James Paxton had an up-and-down inaugural campaign in New York, but he was able to become a vital piece of the team despite the hardships.
The Yankees now may be without him for up to four months this season, announcing Wednesday that he has undergone spinal surgery to alleviate a herniated lumbar disc.
The Yankees were a team riddled with injuries in 2019, yet still found their way to 103 wins –– good enough to finish atop the American League East, and ending up two wins away from a World Series berth. Paxton helped anchor that run, despite a couple of rough months, spending one on the injured list with knee inflammation. Yet he managed to finish the year with a 3.5 fWAR, a 3.82 ERA and a 3.86 FIP.
With Luis Severino out almost all of 2019 with injuries, the Yankees needed Paxton to do as well as they did last season, so the thought of spending potentially four months without him, even with the offseason addition of Gerrit Cole, would make anyone a bit nervous.
Apparently, the need for surgery stems all the way back to the final week of the 2019 regular season when Paxton was dealing with nerve irritation in his left glut.
2/the advice was again injections and conservative treatment to see if surgery could be avoided, but pain lingered and Paxton underwent the surgery today. #Yankees
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) February 5, 2020
Paxton, even in the best-case scenario, will be returning in late May or early June. The depth of the Yankees pitching will be tested. Luckily this year at least, the team does have more flexibility to deal with this kind of problem. They signed Cole, Severino should be healthy and several potential candidates could help round out the rotation to start the 2020 season.
Cole, Tanaka, and Severino now occupy the top three spots in the rotation. The other two would have gone to Paxton, of course, and Domingo German, but German will be serving the remaining 63 games of his 81-game suspensions for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. That suspension will conclude in early June, right around the time Paxton is expected to return.
More than likely the final rotation spots will go to southpaws, J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery. The Yankees were looking to trade the 37-year-old Happ all winter but changed their minds when Paxton started reporting pain last month. Still, questions are surrounding both players. Happ is coming off of his worst season since 2014, posting a 4.91 ERA and 5.22 FIP in just over 160 innings in 2019. His strikeout rate took a dive while his home run rate skyrocketed.
Montgomery showed a lot of promise during his rookie season in 2017 but just six starts into the 2018 season he tore his UCL and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery. After a 15-month recovery period, Montgomery returned to the majors but pitched just a total of four innings in two appearances. Jumping into the starting rotation, not having pitched in two years could be cause for concern.
Beyond the two left-handers, the Yankees have four right-handers who may end up in one of the now-open rotation spots. There is 27-year-old Luis Cessa who is more of a long reliever/spot starter, however, in 2019 he did pitch a career-high 80 innings. If he were needed to start he probably could handle the job and he is the most experienced pitcher out of the bunch. Jonathan Loaisiga, 25, appeared in 15 games for the team last season, making four starts and 11 relief appearances. He has what appears to be a very nasty curveball that baffles batters making them swing and miss 20.4% of the time. He is a viable candidate but is farther down on the list, probably in part because of his lack of total innings pitched.
If the Yankees are completely run out of options, they could go with rookies Michael King and Deivi Garcia. King, 24, made his MLB debut in September and pitching two scoreless innings. Still, he was kept to just 48 innings all of last year because of an elbow ailment. Garcia is the team’s top pitching prospect, but he isn’t even 21 years of age. Plus, he has a very small frame compared to your everyday pitcher. He is listed at 5-foot-9 and just 163 pounds. It’s a safe bet he and King will be the last to get a shot at the rotation.
New York does have one other option they could use every fifth day. They could elect to throw a bullpen game using Chad Green as the opener and putting in either Cessa or Montgomery to eat up the middle innings. Although there’s not been talk of that as of yet, it is certainly an option if needed.
Overall, despite, small issues with each of the potential replacements for Paxton, the Yankees situation is nowhere near as dire as it was in 2019. Paxton being out is unlikely to seriously mar their entire season, assuming he returns to the mound on schedule without any setbacks. At least this season Yankees will have options.