A loss to the Houston Astros in Game 6 of the 2019 American League Championship Series brought an end to a frustrating and injury-riddled season for the New York Yankees. While first place in the American League East and 103 regular season wins was something to be proud of, the Yankees fell one step short of their ultimate goal to bring a 28th World Series title back to New York.
Many Yankees fans were satisfied when the team spent big on the most dominant starting pitcher available on the free agent market, Gerrit Cole, signing him to a nine-year, $324 million contract, the largest contract in MLB history for a pitcher.
The Yankees, aside from a few injuries dating back to the 2019 season, were already hungry to compete for a World Series title, tor at least until the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardized the season. Although no one know when, or if, this season will begin, I had the opportunity to interview New York Yankees MLB.com beat reporter Bryan Hoch, about the Yankees and what has happened since the conclusion of the 2019 season.
In a season where the Yankees saw 30 players combine for 39 total stints on the injured list, both MLB records, the organization and fans were hoping for healthy seasons from many key players. Unfortunately, the injury trend from 2019 crept into spring training. Starting pitcher Luis Severino, who missed significant time in 2019 due to an inflamed rotator cuff and lat strain, underwent ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow, also known as Tommy John surgery, Feb. 27 and is expected to be sidelined until mid-2021. Outfielder Aaron Hicks also underwent Tommy John surgery Oct. 30, 2019, but Hoch said the recovery timetable for position players is typically faster than for pitchers.
“Hicks, he has already started physical therapies at home in Arizona. He’s been throwing a little bit,” Hoch said. “I would think that if we have a regular season, … Hicks would be back sometime in July, and now when opening day is, who knows, but I think July is most likely. June would be the best case scenario.”
Former American League Rookie of the Year award winner, right fielder Aaron Judge, is using the downtime to fully recover from a stress fracture in his right rib. Hoch said the injury dates to September 2019 and Judge, who did not appear in a spring training game, should be fully recovered for the start of the season.
“[Judge] was so mad at the outcome of the 2019 season and losing to Houston and the playoffs that he really never gave himself a rest,” Hoch said. “He went right back to cages, started work outs, and that worked against him because he came [to Tampa, Florida] and it wasn’t long until he had to shut it down.”
Starting pitcher James Paxton underwent back surgery in March, which gave him a three- to four-month timetable to return to action. Hoch said Paxton is at home in Wisconsin and completed his fifth bullpen session, and the most likely date for his return would have been May if the season was underway.
The Yankees bolstered their starting pitching rotation with the addition of Cole, but the Yankees could potentially lose Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka to free agency at the conclusion of the 2020 season, which means future improvements might be in order. A trade or another free agent signing next offseason could very well happen, but the Yankees have minor league options to fill the void that might be left by Paxton and Tanaka. Internal options include starting pitchers Deivi Garcia, Michael King, and Clarke Schmidt, who all could potentially see some action as early as 2020. However, starter Domingo Germán will have to serve 63 of his 81 game suspension before returning to the 26-man roster. With many candidates to fill in spots when needed, Hoch speculated Germán could be used as a long reliever out of the bullpen.
Starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery is a dark horse candidate to have a great year for the Yankees after returning from Tommy John surgery. Hoch said he was impressive during a shortened spring training and that the Yankees should have little to no restrictions on his workload for the 2020 season and beyond.
“I’m sure [the Yankees aren’t] going to send him out there for 200 innings, but considering we are dealing with a shortened season, I don’t think anybody’s going to get close to 200 innings anyway,” Hoch said. “I don’t really consider it a concern for this year.”
As for outfielder/DH Giancarlo Stanton and catcher Gary Sánchez, they are both ready to go whenever the season starts. Sánchez reportedly had back soreness and came down with a case of the flu in early March, while Stanton’s Grade 1 right calf strain would have been healed at this point. Hoch said Stanton would have gone on a minor league rehab assignment in early April and rejoined the Yankees in mid- to late-April.
Third baseman Miguel Andújar suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder early in the 2019 season, which sidelined him for the entire season. At the time, the loss of Andújar was only the start of a continuous injury trend that lasted the season, but it also marked an absence at third base. That was until third baseman Gio Urshela stepped up to the plate.
The emergence of Urshela was surprising to Hoch but he gave General Manager Brian Cashman credit for consistently finding under the radar players such as Urshela, infielder/outfielder Mike Tauchman, and first baseman Luke Voit. After a stellar 2019 season where Urshela batted .314/.355/.534 with 21 home runs and 74 RBI, the third base position is his to lose. However, the organization hasn’t overlooked the value of a healthy Andújar either.
“I think the best thing that worked in Andújar’s favor was that he was so willing to come in and try out left field, try first base, just improve his versatility because he needs an opportunity to get that bat in the lineup,” Hoch said. “I think that defensively, Urshela is a better defender than Andújar. I think the bat is better for Andújar when he’s healthy, when he’s right, but he’s got to come back and prove that now.”
As for extensions, Hoch said there have been no active discussions since the start of spring training for Judge, shortstop Gleyber Torres, second baseman DJ LeMahieu, or Sánchez. Hoch said his focus would be to extend LeMahieu, who was labeled the team’s 2019 MVP by manger Aaron Boone and several players.
“Based on last year, LeMahieu would be my top priority,” Hoch said. “I would want to keep that guy. I think he’s just a solid, all around competitor. I think he fits into this team.”
The Yankees are in a position to not only reach, but also compete, in the postseason. Hoch said New York’s main competition for the American League East division title are the Tampa Bay Rays, while the Houston Astros can threaten in American League.
Hoch said the silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic is that the Yankees’ players can finally get some much-needed rest. As the injuries heal and the sting of another postseason elimination goes away, the Yankees will remain on the hunt for their 28th World Series title, and their first since 2009.