After spending $324 million on Gerrit Cole to fortify their only real weakness, the Yankees entered spring training as a virtual lock to win the AL East and a World Series favorite.
The Yankees’ biggest challenge appeared to be staying upright for six months. As long as most of the roster was able to walk without crutches by October, they figured to be there at the end for a long-anticipated shot at No. 28.
Problem is, no amount of money can guarantee a team’s health. You can’t write a check to ward off broken bones or ligament tears. Stuff happens.
And for whatever reason, when it comes to medical issues, that stuff happens with alarming frequency to the Yankees, who already are dealing with what we’ll call 2 1/2 significant injury concerns after Thursday’s news that Luis Severino has been shut down indefinitely with right forearm soreness.
“It’s just an unknown right now,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “Unknown if this is a significant issue we’re going to be dealing with that’s going to cost a lot of time or if it’s a small issue that's just the timing and will dissipate in short order.”
Severino first experienced this condition in last October’s ALCS, when he complained of mild discomfort, and it bothered him off and on throughout the offseason. He now has to be considered questionable for the start of the regular season. James Paxton is out until at least May after back surgery earlier this month, and we’re counting Aaron Judge’s shoulder stiffness as the other one-half, given that he’s still working out with the team but hasn't hit yet as a matter of precaution.
To recap, that’s two key members of the rotation, and we’re not talking back-end starters, either. Severino and Paxton are aces in their own right, 1-A quality arms second only to Cole.
As for Judge, his right shoulder ailment has popped up again after hindering him last September, and even the Yankees acknowledge it requires dutiful maintenance.
Obviously, the Yankees aren’t going to fly into a full-blown panic in late February, but this is the continuation of a disturbing trend from last year, when they sent 30 players to the injured list, a major-league record. According to Spotrac, they lost 2,898 days to the IL at a cost of $92.3 million. The closest to them was the 93-loss Pirates, who put 27 players on the IL for a total of 1,850 days worth $23.7 million.
Those patchwork Yankees still won 103 games during the regular season before losing to the allegedly cheating Astros in the ALCS. A pretty good run, considering. But to prevent a repeat in 2020, Cashman did an overhaul of the team’s medical department and emptied the Bronx vault for Cole, the true No. 1 starter they desperately craved.
Cashman’s troubleshooting efforts were the logical fix. And whatever bad luck was responsible for the Yankees’ stunning rash of injuries, the odds had to balance out for the following season. Yet here we are again, talking with the GM about another batch of health problems, with surprisingly few answers.
“Injuries are part of the game,” Cashman said. “Dealing with injuries are part of the game, and obviously the assessing of what a particular injury is, and the level that injury is, it’s obviously very difficult.”
That last part is troubling. Why does diagnosing these injuries seem to be such a perplexing matter?
Paxton first felt back pain on Sept. 27, then pitched through it during three playoff appearances, but he didn’t have surgery until early February, a curious timeline that will cost him more than a month of the regular season.
Severino’s case is even more confounding. Cashman said the Yankees ran him through a battery of tests, on multiple occasions, during the offseason and all came back negative. When Severino arrived in Tampa this month, they tried two different types of anti-inflammatory medication to calm the forearm soreness, which surfaced whenever he threw a changeup.
Severino seemed to be improving until Wednesday night, when he felt the discomfort again at home. That prompted the Yankees to shut him down the next morning, with the plan to get him checked out again Friday by team physician Christopher Ahmad.
During his media briefing, Cashman also mentioned that Severino has a “loose body” in his right elbow — what he described as an “incidental finding” of the MRI, but something that is not considered a culprit for the forearm stiffness. At this moment. Subject to change.
“Because it’s there,” Cashman said, “we can’t rule it out as being a possible issue in the future.”
Medically speaking, the Yankees tend to have a lot of issues. And from what we’ve witnessed, there’s no reason to believe they’re going to stop anytime soon.