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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Figuring out injury situation a priority for Yankees

Aaron Hicks of the Yankees works out before

Aaron Hicks of the Yankees works out before Game 4 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. Hicks will need Tommy John surgery this offseason. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Were the Yankees stricken by an unprecedented, supernatural level of misfortune on the injury front in 2019? Or did they suffer from mistreatment?

A team can be only so unlucky. Just as every hand doesn’t turn up Blackjack, it goes against the law of averages to have 30 players wind up on the injured list, as the Yankees did this season, for a total of 39 independent stints overall.

As the Yankees noted in their playoff media guide, based on the best available research on this topic, both totals are the most by a team in a single season in MLB history.

According to Spotrac, a website that monitors such activity, the Yankees lost a total of 2,662 player-days to injury -- more than double last year’s tally -- at a combined cost of $84.4 million.

The Padres were the next-closest team in days, at 2,077, and the Mets were second to them in cost, at $50 million. Still, the Yankees rank substantially ahead in both categories, and only the Pirates, with 27 different players on the IL, were in their neighborhood from a personnel standpoint.

The Yankees used “Next Man Up” as a rallying cry, right down to their final day, which was a Game 6 loss to the Astros in the ALCS. Fittingly, they did so without Giancarlo Stanton, who started only two of those games — yet remained on the roster — because of a quadriceps strain suffered in Game 1. A knee injury limited him to 18 games during the regular season.

Over the course of a six-month season, teams dismiss injuries with a shrug, declaring physical ailments part of the game and refusing to use them as an excuse. The Yankees were especially good at that in 2019, because they still managed to win 103 games, earn the American League’s No. 2 seed for the playoffs and clinch the division title by a comfortable seven-game margin over the Rays.

In order to do that, the Yankees deployed 54 players, one of only two teams to use as many and finish with a winning record. The other was the Rays, who used 57. That speaks to a remarkable depth of talent and uncommon resilience in watching so many key players put on the shelf.

That impressive degree of success in the face of adversity makes for an inspirational storyline and catchy T-shirt slogans. But if you look at the aforementioned financial cost, flushing $84.4 million on rehab days is not an effective business model. With Yankee Stadium turning into the world’s largest emergency room this season, Brian Cashman has been forced to take a much closer examination of the Yankees’ entire training and rehab protocols.

Cashman again referred to this ongoing investigation — “CSI: the Bronx,” as he called it — during Thursday’s wrap-up news conference at the Stadium, but it sounded as if some moves either were pending or already had been executed.

“I’m not going to address any of that right now out of respect for the personnel working in those environments,” Cashman said. “Clearly it’s an area of focus and it’s an area that we’re looking into, without question. The process is ongoing, but if we made adjustments to certain things along the way, I don’t feel like I need to address that publicly.”

The Yankees are under the medical supervision of New York Presbyterian and the Hospital for Special Surgery, two of the most highly regarded health facilities on the planet, so it’s unlikely that Cashman would find issues at that level. He has to be concerned about the Tampa rehab situation, however, after a number of players either aggravated existing conditions or seemingly developed new problems while away from the Bronx.

Luis Severino and Dellin Betances, in particular, initially were sidelined with shoulder issues in spring training that turned into more debilitating lat muscle strains that wiped out most of their seasons. Stanton had a series of injuries, one after the other, from a left biceps strain  to a left shoulder strain to a left calf strain to a sprain of his posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

The Yankees also tried a conservative approach with Miguel Andujar’s small labrum tear before he had season-ending surgery six weeks later. The latest eyebrow-raiser occurred Thursday when Cashman announced that Aaron Hicks will have Tommy John surgery and miss eight to 10 months. The team had said in September that his elbow injury -- originally diagnosed as a flexor tendon strain -- didn’t immediately need to be repaired. Hicks had been shut down for the year and was back home in Arizona when he chose to start throwing on his own, then convinced the Yankees to activate him for the ALCS.

Hicks made four starts in centerfield, and his three-run homer in Game 5 was the difference in the 4-1 victory over the Astros. A few days later, without any noticeable discomfort during the ALCS, Hicks was headed for Tommy John surgery and ruled out until June, at the earliest.

“When you hear flexor tendon strain,” Cashman said Thursday, “it usually means some bad stuff might be happening in the future.”

For the Yankees, it was a virtual guarantee, as the bad stuff invariably turned into a worst-case scenario. Now Cashman has prioritized fixing that troubling trend, and coming up with a remedy should be very high on his winter to-do list.

The Fall (guy) Classic

To think that Major League Baseball traditionally imposes a news blackout during the World Series in order not to interfere with the sport’s premier event on the calendar, only to have the reprehensible behavior by Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman -- and his team’s disgraceful response -- basically swallow the Fall Classic whole.

Taubman, a Syosset High grad, will have his name forever linked with this World Series, and if the Astros lose to the Nationals, the karmic blowback will be undeniable. It took the Astros four days to fire Taubman after a Sports Illustrated story described him yelling at three women reporters after Houston’s ALCS-clinching victory, repeatedly expressing his glee about the acquisition of Roberto Osuna, who was suspended 75 games because of domestic abuse charges.

Later, it was reported that Taubman had a contentious history with one of his female targets, who had in the past tweeted the phone number of a domestic-abuse hotline on days that Osuna pitched.

The Astros’ initial response was to smear the SI reporter, Stephanie Apstein, by saying her account was “misleading” and “completely irresponsible” and accusing her of an “attempt to fabricate a story.”

Boiled down, the Astros basically called Apstein a liar — the worst possible slander against a journalist. But in subsequent days, they admitted the incident happened just as Apstein described it, even as their weak efforts read more like transparent damage control than coming anywhere close to a sincere apology.

When Astros GM Jeff Luhnow finally faced the media during Thursday’s off-day in Washington, he refused to name the employees directly responsible for crafting the statement that tried to discredit Apstein. But Luhnow did say he was among “many people” that read the statement before it was released, a damning admission on its own.

Before Friday night's Game 3 at Nationals Park, Luhnow reportedly apologized to Apstein, who also asked the GM for a public retraction of the team’s original statement. It was not clear if one would be forthcoming. 

The firing of Taubman apparently was as far as the Astros were willing to bend -- and that isn’t far enough. Taubman’s conduct warranted termination, but what about accountability from the Houston employees who purposely tried to destroy Apstein’s credibility? This wasn’t a slip-up. It was a coordinated attack, and if the Astros truly wanted to do the right thing moving forward, further discipline was needed in this case.

MLB still is investigating the incident, however, and the expectation is that the Astros will face additional fines as a result.

Bloom to Boston

So what does the Rays’ Chaim Bloom being hired as the new GM of the Red Sox have to do with the Mets?

On the field, not a heck of a lot. But Bloom, 36, finished runner-up to Brodie Van Wagenen in the Mets' GM search at this time last year, and there was always some question how this small-market exec would handle the pressures and demands of the big stage.

Now we’ll get the answer. And with the jury still out on Van Wagenen after a sketchy rookie year, the comparison with Bloom’s work up at Fenway will be inevitable.

From a pure baseball-economics perspective, you can’t do much better than a Rays alum. Bloom was part of a front-office team that got Tampa Bay to 96 wins and a wild-card berth this season despite an Opening Day payroll of $60 million — roughly 40 percent of what the Mets paid ($158M) for this year’s 86-win team.

The Rays’ more-with-less mindset has made them cutting-edge on the player development front, but they’ve also thrived on shrewd deal-making and progressive in-game management. Red Sox ownership already has made noise about cutting payroll for 2020, with rumblings about trading Mookie Betts as he heads into his walk year, so Bloom’s skill set certainly fits into this blueprint going forward.

As for Van Wagenen, the Mets' decision to choose him over Bloom had more to do with his relationship with COO Jeff Wilpon as well as his previous agent connections to a number of their players, including Jacob deGrom and Yoenis Cespedes. His first moves as GM thinned the farm system considerably, but the Mets flirted with playoff contention in the second half.

Next up is the hiring of Mickey Callaway’s replacement, a process that seems to be prioritizing a collaborative mindset with the front office (i.e. takes instruction well) than anything else.

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