The 2019 season is dead; long live the 2020 season. Pitchers and catchers are reporting to camp next week, so it was only natural that we have our first major injury. Of course, I’m talking about James Paxton, who recently underwent back surgery and will miss 3-4 months to start the year.
There’s obviously a bunch of fallout here. Earlier today, Derek outlined some of the external candidates for pitching depth, so check that out if you missed it. I wanted to take a quick look at what Paxton’s injury means for the Yankees currently on the roster (and for Paxton himself) to complement that. Here are some rapid-fire implications:
1. So Much for That Extension: A few weeks ago, I looked at what a potential Paxton extension would look like. A week later, I tried to project what his free agent profile will look like. All of that is irrelevant now, isn’t it? Although, it was kind of irrelevant all along. As we learned, this injury flared up in that horrifying first inning in Texas in 2019’s final weekend. The team knew about this all along, making the extension even less likely than it already was.
It’s all too bad for Paxton honestly. As Randy said yesterday, the injury-prone label will stick with him for another year. It’s definitely not what you want if you’re Paxton entering a walk year. That said, he’s still well-positioned. He and Zack Wheeler have a very similar career trajectory, injuries included, and Wheeler signed a $118 million deal a few months ago. Seriously:
- Zack Wheeler (Age 29): 749.1 IP, 3.77 ERA, 22.8% K%, 8.5% BB%, .687 OPS against, 9.7 bWAR
- James Paxton (Age 31): 733 IP, 3.50 ERA, 26.5% K%, 7.4% BB%, .670 OPS against, 12.9 bWAR
Obviously, Paxton is older, which absolutely matters, but he’s also been a better pitcher than Wheeler. In a relatively weak upcoming free agent class, Paxton still figures to be one of the best pitchers on the market. He should still get paid — and maybe even by the Yankees, who may also lose Masahiro Tanaka. Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, he pitches like 2019 second-half Paxton. That would be cool for the Yankees as well as Paxton’s future bank account.
2. Yankees’ Timing: If you view this through the lens of the team, it becomes pretty clear that things could be worse. Nobody wants one of their top-of-the-rotation guys to get hurt before the season begins — anyone else having flashbacks to Luis Severino last year or is it just me? — and especially not to their back. It’s scary. In the words of a former Yankee skipper, it is not what you want.
Still, let’s assume the 3-4 month timeline is accurate for a minute. It’s February 6 today, and exactly three months from now will be the first full week of May. That slates him to return in May-June, which is neither ideal nor a true panic situation. The team is good enough — turns out signing a guy like Cole is good! Imagine how we’d feel right now if they didn’t? — to weather this storm. Of course, that assumes no other injuries, but he should be back for the bulk of the season. And, more importantly, he’ll be ready to go for October if all goes well after he returns. That’s the end goal here, after all.
3. Internal Options: As I mentioned, Derek outlined the external options earlier today. There are a few compelling options — sign me up for Colin McHugh, myself — but I have a very good feeling that the guy to whom the turn to will come from inside the house. Here’s a rough sketch of where the Yankees pitching depth chart surely sits:
- Gerrit Cole
- Luis Severino
- Masahiro Tanaka
- JA Happ
- Jordan Montgomery
- Jonathan Loáisiga
- Mike King
- Deivi Garcia
You could quibble with the order of the last few but it’s a good general sense. Montgomery, Loáisiga, King, and Deivi will all be fighting for that final rotation spot this spring. Add that to the list. Honestly, we all expected some sort of a competition anyway. There was always a possibility someone could overtake Happ. This just adds some urgency to it.
As for right now, the betting favorite has to be Montgomery. Before his 2019 return, I wrote up a brief refresher on him, so check that out for an in-depth review. There are reasons to be skeptical of him in 2020 — it’s hard to come back from an injury like that when you’re a low-velocity guy — but our man was really, really good in 2017. The best rookie pitcher in baseball, in fact.
After him, I think the Yankees love Loáisiga’s stuff a ton — I sure as hell do — and they’ve given him opportunities to start in both 2018 and 2019. He even made the ALCS roster. With him, though, the big question is injuries and whether or not they slot him in as a reliever to start the season. I’d think about doing that as his stuff probably plays up in the ‘pen, but he is a definite option to start.
The other two options, King and Deivi, would surprise me. King had a very nice 2019 and even made his MLB debut, but I think he’d have to really impress in Spring Training to win the job. As for Deivi, the Yankees have been very cautious — and he got rocked in Triple-A — and he’s still so young. I expect him to start the season in Scranton, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, he probably should. But ultimately, who knows? Yankees baseball is nearly back, and that means there’s injury-related intrigue. Exciting!