Okay, this injury business has jumped the shark. Every team deals with injuries, so when the Yankees got hit in Spring Training, it was frustrating but also understood to be part of baseball. Now? Now it’s getting ridiculous. Aaron Judge became the latest injured Yankee over the weekend. He has a “pretty significant” oblique strain, which undoubtedly means weeks on the shelf, if not months. Baseball can be a real jerk sometimes. Here are some thoughts on where the Yankees go from here.
1. I’m going to start with a little reality check because I feel like we could all use one. The Yankees have 13 players on the injured list, including six starting position players and their best starting pitcher (and no worse than their second best reliever), plus their supposed Super Bullpen has been largely a disappointment and they’ve shot themselves in the foot with careless mistakes more times than I care to count. And yet, the Yankees have won five of their last six games and are only 2.5 games behind the Rays, a team that was gloating on Twitter about their amazing start as recently as three days ago. Also, the Yankees have the third best run differential in the American League and the fourth best run differential in baseball. For a team with so much going wrong and so much adversity, the Yankees aren’t in a terrible spot right now. Granted, there’s a lot of baseball still to be played this year and I’m not sure how much longer they can survive with so many key players on the injured list, but, three and a half weeks into the season, the Yankees have kept their head above water. They’ve avoided sinking in the standings despite all those injuries and all that sloppy play. As has often been the case with the Yankees the last 20-25 years or so, if this is what ugly looks like, it ain’t so bad.
2. It goes without saying there is no replacing Aaron Judge. He is one of the ten best players in the world and that makes him as close to irreplaceable as it gets. Realistically, there’s no one the Yankees could trot out there who isn’t a huge downgrade in right field and in the lineup. I mean, did it feel like Judge was truly locked in at the plate before the injury? Not really. I don’t think so. It felt like we were all waiting for that big hot streak. And yet, Judge is hitting .288/.404/.521 (147 wRC+) on the season. He hadn’t found his groove at the plate and he still did that. Even with a perfectly healthy roster, losing Judge for any length of time would be devastating, and it sure sounds like this is a long-term injury. Even relatively minor oblique strains can take weeks to heal. Aaron Boone described Judge’s injury as “pretty significant” and both the team and player declined to give a timetable for his return — after the whole “three weeks” fiasco with the wrist last year, I’m not at all surprised the Yankees are keeping his timetable a secret — and just based on what I’ve picked up watching baseball all these years, significant oblique strains can take two or three (or four) months to heal. Judge might not be back until the All-Star break or even later. It is a distinct possibility. Losing Judge would hurt even with a healthy roster and the rest of the roster sure as heck isn’t healthy right now. I don’t want to call this the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but the Judge injury is bad news. It’ll be a challenge to overcome this one.
3. According to MLBTR, there are six unsigned outfielders sitting in free agency: Jose Bautista, Matt Holliday, Austin Jackson, Denard Span, Danny Valencia, and Chris Young. Bautista and Holliday are toast and Valencia is no outfielder despite having played out there occasionally. Span is the best free agent outfielder in my opinion and I don’t think it’s all that close either — he hit .261/.341/.419 (112 wRC+) last season! — though Jackson and Young would be worthwhile depth adds on minor league deals. The thing is, none of these guys are MLB ready. I don’t care how much cage work and how much live batting practice they’re taking on their own. There’s no substitute for game action at the highest level. If the Yankees sign Span or Jackson or whoever, he’ll have to play in some minor league tune-up games before stepping into the lineup. And you know what? At this point, that’s fine. It does not sound like Judge is coming back anytime soon, so while a free agent signing wouldn’t help right away, he could help in May and June, and however long Judge is out. An outfield version of the Gio Gonzalez signing would be ideal. Sign an outfielder, give him maybe two weeks in Triple-A, then give him an opt-out. It takes two to tango (how many free agents are up for that?) but I think that would be the best case scenario for the Yankees. At the very least, the Yankees should check in on the few viable free agent outfielders (Jackson, Span, and Young specifically) and see whether something can be worked out.
4. As for the trade market, I have to think the Yankees will search for two types of players: rentals and optionable depth guys. Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton are signed long-term, and Judge (and Clint Frazier!) both have several years of control remaining, so I don’t think the Yankees would pursue an outfielder with multiple years remaining on his contract. The Mariners would probably give Jay Bruce away and even eat money to do it, but he is signed through next season and that just doesn’t make sense for the Yankees given their roster. Not right now. Same deal with a guy like David Peralta. Yeah, he’d undoubtedly help the Yankees right now, but the big picture has to be considered. I think it’s lower cost rentals and optionable depth guys. Some possible rental trade targets:
- Jarrod Dyson, Diamondbacks
- Alex Gordon, Royals
- Curtis Granderson, Marlins
- Adam Jones, Diamondbacks
- Matt Kemp, Reds
- Yasiel Puig, Reds
Granderson and Jones are recently signed free agents and therefore they can not be traded until June 16th without their consent, and, even if they do consent, they can not be traded for contracts totaling more than $50,000 in value. (That is MLB’s way of preventing those “sign a free agent and immediately trade him” video game moves.) They are not really options right now. The Reds have struggled so far this season, but would they really cut bait on Kemp or Puig so soon after their high profile offseason? I don’t think so. I am a Dyson fan and he can really go get the ball in center field and create havoc on the bases. History suggests his early season .295/.385/.523 (137 wRC+) batting line won’t last, but hey, stranger things have happened. Gordon is a career Royal who grew up a Royals fan in nearby Lincoln, Nebraska, and he has full no-trade protection through his 10-and-5 rights. Even if you buy into his resurgence, and even if the Yankees and Royals could work around the $21M or so he still has coming to him this year, Gordon may not want to leave Kansas City. Trading for an established MLB outfielder to help cover for all these injuries doesn’t seem so easy at the moment.
5. Digging through Triple-A rosters, non-40-man roster journeymen like Alex Dickerson (Padres), Mikie Mahtook (Tigers), Charlie Tilson (White Sox), Preston Tucker (White Sox), Mason Williams (Orioles), and Mac Williamson (Giants) could be options for the Yankees as Triple-A depth guys. Dickerson was kinda sorta breaking out in 2016 before back trouble and Tommy John surgery sabotaged his 2017-18 seasons. He’s healthy now though. Williamson was an interesting launch angle guy before suffering a concussion last season. He cleared waivers in Spring Training. Joey Rickard (Orioles) and Zack Granite (Rangers) are defense-first fourth or fifth outfielder types with options who can be shuttled back and forth between Triple-A and MLB. The O’s could move Rickard and call up an actual prospect like Austin Hays and D.J. Stewart. In the past the Yankees have had interest in Hunter Renfroe, who still has options remaining, plus the Padres are very deep in outfielders. They’re likely willing to move someone. Is that someone Renfroe? Not sure, but someone. The Astros might be open to trading Derek Fisher, a former big name prospect, in the right deal since they have Kyle Tucker and Myles Straw on the 40-man roster and in Triple-A. What about Dustin Fowler? The Athletics have no room for him in their outfield right now — Ramon Laureano has taken their center field job and run with it — so Fowler is back in Triple-A for the third straight season, doing what he always does in Triple-A (.271/.354/.514 and 109 wRC+). The A’s desperately need rotation help and the Yankees aren’t really in position to give starters away, plus Oakland needs their cheap young players to survive, and they’re one injury away from Fowler playing everyday in the big leagues. Fowler might not be realistic. I totally understand why we’re going to hear about Alex Gordon and Yasiel Puig and Jay Bruce and guys like that in the coming days and weeks. I think the Yankees are more likely to look for another Mike Tauchman type. An undervalued guy with options. Good luck figuring out who that might be.
6. This oblique injury has financial ramifications. Judge can almost certainly forget about a record first year arbitration salary after the season. Kris Bryant currently holds the record at $10.85M (Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor are right behind him in the $10.5M range) and, with an MVP caliber 2019 season, Judge could’ve topped Bryant. He had a chance to go into arbitration with 100+ career homers and hey, he still might (88 right now), plus he’d have at least two All-Star Game selections, a Rookie of the Year award, and a second place finish in the MVP voting to his name. Adding a third All-Star Game selection and another high finish in the MVP voting probably won’t happen now, which will hurt his arbitration case. Don’t get me wrong, Judge is still going to do very well as a first year arbitration-eligible player no matter what happens the rest of the season. But a record-setting first year salary? Seems unlikely now. That means less money next year and less money down the road because arbitration raises are based on the player’s salary in the previous year. There’s a carryover effect. That is bad news for Judge and good news for the Yankees, who are so worried about locking up their core that they eschewed the top of the free agent market entirely over the winter (wanking motion).
7. There was a sliver of good injury news this weekend: Gary Sanchez will play a minor league rehab game with Low-A Charleston today, and as long as everything goes well, he’ll be activated Wednesday. I saw some folks suggest the Yankees should’ve activated Sanchez yesterday — “How’s one rehab game going to help?” was the general sentiment — and, uh, no. Rushing a player back from injury because another player got hurt is a terrible idea, especially when you’re talking about a prized young catcher with a leg injury. Sanchez is playing a rehab game because the Yankees want to make sure he is game ready. Activate him and he’s turns out to be not 100% ready, then he probably has to go back on the injured list. If Sanchez comes through the game tonight and he and the Yankees believe he needs another rehab game or three to get right — my guess is catching is more of a concern than hitting right now — he can get those extra rehab games and come back later this week. Hopefully everything goes well today and Sanchez returns Wednesday to add some punch to the lineup, and hopefully Stanton continues to progress well and returns a few days after Sanchez. The Yankees would not be back to full strength, but getting those two back sure would be a big help. Getting healthy has to start somewhere.
8. And finally, consider this the obligatory reminder that success can be fleeting in this game, and championship windows can close much quicker than you expect. The Yankees reported to Spring Training this year with as good a chance to win the World Series as any team in baseball. Now those World Series chances have been severely compromised by injuries. The excuse is built-in. If the Yankees don’t win the World Series this season — not winning the World Series is always the most likely outcome for every team every season — they’ll blame the injuries and trudge forward. You can take that to the bank. Another year with this core in its collective prime will have ticked off the calendar though. The Yankees could’ve added elite prime-aged talent over the winter that would’ve put them in better position to win the World Series with a healthy roster and weather the storm through a freakish injury-plagued season, like the one they’re having now. Instead, they opted to add lower cost, lower impact players and hope they could stave off decline long enough to help the young core get over the top. I know I’m beating a dead horse here but I can’t think of a dead horse that deserves to be beaten longer than this one. The sport’s biggest market and most high profile team cut corners and did not even attempt to assemble the best possible roster over the winter. It is aggravating and the injuries do not make it okay.