans with six-plus years of service time usually include an opt-out date at the end of spring training, allowing the player to sign with another big-league team rather than go to Triple-A. Someone like Liriano or Santana could shake loose in the coming weeks and the Yankees could pounce on them as a low-cost rotation stopgap. That's an option.
The starting pitching trade market is usually non-existent in March because no team wants to surrender rotation depth. The best hope for the trade market is an out of options pitcher -- out of options means the player has to pass through waivers to go to Triple-A -- who is on the roster bubble. Athletics righty Aaron Brooks, Diamondbacks righty Matt Koch, Padres righty Bryan Mitchell, and Reds righty Matt Wisler all fit that description. If they don't make the Opening Day roster, their teams are more likely to trade them rather than risk losing them for nothing on waivers.
Point is, if the Yankees want to go cheap with their Severino replacement, and I mean really cheap, there are starters available. Jackson, Shields, and others are sitting in free agency and, inevitably, some arms will become available on the out of options market. It happens every spring. An extra arm for depth rather than a clear-cut rotation addition could be the way to go.
Stick with internal options
Over the last few seasons the Yankees have become a team that looks to address needs from within before looking to add outside help. In fact, Severino himself made his MLB debut as a rotation reinforcement in August 2015. The Yankees didn't like the prices for available starters at the trade deadline, so they instead called up Severino, who posted a 2.89 ERA in 11 second half starts. Miguel Andujar was called up because Brandon Drury got hurt last year. This is what the Yankees do now. They promote from within before looking outside the organization for help.
At the moment, New York's starting rotation depth chart looks something like this:
- Luis Severino (will miss Opening Day with shoulder injury)
- James Paxton
- Masahiro Tanaka
- J.A. Happ
- CC Sabathia (will miss Opening Day after knee and heart surgery)
- Luis Cessa
- Domingo German
- Jonathan Loaisiga
- Chance Adams
- Drew Hutchison
Going into spring training Cessa, German, and Loaisiga were all essentially competing for one long relief spot in the bullpen. Now it's possible all three will make the Opening Day roster. One as Severino's replacement, one as Sabathia's replacement, and one as the long man. Those three combined to make 23 starts with a 5.69 ERA last season. That's pretty bad! For what it's worth, ZiPS projections paint a slightly rosier picture for 2019:
Not great, but if you're the Yankees and you're not going to sign Keuchel or Gonzalez, do you really expect any better from Jackson or Shields or Colon? Probably not. MLB.com currently ranks Loaisiga as the 66th best prospect in baseball -- "He has the upside of a No. 2 or 3 starter if he can stay healthy," says their scouting report -- and German is also a former highly regarded prospect who once pitched in the Futures Game.
Sabathia is due back sometime in mid-April -- he started his spring throwing program last week and is about three weeks behind the other starters in camp -- and, if Severino's injury is truly a minor thing that delays him only two weeks or so, riding it out with Cessa or German or Loaisiga is a viable option for the Yankees. Their early season schedule is favorable. They'll play 16 of their first 21 games against the rebuilding Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, and Royals. The favorable schedule could make sticking with internal rotation candidates an easy call.
Get a little creative
Specifically, the Yankees could pair someone like Cessa, German, or Loaisiga with an opener. They could let one of their vaunted relievers face the top of the lineup in the first inning, then turn it over to one of the kids and let him throw four or five innings while facing the top of the lineup (i.e. the other team's best hitters, in theory) only once. It is exactly what the division rival Rays did so well last year.
For what it's worth, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was asked about using an opener recently, before the Severino injury, and he did not dismiss the idea out of hand. Here's what he told George King of the New York Post:
"I can see a scenario. Look if we are healthy and have perfect health you don't envision that. I could see a handful of times where it could potentially be in play for us,'' said Boone
Well, the Yankees are not healthy. Severino and Sabathia are going to miss the start of the season and they have to come up with two temporary replacement starters. The Yankees have such an outrageously deep bullpen that they could use someone like Chad Green as an opener and still have Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Zack Britton, and Adam Ottavino available for the late innings. Maybe they'd even use Betances or Britton as an opener and really drop the hammer.
Given their current rotation situation and the fact every game is going to be crucial in what figures to be a tight AL East race with the Red Sox, the Yankees shouldn't rule out using an opener with Severino and Sabathia sidelined. Cessa, German, and Loaisiga have talent and are tantalizing. That said, making their life easier with an opener, allowing them to avoid the top of the order once per game, sure seems like a good idea should the Yankees stick with their internal rotation options.