Yankees in MLB playoffs: Injuries, pitching plans and everything else to know as New York closes in on division title

In approximately two weeks, the New York Yankees will host Game 1 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have clinched their first AL East title since 2012, and they've done that despite a seemingly never-ending barrage of injuries. No team in baseball has lost more man-games to injuries this year, and it's not close either:

  1. New York Yankees: 2,560 days
  2. San Diego Padres: 1,918
  3. Philadelphia Phillies: 1,785
  4. Pittsburgh Pirates: 1,567
  5. Los Angeles Angels: 1,439

"I've tried to remain the same and consistent, and that goes back to spring training when it's all those guys in a room and saying, 'Hey, you may not think you will impact our club this year, but stranger things have happened,'" manager Aaron Boone recently told The Athletic's Lindsey Adler regarding the team's next-man-up mentality. "This year, we've had to dig deeper into that room than we ever thought, but I think that mindset we try to set in motion in spring training so that guys do feel a part of it."

The Yankees are battling for the best record in baseball and thus home-field advantage throughout the postseason, and there's a chance they will lead baseball in home runs again despite all those injuries. Fill-ins like Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman and Cameron Maybin have carried the club through the injuries, so much so that they kept their spots on the roster even after guys got healthy.

Because the state of the Yankees seems to change on an everyday basis (due to injuries, mostly), CBS Sports is here to provide you with everything you need to know about the team heading into October. The regular season is not over yet, so things can and will change before October, but here's the latest on the Bronx Bombers.

Who will be healthy in time for October?

Luis Severino and Giancarlo Stanton. We know that now. 

The Yankees had been without Severino, their top starter, up until this past Tuesday. Severino went down with a shoulder issue in spring training, and during his rehab work in June, he suffered a lat injury that delayed his return. He was able to get healthy and get some minor league rehab innings under his belt before returning to the big leagues this week.

"He's an elite pitcher," Boone said prior to Severino's debut Tuesday. "I don't want to put too much on him right now. First and foremost, this is another big step for him. A chance to probably get out there a few times now between the end of the season, which will obviously be really valuable for him and for us."

Severino's first start went about as well as the Yankees could've hoped. He tossed four scoreless innings while being held to a strict pitch limit, and he showed his usual high-end velocity as well as the ability to miss bats and generate weak contact. He looked like Luis Severino, basically. Now it's just a matter of building up his pitch count before the postseason.

"I feel very comfortable out there. Pitches were working great. Everything was working great," Severino said Tuesday. "... I've been looking forward to this since spring training. It's been a long time. It's been a long road back. I'm here now and I'm healthy. I can help my team."

As for Stanton, he was activated Wednesday after being sidelined by a knee problem since June 25. Add in biceps and shoulder issues earlier this season and Stanton had played only nine games in 2019 before this week. The Yankees are thin in the outfield at the moment (more on that later) and are planning to play Stanton in left field regularly. They'll ease him back into things initially.

"I may build him up a little bit. He could play a handful of innings and I might pull him and things like that, especially with the rosters being what you have here in the month of September," Boone said earlier this week when asked about Stanton in the outfield. "He's been getting after it really for a good while now. He's racked up a lot of at-bats, he's done all his defensive work. He's really been bouncing back well the next day, feeling like his knee is where it needs to be. He's been doing all his baserunning and agility -- his conditioning -- the amount of at-bats he's been able to rack up I think has him feeling good about that." 

The Yankees have been just fine without Stanton this season -- more than fine, really -- but he's still a devastating power hitter who can change a game with one swing. With the team short on outfielders and also short a few other middle of the order hitters (more on that soon), Stanton's return has become very important. The Yankees need him in the field and at the plate.  

The Yankees will also get J.A. Happ back this week -- Happ will start Friday after being shut down a few days with a biceps issue -- and both righty Ben Heller and lefty Jordan Montgomery returned last week. Those two have spent the season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. They're unlikely to be on the postseason roster, but they are healthy and pitching, and available players.

The Yankees did not add pitching prior to the trade deadline and are instead banking on Severino returning to form to help the team in October -- "We're gonna basically look to hopefully add from our (injured list). We have some pretty star-studded guys sitting there waiting in the wings," GM Brian Cashman said following the deadline -- and now it appears he'll do exactly that.

Who might be healthy in time for October?

During a doubleheader sweep in Detroit last Thursday, the Yankees lost Edwin Encarnacion to an oblique injury in the first game and Gary Sanchez to a groin strain in the second game. Encarnacion's oblique strain is considered a low-grade "internal" strain, and, at a charity event earlier this week, he told reporters he feels good and is making progress.

"He's pain-free, which is good. He was on the bike in there earlier. Just trying to work that range of motion," Boone said Tuesday. "Just kind of trusting the healing process right now. I would say the early days here he's doing quite well, and the fact he is pain free is a good thing, and we're optimistic. Still a little bit of time yet ... I wouldn't expect him to swing anytime this week."

Sanchez's groin injury is his second this year -- he missed 17 days in late July and early August -- and fourth in the last two years. The Yankees are hopeful he will be back before the ALDS begins. For now, Sanchez remains shut down and has not yet started baseball activities. That's still a few days away, possibly longer.

"Similar to Edwin, he's got a mild strain in there. It's kind of the treatment phase at this point," Boone said. "Again, optimistic that by the end of the season he'll be good to go, but it'll probably be close too. The early days have been somewhat at least encouraging that he's responding the right way."

At this point, the best case scenario for Encarnacion and Sanchez is returning a few games before the end of the regular season, allowing them to rack up at-bats and shake off the rust, but it is entirely possible both will go into the ALDS cold, meaning no more game action during the regular season. It's hardly ideal. I'm not sure what else the Yankees are supposed to do though.

"Edwin and Gary obviously are two guys that we hope to get back by the end. Sevy getting back in the mix, Dellin getting back in the mix the other day. Monty's back in the mix. Giancarlo back this week," Boone said Tuesday. "There's a lot of guys coming back at varying stages. Hopefully we get them all back in some way, shape, or form. I look at it as an exciting time."

Who won't be healthy in time for October?

Well, Jacoby Ellsbury for starters, but the Yankees haven't missed him the last two seasons as he rehabs from hip surgery. More importantly, the Yankees know they will be without Mike Tauchman and Aaron Hicks. Hicks suffered an elbow injury making a throw last month, and after initially fearing he would need Tommy John surgery, the Yankees recently received good news about his injury.

"(Hicks) is actually beginning a throwing program," Boone revealed earlier this week. "He's been doing pretty well in these last several days. So he is in the early stages of a throwing program. Where that takes him and us, we'll just have to see. It's in the very early stages."

Hicks is not out of the woods yet. He started a throwing program a few weeks ago and didn't respond well, prompting a second look at this elbow, so Tommy John surgery remains on the table. The Yankees certainly aren't treating Hicks as a postseason possibility. He's a rehabbing player and the rehab is expected to continue through October. He's a non-factor now.

Tauchman suffered a Grade 2 calf strain last week that will sideline him 6-8 weeks. There is an outside chance he could return in the ALCS or World Series should the Yankees advance, but it's far from certain. He'd have to get back into baseball shape once the calf heals and that takes time. Tauchman hit .277/.361/.504 this year and was a big part of the club's next-man-up mentality.

The Yankees were dealt another blow earlier this week when Dellin Betances suffered a partial tear of his left Achilles. He suffered the injury hopping off the mound following a strikeout Sunday. Sunday was his 2019 debut after missing the first five and a half months of the season with a nagging shoulder injury. Betances was expected to be a big part of the team's October bullpen.

"Obviously frustrating. About as freak as it can be. We'll deal with it," Boone said Tuesday. "Obviously we've dealt with a lot of things this year and this is another one. We'll support Dellin as best we can through this. He's a big part of this still going forward."

In addition to Betances, Hicks, and Tauchman (and Ellsbury), the Yankees do not expect third baseman Miguel Andujar (shoulder surgery), first baseman Greg Bird (foot), long man David Hale (back, knee), or middle reliever Jonathan Holder (shoulder) back this year. Encarnacion and Sanchez are the last of the cavalry. 

They're going to be creative with their pitching staff

It's no secret the Yankees have some questions in their rotation. James Paxton has been excellent the last two months following an uneven start to his Yankees tenure. Masahiro Tanaka has said the current baseball makes it difficult to throw his trademark splitter, contributing to a 4.60 ERA and the lowest strikeout rate of his career. Happ has struggled all year and Domingo German is now on administrative leaveJustin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke this rotation is not.

Getting Severino back -- even a compromised Severino following a long layoff and an impromptu spring training program -- is a big addition to the Yankees. Even still, the team is planning to be creative with their rotation in October. Here's what Boone told Tom Verducci of the <em>Sports Illustrated</em> earlier this week:

"We're going to be a little untraditional," manager Aaron Boone said. "The only one we might use as a traditional starter is [James] Paxton."

By traditional, Boone means a starting pitcher who goes as deep as he can into a game. Otherwise, New York is prepared to script each game with piggyback starters and six key relievers. That doesn't make the Yankees vulnerable. It makes them smart.

Boone mentioned Tanaka could be used as a "floater" in October and I'm not quite sure what that means. Tanaka has been very good in the postseason throughout his career (1.50 ERA in five starts), so maybe they'll save him for the first potential clincher or elimination game, meaning he could start Game 3 or 4 of the ALDS depending on Games 1-2? Not sure.

As for the piggybacking starters idea, the Yankees had German follow Sabathia in a game twice in the last week to prepare him for the role, but he likely is no longer a postseason option. Sabathia was going to pitch in relief at some point before the season ends, but German's administrative leave may change that plan.

"Whatever my role is in the postseason, in the bullpen or starting or whatever, I am good for it," Sabathia told NJ.com's Randy Miller recently.

Boone added: "Matchups certainly matter. Who you're playing. We're trying to maximize performance, right? How do we do that? ... There's a lot of things that go into (using piggyback starters), and sometimes things change day by day based on where you are with guys you've used and whatnot."

Based on everything we know, the Yankees could line up their ALDS rotation like so:

  • Game 1: Paxton
  • Game 2: Severino
  • Game 3: Sabathia/Happ piggyback or Tanaka if a chance to clinch or get eliminated
  • Game 4: Tanaka or Sabathia/Happ (whoever doesn't pitch Game 4)
  • Game 5: Paxton

Theoretically, the Yankees can get through the postseason with what Boone calls one "traditional starter" because their bullpen is so good. Their bullpen hierarchy shakes out like so:

Kahnle is right-handed but his changeup makes him one of the best lefty specialists in the game. He's held left-handed hitters to a .250 on-base percentage with a strikeout rate approaching 40 percent this year. Ottavino and his video game slider is death on righties, so he faces the tough righties in the 6th or 7th inning, and Kahnle faces the tough lefties.

Earlier this year Green pitched so poorly he had to be sent to Triple-A, but, in his last 35 appearances, he's managed a 2.49 ERA and has held hitters to a .217/.267/.344 batting line. The Yankees have stretched Green out to three innings and 40-plus pitches in recent weeks, so we might as well consider him a piggyback starter option at this point. He can provide length.

The Betances injury takes away another late-innings option, that one extra power strikeout reliever who can help shorten the game. The injury likely opens the door for slider specialist Luis Cessa or sinkerballer Cory Gearrin to make the postseason roster, though the Yankees could take an extra lefty (Stephen Tarpley, most likely) depending on their ALDS matchup.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I'm certain they'd tell you they wish they had four workhorse starters they could run out there for 6-7 innings in October. That isn't the case, so the Yankees have to improvise, and their plan involves using piggyback starters and leaning heavily on a deep bullpen loaded with hard-throwers who limit contact and rack up strikeouts.

How will the infield shake out?

The Yankees currently have a surplus of infielders, five main players for just four positions. Entering Wednesday, the Yankees have Didi Gregorius, Gio Urshela, Gleyber Torres, Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu on the active roster along with Edwin Encarnacion, Thairo Estrada, Mike Ford and Tyler Wade as part of the secondary group. If we look at the most recent lineups, they would suggest that the postseason infield is most definitely not set in stone yet. The infield's been a mix of everyone spending a little bit of time everywhere. Although, Urshela and Gregorius have mainly played third base and shortstop, respectively.

The designated hitter spot would make most sense if given to one of the many infielders, but this is going to be dependent on Stanton successfully making a healthy and productive return to the outfield. Otherwise, the Yankees will have to push Stanton to DH if he's not yet ready on defense. If Stanton plays outfield without any hiccups, the Yankees can choose from Encarnacion or Voit. Torres is an option as well, but that'll depend on whether LeMathieu takes the second base spot. Considering the fact that Encarnacion is still nursing an oblique strain and still has not resumed swinging, it's more likely that LeMahieu will take over at first base while Voit moves to DH, with Gregorius at short, Urshela at third and Torres at second.

For now, everyone and all options are available and honestly, if the Yankees have learned anything from their injury-plagued regular season, it's that you can never have too many options.

Limited outfield depth is a concern

Heading into October, the Yankees are left with just three healthy outfielders in Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner and Clint Frazier. Here's the latest status (as of Sept. 18) on the rest of New York's outfielders:

Giancarlo Stanton: Stanton was activated from the injured list on Wednesday, where he started in left field. With Mike Tauchman's injury (more on that below), Stanton will likely be seeing regular time in left field. Many of the Yankees postseason roster decisions are going to depend on how Stanton looks in his return, as mentioned in the previous subhead. His performance in the games that are left in the regular season will help the Yankees decide whether or not he's 100 percent ready to resume a role in the outfield. Ideally, Stanton would be and then the Yankees can use the designated hitter spot for one of their many infielders. 

Mike Tauchman: Despite his playing time being somewhat sporadic, Tauchman proved to be crucial for the Yankees this season, who were at a time, missing Stanton, Judge and Aaron Hicks at the same time with injuries. The unsuspecting breakout Yankee saw his season be cut short when he was diagnosed with a Grade 2 calf strain on Sept. 9. The recovery time is six-to-eight weeks, so he's likely played his last regular season game, but the chance of him re-joining the Yankees in October can't be ruled out completely just yet.

Aaron Hicks: While it hasn't been officially announced just yet, Hicks is likely done for the season. He's been battling a right flexor strain, and for right now, he was recommended continued rest and rehab by doctors. But, Tommy John surgery is still a possibility. This is what manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including the New York Post:

"Surgery certainly would be on the table. I wouldn't even call it likely. It's very much up in the air with how he responds. Even if it's ultimately not surgery, the clock's against him now. We have a lot of good players out there. We'll be all right."

Hicks hasn't played since early August, but he's resumed throwing. It still remains unclear whether he'll be able to return to action at some point during the playoffs. If Hicks' rehab program proves to be unsuccessful and he is required to undergo Tommy John, he would be the third Yankees position player in the last three years to undergo the procedure, following Gleyber Torres and Didi Gregorius. Hicks signed a seven-year, $70 million extension this offseason, and he has played in just 59 games this year.

Cameron Maybin: Maybin is currently listed as day-to-day. He aggravated his left wrist during Tuesday's game against the Angels. Manager Aaron Boone told reporters at the beginning of September that Maybin's been dealing with lingering soreness in his left wrist. Here's what Boone told reporters, including the NY Daily News, after Tuesday's game:

"Yeah. I asked him about it, he kind of shook it off. It is something he does deal with from time to time. Crops up on him in certain games. I'll check with him. Probably won't start him (Wednesday), but not too worried about it," Boone said. "Something he's going to have to deal with as it flares up on and off."

Since the Yankees acquired Maybin in April, the veteran outfielder has split his time between right and left field. He'll likely receive plenty of rest over these next two weeks, but could still end up being a key figure this postseason with Tauchman and Hicks out, whether he starts in the outfield or comes off the bench.

Tyler Wade: Wade's still unproven as an outfielder but he's available, and another outfield option after Maybin and Frazier. Wade's speed (pinch running ability) and defensive versatility (can play both infield and outfield) are his best qualities, but it was always his bat that lagged behind. But in his last nine games (six starts, four in the outfield), Wade is slashing .350/.409/.500 with a double and a triple. He also filled in at left field back in April when Frazier and Judge spent time on the injured list.

Moving forward, the outfield configuration will likely be Judge in right, Stanton in left with Gardner in center. Frazier and Wade are the next two up off the bench, with the possibility for Maybin to fill-in still there. That is, if everyone that's healthy currently stays healthy. Again, like we've mentioned before, you have a few parts of the roster that can't really be definitely decided on until how Stanton performs in his return is evaluated. It's not the best scenario when most of your team's outfield probables for the playoffs are still up in the air, but hey, just look at how well this team managed with injuries throughout the entire course of this season.

The race for home-field advantage

The Astros and Dodgers are currently entangled in a race with the Yankees for the best regular season record in baseball, which in turn would lead to clinching home-field advantage throughout the World Series. The three clubs have the best title chances as we near October.

The Yankees play very well at home, notching a 54-23 (.701) record on the season, to go along with a team .256 batting average. Their pitching is better in Yankee Stadium as well, allowing 306 runs versus 395 runs when playing as the visiting ball club. On the road, New York also boasts a winning record of 45-31 (.592) with a team .236 batting average. It's a slight difference, but playing in the Bronx would still make a difference for the Yankees sluggers. The Astros and Dodgers home/road splits are a bit wider than the Yankees, meaning that going by the statistics, Houston and Los Angeles need home-field advantage more than New York. The Astros have a 58-20 (.744) home record versus their 42-33 (.560) record on the road. The Dodgers boast a strong home record at 57-21 (.731) as well, but the team has the weakest road record of the three at 41-34 (.547).

The Yankees are by no means limping into the playoffs, and it helps that this team is coming off back-to-back postseason appearances, but it's a long season and players could benefit from rest before they would play their first game on Oct. 4 for the start of the ALDS. It's especially important considering how many of the team's core players have been susceptible to injuries this season. As manager Aaron Boone notes, he's going to try to find a balance between keeping all of their players fresh and healthy for the postseason while also battling for the best record and home-field advantage:

"It's the balance all the time. Nothing changes. We want to win games and part of winning games is keeping players fresh, keeping players healthy and at their best. You try to strike that balance and do what's right all the time to make sure your guys are good to go going forward while trying to rack up wins."

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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