TAMPA, Fla. — Now that Luis Severino officially is stuck in a mysterious forearm-induced limbo, any time another Yankees starter picks up a baseball in the weeks ahead is going to be somewhat anxiety-provoking.
That’s why Masahiro Tanaka’s regularly scheduled turn to pitch batting practice Friday, a routine part of every starter’s prep in spring training, attracted so many eyeballs to Field 2 during an unseasonably cold morning.
Tanaka’s performance, on Feb. 21, was meaningless. It’s just a matter of staying intact, and Tanaka apparently completed his live BP assignment without any discernible physical ailments, giving the Yankees a chance to exhale.
The same was true Friday for Gerrit Cole, who prepped for Monday’s Grapefruit League debut with an uneventful bullpen session.
What used to be considered mundane pitching exercises have taken on added significance in the past 24 hours of Severino hysteria, which escalated Friday with the news that he is headed back to New York for three days of testing — yes, three days — to uncover the cause of forearm soreness that has bothered him since Game 3 of the ALCS in October.
“It’s a bit of an unknown for us right now,” Aaron Boone said.
Even under the best-case scenario, Severino is far enough behind at the moment to put his start of the season in doubt, and that’s if he resumes his throwing program shortly after returning from his NYC doctorpalooza tour around midweek. But in our view, that sounds too optimistic.
Severino has been haunted by this forearm issue for four months, and whenever it recedes, the soreness/pain roars back as soon as he starts throwing his changeup again. Numerous MRIs have been negative, showing no indication of structural damage, other than what Brian Cashman described as a “loose body” in Severino's elbow that supposedly is unrelated to the problem.
The Yankees’ track record on such declarations, however, hasn’t been so great dating to last year, when they had an MLB-record 30 players on the injured list and admittedly mishandled a few of those rehabs. But in sending Severino back to New York, where he’ll be examined anew by more specialists and subjected to additional tests, the Yankees finally should get a workable diagnosis.
“We’re looking for all the answers we can get,” Severino said Friday.
Regardless of how this all turns out, Severino has done nothing but create more questions after signing that four-year, $40 million extension around this time last February. The ink had barely dried on that deal when he hurt his shoulder warming up for his Grapefruit League opener, and the injury later morphed into a lat muscle strain that limited him to three regular-season starts.
So with Severino on the shelf, the Yankees used 12 starting pitchers last season, eight of them more than once in a group that included Chad Green as an opener for 15 starts. The void created by Severino led to the emergence of Domingo German, sort of a Sevy Lite, who went 18-4 with a 4.03 ERA before getting hit with an 81-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy.
German, banished from the Yankees’ spring training facility, still has 63 games left on that sentence and isn’t eligible to return until June 5. When you also subtract James Paxton, who recently had back surgery that will sideline him until at least May, and Severino, that leaves Cole and Tanaka atop the rotation, followed by J.A. Happ, probably Jordan Montgomery — himself returning from Tommy John surgery — and one left to pick from a pool that includes opener option Green, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga. Top prospect Deivi Garcia, 20, also could challenge for a spot with a great spring training, but he has to be considered a long shot for now.
“I think we have a lot of people who would like the opportunity,” Cashman said. “There’s a lot of people with a lot of capabilities and ceiling.”
These next five weeks just got more interesting. Happ will get the baseball for Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Blue Jays, and have you ever cared more about a Happ start in late February? Then the drama continues with Loaisiga going up against the Rays on Sunday and Cessa facing the Blue Jays on Tuesday.
As for the turns in between, the Yankees’ fretting faithful will have their fingers crossed for Cole’s debut Monday night against the Pirates as well as Tanaka’s trip to the mound Wednesday against the Nationals at Steinbrenner Field. By then, we should know Severino’s fate and what the fallout will be for the Yankees.
“I hope this is nothing,” Severino said.
But it’s already something. And the Yankees, given their recent history, should be on to worrying about what could happen next.