The Yankees were indeed one of the better teams of 2019; in fact they could have been the best depending on what we think we know about the Houston Astros. But one thing we do know is that despite the Bombers’ strength—winning 103 games and coming within a couple games of the World Series for the second time in three years—their pitching was not their strong suit.
In fact, they were so hamstrung by pitching depth that, as we remember, Game Six of the ALCS was a bona fide bullpen game, something generally unheard of. That spoke to the Astros’ top-heavy approach obviously, but this wasn’t some shock considering how the Yankees banked on their offense throughout the entire year. And that was always the plan, as the only acquisition geared towards pitching last year was signing JA Happ to a three-year deal (which I’ll get to) and signing CC Sabathia for his final season.
Ultimately the Yankees didn’t get 200+ innings from a single starter, and just three over 150. They needed Happ for 161 1⁄3 of those, and he was good for just a 4.91 ERA over that span, not exactly inspiring. Paxton had flashes of brilliance but he was riddled with minor injuries, and to start this year he discovered a peridiscal cyst that could sideline him for the first half of the year.
In no uncertain terms, the Gerrit Cole signing was meant to be insurance against all of this. The Yankees have not spent this much on pitching in a decade, no exaggeration there, and the net result is 5-6 wins added to a rotation that close to the top ten, or near to the middle of the pack, of rotations in baseball. The initial loss of Paxton complicates that, but another injury complicates it further.
As Spring Training began, it was clear that something wasn’t right with Luis Severino. In fact, he revealed that was dealing with forearm soreness since Game Three of the ALCS, something he says he feels when he tosses his changeup. His MRIs suggest there are no structural issues, but based on the last decade of pitching injuries, forearm soreness often portends another year of injuries.
This would make almost two full seasons where Severino has not thrown a pitch; in 2018, he was ninth in fWAR, just .6 wins behind his new teammate Cole. Not to say that we would bank Severino for five wins in 2020, but you have to imagine that if he was healthy, he would be a top-30 performer in baseball. That can’t be understated, and for another important reason.
I think teams are certainly underrating the Rays’ chances of winning the AL East, as people did last season. Tampa Bay finished with 96 games despite their usual MacGyver roster, and they made some offseason moves that should put them in a similar situation. They signed Yoshitomo Tsutsugo to a two-year, $12 million deal; ZiPS thinks he could be a 112 wRC+ hitter based on MLEs. They also traded Emilio Pagan for Logan Driscoll and Manuel Margot; Margot, as has been noted, is in the top tier of OAA. I wasn’t personally a fan of the deal that essentially swapped Tommy Pham and Hunter Renfroe so they could also acquire Xavier Edwards, but Renfroe should mostly offset the performance deficit from Pham. All of this together suggests a 95-win team, pending improvements at the deadline.
This means that two big injuries to Paxton and Severino significantly affect the margin between the two, in a way I suppose we won’t be able to understand until the year plays out. The Yankees have an interesting cadre of pitching depth, but not fantastic when I say interesting.
The likes of Michael King, Luis Gil, and Deivi Garcia likely do not play a dynamic role in deciding pitching performance this year, and I don’t think the Bombers are banking on more than a win from Jordan Montgomery, though my eyes are on him to be a reliable starter at some point throughout the year. Injuries play a role from the jump, and Severino is just the first domino in a league-wide series of them to fall.