TAMPA — Luis Severino is a theory of a difference-making starter. A tease. A coming attraction for a movie that never arrives.
Equal parts talented and fragile.
When he did not throw his scheduled bullpen session Friday and the Yankees obfuscated when asked why — saying something about rescheduling to line up for the regular season — the suspicion should have been high. For the Yankees will never lead the league in transparency. Plus, this is Deja Lu(is), Year 5 now in which Severino is more defined by MRIs than ERA.
The Yankees came clean Saturday morning. Aaron Boone said Severino has what the manager described a low-level lat strain. He and pitching coach Matt Blake both suggested that the problem had been caught early and was not severe, and while an injured list stint is definitely in the offing, the expectation is that Severino will not miss much time.
Let’s just say with this player, this organization and this position, I will bet the over.
Severino heals slowly and breaks often — his next regular-season start will be just his 23rd in the last five seasons. Jacob deGrom is the pitching Cal Ripken Jr. by comparison.
And what is unsettling for the Yankees is a worst-case scenario beginning to transpire. Behind durable ace Gerrit Cole, the Yankees assembled brittleness and lack of depth, and — shocking — are enduring brittleness and lack of depth. What loomed as the Achilles arm that could keep the Yankees from repeating as AL East champs is being exposed before the season opener.
All of the Yankees’ projected starters, aside from Cole, already have been injured. Nestor Cortes (hamstring) is the only one currently scheduled to reach the starting line. Frankie Montas, star of damaged goods gone wild, needed shoulder surgery and is, at best, a second-half consideration. Carlos Rodon has much in common with Severino — two good seasons around a moat of injuries. And now the Yankees hope both will be back not far into this season.
To trade for Montas and several others the past few years, the Yankees heavily used upper-lever starting pitching. A few, such as Hayden Wesneski (Cubs), and J.P. Sears and Ken Waldichuk (Athletics), are expected to be in season-opening rotations this year. The Yankees’ depth this season was essentially Domingo German and Clarke Schmidt, both now in the rotation already with the Montas and Rodon injuries. Schmidt, rather than Severino, now will start the second game of the season.
The Yankees will need a fifth starter beginning with Game 6. They could go with a bullpen game. Boone has singled out Jhony Brito (scheduled to start Sunday versus the Blue Jays) as next in line since the outset of camp. Yoendrys Gomez has impressed the Yankees and scouts with his growth this spring. Randy Vasquez threw four shutout innings Saturday against close to the Phillies’ “A” lineup.
Can the Yankees trade for help? Anthony Volpe delivered three more hits from the leadoff spot Saturday, two against Phillies co-ace Aaron Nola. He has pretty resolutely won the starting shortstop job — another issue the Yankees are not being transparent about. It gives the Yankees more reason to trade Gleyber Torres for pitching depth and get Oswald Peraza to the majors, too, or even to consider using Peraza in a bigger deal. This is not a time of year associated with deals. The Yankees made four significant trades from the outset of spring to the start of the season last year, but that followed a lockout that shut down much of the usual offseason business.
The previous April, though, they dealt Thairo Estrada, obtained Rougned Odor and completed a Mike Tauchman for Wandy Peralta exchange with the Giants that the teams had begun negotiating in spring training.
One NL executive, when asked about the Yankees using their middle-infield stash to upgrade the rotation, texted, “Decent odds of that.” An AL counterpart responded, “In general teams who get to this point take things into the season and let it play out … but teams aren’t usually down three starting pitchers.”
Severino made it three. No surprise. The spring of 2019 has proved disastrous for the Yankees. They stepped out of their familiar ways to do pre-free agency extensions with Aaron Hicks (seven years, $70 million) and Severino (five years, $52.5 million with his option picked up). Those contracts define money for nothing. Philadelphia signed Nola to an extension (five years, $56.75 million with his option picked up) on the same day the Yankees signed Severino, in February 2019, to avoid arbitration.
Since then, Nola has led the majors in regular-season starts with 110 — literally five times more than Severino. Philadelphia president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told Phillies beat writers Saturday that the two sides have ended extension negotiations until after this season, when Nola will be a free agent. Severino will be, too. Will Severino even have 19 high-quality starts in 2023 as he did last year, which seduced the Yankees into picking up his $15 million option?
Picking up the option kept Severino’s talent, but also kept the tease. The Yankees’ rotation has substantial upside and scary downside. Which will we see the most of in 2023?