Dellin Betances started 2019 in a contract year and a key lynchpin of the Yankees’ bullpen. He was the team’s best reliever in 2018, just as he had been often in the past, and seemed poised to put together one more big season before hitting free agency.
That obviously didn’t happen.
The Long and Winding Rehab Road
Betances has often started Spring Training slow. Typically, his radar gun readings have been on the lower side in February and March and even into April as he still gets geared up for the season.
But that went to the extreme in 2019. The then-30-year-old reliever had radar gun readings on his fastball in the high 80s and low 90s, mostly topping out at 92 mph. Even in March regular season games in 2017 and 2018, he was averaging over 97 mph on his heater.
Still, Betances was hopeful that this was the normal way of things when speaking to the media. “I hope so. I think I still have about four [spring training] games. Obviously, not there yet. See how it goes the next few games,” Betances told the New York Post. “Mostly every spring it takes me a little while.”
A day after those comments, the Yankees made it official: Betances would start the season on the injured list with right shoulder inflammation. There was worry that he tried to rush his work after getting to camp late due to the birth of his child (a worthwhile reason to miss a week of camp).
When people question the Yankees’ strength and conditioning processes as well as their rehab protocols, the recoveries of Betances and Luis Severion from their spring shoulder injuries come to mind. Shortly after the season started, the team discovered that he had a bone spur in his shoulder and he was promptly shut down for three more weeks.
The team had apparently known he’d had the bone spur since high school while Betances did not know, though it had never caused inflammation before.
Just when Betances was ramping back up in June, he suffered a strain a lat strain during his throwing program. This setback nearly cost him the full season.
One Game and Poof
Luckily, time didn’t run out on Betances. He recovered from both setbacks and ultimately began the rehab process anew. By the beginning of September, he was ready for game action and made three one-inning appearances for the Trenton Thunder during the Eastern League postseason.
Betances wasn’t perfect in those games — Over three innings, he allowed three hits, a homer, two walks and a hit batter while striking out four — but he was ready enough to get back to the Major Leagues.
On Sept. 15 in Toronto, he debuted. The long-awaited return for Betances ostensibly went well. He struck out the two batters he faced — one on his classic curveball — and his fastball averaged just under 95 mph.
The right-hander was encouraged even if he didn’t have his best stuff.
“Arm strength, I’m still not where I want to be, but it’s definitely better than what I was early in the season and I’m happy where I’m at right now,” Betances told the New York Times. “I’ve got two weeks to get it right.”
Except he didn’t have two weeks. After his final strikeout in Toronto, Betances did a little hop off the mound. Somehow, in that forgettable skip, the right-hander partially tore his Achilles. That immediately ended his season and had him in a boot and crutches for the postseason.
Betances is now a free agent at just about the worst time possible in his career. He was one of, if not the, best relievers in baseball from 2014-18 and was a constant in the Yankees’ bullpen, even with the occasional bout with control problems.
Instead of a 3-4 year contract, Betances now likely has to settle for a one-year deal with an option. His lack of negotiating power could lead to the Yankees retaining him on the cheap, and the 31-year-old might want to return to the only place he knows to rebuild value.
Before the season, I’d have guessed Betances wouldn’t be back in the Bronx for 2020. Now, I’m not so sure, but I’d still lead against it. The Yankees may choose to reallocate the $7.13 million he made last season to other players, even if he’d be a cheaper option if Aroldis Chapman opts out.
Any reluctance on the Yankees’ part to participate in his free-agent process could indicate to other teams his Achilles injury is worse than previously indicated, while their willingness to bid would be encouraging. I wish a speedy recovery and, editorializing for a moment, a fat paycheck for Betances.