Brian Cashman had an inkling something was very wrong with Luis Severino.
For the third time since December, the Yankees' right-hander experienced a sharp pain in his forearm—even just tossing off flat ground last week in camp. While Cashman tried to sound optimistic in public, he had already resigned himself to the inevitability of losing Severino for the year.
"I knew something was up," the general manager said by phone Tuesday to B/R. "I knew surgery was waiting to happen."
News that Severino had suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and will undergo Tommy John surgery was nothing short of devastating—but don't count out the Yankees. They're still going to win the pennant and end up in the World Series against their West Coast alter egos, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Cashman wasn't just doing damage control when he said, "We're still a great team." Despite the setback, the Bombers have a number of factors working in their favor.
First is the weakened condition of their most direct rivals, the Houston Astros. The sign-stealing scandal hangs over them like a guillotine. Unless they prove otherwise, the Astros' burden will be renewed in every city this summer—especially the Bronx. Owner Jim Crane told another MLB executive the crisis would "blow over by spring training," according to B/R sources, but there's no sign of a letup in the hostility toward his team.
The second half of that equation centers around Houston's former prized weapon: Gerrit Cole, who now wears pinstripes after he signed a $324 million contract. This is classic addition by subtraction. Houston's loss not only was New York's gain, but it also turned the Yankees into the American League's best club. Without Cole, the ultimate October asset, the Astros are in a permanent weakened state.
Still not convinced? Ask yourself: Who else in the league is capable of closing the gap on the Yankees?
- Not the Boston Red Sox. They're not part of this conversation.
- The Tampa Bay Rays have a formidable rotation but lack the firepower to keep up.
- Not the Oakland Athletics, who never seem to rise to the moment in October.
- The Minnesota Twins, while legitimate run producers, haven't shown an ability to beat the Yankees in the postseason—or anyone else for that matter. They haven't made it past the division series since 2002.
It's the Yankees' internal talent pool that will be decisive—the same one that saved their season in 2019. As Cashman correctly noted: "At this stage last year, no one knew [Domingo] German was going to be an 18-game winner. We'll just have to find that person again."
The Yankees will be without German for the first 63 games this season, as he was suspended for violating MLB's domestic violence policy. Eligible for return June 5, German could ease the burden on the rest of the staff.
The same is true of left-hander James Paxton, who is recovering from back surgery. He's on schedule to rejoin the team in late May. Without both him and German, the Yankees' primary challenge is to survive the first two months.
But don't expect a trade as a short-term fix. This window is too small for a swap of any significance. As Cashman pointed out, "The market for a deal like that doesn't materialize until after the draft [June 10]." Though he will call around, there's a low probability of Cashman snaring an experienced pitcher such as, say, Johnny Cueto of the San Francisco Giants.
What the Yankees do have, though, is the rotation pillar they've lacked for almost a decade. Obviously Cole can't make every start, but the effect on his peers is already being felt in camp. It was Severino, whose locker is adjacent to Cole's, who told B/R: "I can't wait to learn from Gerrit. He has so much information. He's going to make me a better pitcher."
That trickle-down effect applies even to veterans Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ, who now slot into the Nos. 2 and 3 spots. "Gerrit takes the pressure off the rest of us," Happ said. "The spotlight is on him, which is something he's obviously comfortable with."
The implicit message isn't hard to decipher. The Yankees won 103 games last season without significant contributions from Severino and Giancarlo Stanton or a full season from Aaron Judge. They suffered one injury after another, but instead of folding, they coined a "Next Man Up" ethos that turned second- and third-tier players into bona fide stars.
That mantra could be meaningful again in 2020: Jordan Montgomery, returning from 2018 Tommy John surgery, and prospects Deivi Garcia and Michael King might just emerge as this year's surprise stars.
But Happ is right: No one bears a burden as great as Cole's, and no one is quite as willing to accept it. One major league talent evaluator said: "[Cole] is the one guy the Yankees can't afford to lose. If he stays healthy, they can ride out just about anything."
It's hard to argue the point. Cole is the franchise savior—one part superstar, one part sabermetric geek. He fears nothing, not even losing Severino as his wingman.
When the Yankees handed Cole that record-setting nine-year contract, it wasn't just for the annual 20-something wins. It was for the psychological buffer against catastrophes such as Severino's injury. It's to keep the Yankees safe from any long losing streak—heck, it's to shield them from fearing any losing streak at all.
That's what an ace like Cole does: He tamps down anxiety before it has a chance to mushroom.
That's what'll keep the Yankees afloat in April and May. Come June, don't be surprised if they're running away from the East, and the rest of the American League, once again.