The Yankees couldn’t get through the first week of spring training without an injury, shutting down top pitching prospect Clarke Schmidt. Then they barely went two weeks without another injury, announcing their top reliever Zack Britton would need to undergo surgery to remove a bone chip in his elbow.
It could have been worse. The Yankees could have announced Britton needs a much more intense, career-changing surgery, and that he wouldn’t pitch again for them until sometime during the 2022 season. So the result of his left elbow soreness isn’t the worst-case scenario, but it certainly isn’t the best-case scenario either.
There was no way Britton reporting elbow soreness to the team was going to result in him getting an MRI and then picking up where he left off a few days later. An MRI on a 33-year-old who has thrown as hard as he has for as long as he has was always going to find something, and for Britton, who knew something was off enough to report it because he didn’t feel right, the MRI wasn’t going to come back clean. Even if the MRI showed nothing (which it was never going to), the Yankees were going to proceed with caution and shut down Britton for some amount of time anyway.
So now the Yankees are without their best reliever for some unknown amount of time. There has been a lot of speculation based on others who have had a similar surgery, like Gio Urshela, who underwent the same surgery and is just now getting back to playing, even so, he’s a position player. There have been estimates of two months and three months and the All-Star break and September. There have been fears of Britton not pitching again this season because he pitches for the Yankees and because it’s hard to find an injury or diagnosis or rehab the Yankees haven’t botched like a routine ground ball to Gleyber Torres at short over the last few seasons. No one knows exactly when Britton will return, and the Yankees certainly aren’t going to give an expected return date considering how well that has gone for them ever since Aaron Judge’s broke his wrist in July 2019. All we know is Britton is unavailable and will be for a while.
The Yankees planned for something like this. Not as well as they could have, but they still somewhat planned for it. They turned Adam Ottavino into two relievers in Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson, giving them an additional bullpen arm and more depth. But if not for the imaginary salary cap, they could have kept Ottavino and signed O’Day and Wilson, giving them more depth and more insurance in the event someone like Britton went down, which he now has. Instead of paying Ottavino $9 million and some luxury tax fees for this season’s payroll, the Yankees will pay Ottavino $850,000 to pitch for the Red Sox and against the Yankees and their all-right-handed lineup up to 19 times this season. (Most likely, the expected-to-suck Red Sox will move Ottavino at the trade deadline to a contender and get themselves a few prospects to expedite their rebuild. The Yankees hurt themselves in the short term and the long term with the trade.)
Britton’s injury makes the Yankees weaker at a position of strength, and it means Aroldis Chapman can’t be walking the park in the early part of the season, and it means Chad Green can’t have the type of early part of the season he had in 2019 when he allowed 14 earned runs and a 1.228 OPS against in 7 2/3 innings and was sent down. The injury means everyone moves up one spot in the bullpen pecking order, and because the Yankees love set bullpen innings, that means Green is now the eighth-inning pitcher for the Yankees. O’Day and Wilson go from the fifth and sixth innings (depending on the handedness of the batters in those innings) to the sixth and seventh innings. The domino effect caused by Britton’s absence means the Yankees will rely more heavily on Jonathan Loaisiga (not ideal), Luis Cessa (oh no) and even Nick Nelson (I don’t feel so good) and Michael King (I think I’m going to be sick). The small bullpen circle of trust is forced to increase it’s circumference and the Yankees are weaker because of it.
“I think we have a very strong bullpen on paper, but we have to wait and see how it plays out,” Brian Cashman recently said. “And if it’s not, we’ll have to make adjustments along the way like any team fighting for something has to do.”
The bullpen is strong, in theory. Like the Yankees’ rotation. It’s strong until something like this happens.
To use Cashman and Boone’s favorite word, “ultimately,” the Britton injury isn’t going to ruin the Yankees’ season. It makes them weaker, though it’s not going to keep them out of the postseason. The Yankees are going to go to the postseason, and as they have proven in the past, they don’t care how they get in. Whether they have to play in a one-game playoff, or play mores games in the ALCS in Houston or play a best-of-3 in Cleveland, they don’t care. They just want to get in. Britton’s injury won’t keep them from getting in, but getting in as the No. 1 overall seed or division winner is a different story.
If Britton misses the first month of the season, that’s six games against Toronto and six games against Tampa Bay he won’t be available for. Immensely important games against the Yankees’ two division threats. Not to mention a pair of games against the Braves. If Britton misses two months, he’ll miss those games in addition to three games against the Astros, another four games against Tampa Bay, three games against the White Sox and another three games against Toronto. If he comes back at the end of June, he’ll miss another three games against Tampa Bay and another three games against Toronto. If he returns after the All-Star break, add in another three games against the Astros.
Any missed time is a problem, and that amount of missed time is a big problem because right now, the assumption is Chapman, Green, O’Day and Wilson can combine to get the outs Britton would have gotten if he were available. That’s assuming Chapman, Green, O’Day and Wilson stay healthy themselves and are as effective as possible.
The Yankees have lost their top pitching prospect to an elbow injury and their top reliever to an elbow injury in spring training. There’s three weeks left in spring training. Three weeks of spring training games, batting practice, simulated games and bullpen sessions. Three weeks too many for the 2021 Yankees to continue the injury trend started by the 2018 and 2019 Yankees.
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