The New York Yankees’ stranglehold on the American League East loosened a bit Tuesday with the news Luis Severino needs Tommy John surgery.
Severino, a front-line starter when healthy, was limited to just 12 innings across three regular-season starts in 2019 thanks to injuries. He’ll now likely miss the entire 2020 campaign, again leaving the Yankees with a sizable hole in their rotation as they look to make good on their World Series aspirations.
Obviously, one simply can point to last season as proof New York is capable of overcoming Severino’s injury, especially since the Bronx Bombers just signed Gerrit Cole — one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball — to a nine-year, $324 million contract to spearhead their rotation. The Yankees won 103 games and secured a division title in 2019 en route to an ALCS berth, and the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles all have their flaws.
But the Yankees also will be without starter James Paxton to begin the 2020 season, as the imposing left-hander underwent back surgery earlier this month and could be out until around June. And since Cole can’t pitch every game, it’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees’ vaunted lineup will be good enough to overcome the apparent shortcomings in the team’s rotation, at least until reinforcements arrive.
Beyond Cole, the Yankees’ Opening Day rotation figures to include Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery and another starter to be determined. This isn’t ideal when you consider Tanaka’s strikeout rate keeps declining, Happ is coming off arguably the worst season of his 13-year career and Montgomery (still relatively unproven) tossed only four major league innings in 2019.
2020 Yankees' expected rotation
2020 Yankees' Opening Day rotation
3. Happ (coming off worst season of career)
4. Montgomery (pitched 4 MLB innings in 2019)
5. Opener or journeyman or rookie with 0 MLB experience
— Neil Keefe (@NeilKeefe) February 25, 2020
Now, of course, Paxton’s eventual return should provide a boost. As should the return of Domingo German, an 18-game winner last season who will miss New York’s first 81 contests this season while serving a suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy. Plus, the Yankees boast several young hurlers with upside who could emerge in the meantime, enough assets to make a splash on the trade market should they choose and a bullpen that’s among baseball’s best. It’s not like they’re going to become cellar dwellers overnight.
The mounting concerns are legitimate, though. At the very least, the road to the postseason — and potentially the World Series — just became much more difficult for the Yankees, and that’s reflected in the updated 2020 projections shared Tuesday by FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski.
Luis Severino (ZiPS was already down to 120 innings in the sims) for the season drops Yankees Div%/Play%/WSWin% from 82%/98%/18% to 69%/93%/14%.
Rays go from 15/72/5.6 to 25/73/6.7.
Red Sox go from 2.6/29/1.6 to 5.2/31/1.9
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) February 25, 2020
Here’s a breakdown via Szymborski, the man behind the ZiPS projection system:
Before Severino news
Yankees: 82 percent chance of winning division, 98 percent chance of reaching playoffs, 18 percent chance of winning World Series.
Rays: 15 percent chance of winning division, 72 percent chance of reaching playoffs, 5.6 percent chance of winning World Series.
Red Sox: 2.6 percent chance of winning division, 29 percent chance of reaching playoffs, 1.6 percent chance of winning World Series.
After Severino news (percent change in parentheses)
Yankees: 69 percent chance of winning division (-13 percent), 93 percent chance of reaching playoffs (-5 percent), 14 percent chance of winning World Series (-4 percent).
Rays: 25 percent chance of winning division (+10 percent), 73 percent chance of reaching playoffs (+1 percent), 6.7 chance of winning World Series (+1.1 percent).
Red Sox: 5.2 percent chance of winning division (+2.6 percent), 31 percent chance of reaching playoffs (+2 percent), 1.9 percent chance of winning World Series (+0.3 percent).
Again, none of this is to suggest the Yankees aren’t still the frontrunners to win the AL East for a second consecutive season. They’re absolutely among the handful of legitimate World Series contenders — perhaps even atop the list — in spite of Severino’s apparent season-ending injury, largely because no one else in the division looks poised to threaten New York’s status due to their own respective deficiencies.
That said, the gap closed Tuesday with the news the Yankees’ second-best starting pitcher needs to go under the knife, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this season turned into much more of a fight than folks in the Bronx probably expected.