The Yankees suffered their first notable Spring Training injury yesterday afternoon. Luis Severino was a late scratch from his debut Grapefruit League start with what is being called rotator cuff inflammation. He received a cortisone injection and anti-inflammatories, and will be shut down two weeks. Severino is “highly unlikely” to be ready for Opening Day, Aaron Boone said. I mean, duh. Anyway, I have some thoughts on this, so let’s get to ’em.
1. Rotator cuff inflammation is about the best possible news in this situation. The Yankees say the MRI looked good, which I take to mean there’s no structural damage, so that’s reassuring. That said, inflammation is not a diagnosis. It’s a symptom. It’s like saying Severino has a runny nose without mentioning he has the flu. There’s something in his shoulder causing the inflammation. The range of possible outcomes with shoulder inflammation is wide. It could truly be a two-week thing and Severino comes back good as new. Or it could linger all season and he’s never quite himself. Brewers righty Zach Davies was put on the disabled list with rotator cuff inflammation last May and was shut down ten days. Ten days turned into two weeks, two weeks turned into a month, a month turned into six weeks, on and on it went. Davies wasn’t ready to return to the Brewers until mid-August and, when he did return, he was nowhere near as effective as he had been previously. All things considered, I’ll take “rotator cuff inflammation and shut down two weeks” over something like a strain. This definitely has the potential to be something more serious than the two-week timetable would lead you to believe. Shoulders are unpredictable.
2. I am happy Severino spoke up about the injury — you’d be surprised how many guys try to pitch through aches and pains, even in Spring Training — and I am certain the Yankees will be cautious with him. He turned only 25 last month and he’s one of the best young pitchers in baseball, and the Yankees just committed to him long-term with a $40M contract. In this unforgiving and hyper-analytic era where players are treated more as commodities than people, Severino is an investment, and the Yankees are going to protect that investment. For argument’s sake though, let’s say Severino will be a-okay after two weeks and can start a throwing program. That probably puts him on track to return sometime in late April, or even early May. He was scheduled to make his spring debut yesterday and won’t be able to pick up right where he left off, you know? Severino will start by playing catch, then he’ll throw in the bullpen, then he’ll face some hitters in a simulated game, then he’ll start pitching in minor league rehab games to get stretched out. The best case scenario likely puts Severino on track to begin pitching in rehab games the second week of April or thereabouts. Three or four rehab starts to get ready puts his return at the end of April, assuming no setbacks or delays. The everything goes right scenario has Severino missing the first month of the regular season. Yuck. For all intents and purposes, Severino will have to restart Spring Training once he’s deemed healthy.
3. Boone said Severino felt something after throwing one specific pitch during his warm-ups yesterday. This isn’t something he’s felt for a while that suddenly got worse. Severino recently admitted he felt fatigued down the stretch last year — “When you are at the finish line and you feel like you need a little bit more than five days to be ready, you know that something’s going on,” he said — and I can’t help but wonder how much that contributed to this injury, if at all. As I noted in our season review post, Severino’s fastball velocity and slider spin rate were down late last year, and his command slipped as well. I’m convinced the pitch-tipping was only like 5% of the problem despite getting 100% of the attention. There were real red flags last year. The Yankees have put Severino through two physicals since the end of last season (his end-of-season physical and start-of-spring physical), and you can be sure his medicals were scrutinized before they gave him that $40M contract. Also, Gary Sanchez told Marly Rivera that Severino was throwing the ball very well in his bullpen sessions this spring. “After that bullpen, give him the ball every five days. He’s ready,” Gary said recently. Maybe whatever was wrong late last year contributed to this injury. It’s certainly possible. It seems to me this is something that just happened yesterday though. Pitchers get hurt, man. It’s part of the game.
4. The calls for Dallas Keuchel were inevitable and are completely understandable. The “this guy got hurt, so go sign the best free agent at his position to replace him” line of thinking has been around since the dawn of free agency. I would be absolutely shocked if the Yankees went out and signed Keuchel though. That’s just not how they operate nowadays. The Yankees were not connected to Keuchel at all this winter — I like to think I do a good job rounding up hot stove rumors here, and the most recent post in our Keuchel archive is from the 2017 ALCS — which makes sense because he is not their type. They go for power pitchers and/or pitchers on short-term contracts these days. Keuchel is neither of those things. He’s a finesse pitch-to-contact guy who’s ground ball and strikeout rates are heading in the wrong direction, and, call it a hunch, but something tells me Scott Boras won’t be willing to cut the Yankees a break on a short-term Keuchel deal in the wake of the Severino injury. (It would aggravate me to no end if the Yankees signed Keuchel long-term after declining to go long-term for Patrick Corbin, but I digress.) Like it or not, the Yankees have a payroll limit and they’ve shown us they won’t exceed it. Signing Keuchel means blowing up that payroll plan and exceeding the $226M second luxury tax threshold. Cot’s has the luxury tax payroll at $222.4M right now. The first $3.6M the Yankees give Keuchel (or anyone, for that matter) would equal $4.32M total thanks to the luxury tax. Every $1 after that is $1.32. It is real money and it matters to the Yankees. They’ve made that clear. I want absolutely nothing to do with Keuchel long-term. At 31, he pitches like I want a 38-year-old to pitch after he loses his stuff. I’m not betting on a smooth decline. On a hypothetical one-year deal, even a very expensive one-year deal ($30M?), yes, absolutely the Yankees should sign Keuchel now that Severino’s hurt and the start of the CC Sabathia’s season is being delayed. I just don’t see that happening. I don’t see Keuchel and Boras taking a one-year deal and I don’t see the Yankees going long-term. The Yankees have set their payroll and Keuchel is a fit only because he’s available, not because he does things the Yankees value (throw hard, spin the ball, miss bats, etc.).
5. I don’t think Keuchel is a realistic possibility, though I do believe the Yankees are going to hunker down and look for additional rotation depth now. Moreso than usual, I mean. (They’re always looking.) Jordan Montgomery is on schedule with his Tommy John surgery rehab but is still so far away — Montgomery recently said he’s looking to return soon after the All-Star break — that the Yankees couldn’t stand pat and wait for him to come save the day. The current crop of unsigned free agent starters absolutely stinks beyond Keuchel and the thoroughly uninspiring Gio Gonzalez. MLBTR has eight starters on their unsigned free agents list. I rank them:
- Dallas Keuchel
- Gio Gonzalez
- Edwin Jackson
- James Shields
- Yovani Gallardo
- Miguel Gonzalez
- Chris Tillman
- Bartolo Colon
How many of those dudes will actually throw a pitch in the big leagues this season? Keuchel and Gonzalez will, for sure. Eventually they’re going to sign. Pretty decent chance that’s it though. The other guys might be forced into retirement. Aaron Brooks (Athletics), Matt Koch (Diamondbacks), and Matt Wisler (Reds) are out of minor league options and on the roster bubble, so maybe one of them shakes loose before Opening Day. Point is: Yikes. There is not much pitching out there at all. I expect the Yankees to pursue a lower cost depth arm rather than a big money guy like Keuchel, or even a medium money guy like Gonzalez. Someone like Jackson (eh) or Shields (blah) on a “we’ll bring you to camp, and if we like what we see, we’ll consider adding you to the roster” minor league contract a la Ervin Santana and the White Sox strikes me as the most likely outcome here. (Would any of these guys even be ready to pitch come Opening Day? Or are we looking at a mid-April arrival?)
6. As for their internal rotation options, the Yankees have some pretty lively arms available in Luis Cessa, Domingo German, and Jonathan Loaisiga. Saying the Yankees lack rotation depth is almost Pavlovian these days. (“What is the Yankees’ biggest weakness?” “Rotation depth. Now where’s my treat?”) No team has an established Major League starter stashed away as their sixth guy and no worthwhile free agent is signing with a team knowing he is at best sixth on the rotation depth chart. That’s just now how it works. New York’s rotation depth chart lines up something like this:
- Luis Severino (will miss Opening Day)
- James Paxton
- Masahiro Tanaka
- J.A. Happ
- CC Sabathia (will miss Opening Day)
- Luis Cessa
- Domingo German
- Jonathan Loaisiga
- Chance Adams
- Mike King (will miss Opening Day)
We could ague about the exact order all day. Clearly though, the top five is the top five and the next five is the next five. Remember when the Yankees had to turn to guys like Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner and Chase Whitley as depth starters? Yeah, I feel way better about having dudes like Cessa and German and Loaisiga as depth. Younger guys who can throw a fastball by a hitter and break off some quality secondary pitches. The early season schedule is very favorable — the Yankees play 16 of their first 21 games against the Orioles, Tigers, White Sox, and Royals — and I say use an opener for Cessa or German or Loaisiga. Unless the Yankees splurge for Keuchel or Gonzalez, I’d stick with the in-house youngsters over a dude at the end of the line like Shields or Gallardo. (I totally get signing someone like that for added depth. I just don’t see them as better options than what the Yankees have now.)
7. Alright, so with Severino slated to miss the start of the season, who gets the ceremonial Opening Day start? Giving CC Sabathia one last Opening Day start in his farewell season would’ve been cool as hell — Sabathia is tied for tenth all-time with eleven career Opening Day starts — but alas, that won’t happen. He won’t be ready for the start of the season either. That leaves three candidates: J.A. Happ, Masahiro Tanaka, and James Paxton. Paxton has never started an Opening Day — Felix Hernandez has started the last ten Opening Days for the Mariners — and I’m not sure the Yankees would put that on the new guy. Happ made his first career Opening Day start last year (remember this?) and Tanaka started three straight Opening Days for the Yankees from 2015-17. Tanaka’s probably the safest pick. He’s done it before, so the Yankees could defer to the veteran and no one would think twice about it or make too much of it. Ultimately, the Opening Day starter and the Opening Day rotation order doesn’t mean much. Opening Day doesn’t have any added importance in the grand scheme of things. It is one of 162, and it usually doesn’t take long for weather and whatnot to throw the rotation order out of whack. This is begging for a poll, so: