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The Yankees Are Built To Win — If They Can Stay Healthy

When the New York Yankees signed Gerrit Cole, one of the highest-profile free-agent pitchers in recent years, it seemed like they had made the single most important transaction they could to get past their recent postseason foil: the Houston Astros, who beat the Yankees in both the 2017 and 2019 ALCS and in the 2015 wild-card game. Can’t beat ‘em? Just take away the player who might have been their most important.

But the Yankees might have a bigger problem than the Astros: They keep getting injured.

A year after New York led the majors in days (2,464) and players on the injured list (39), according to injury data compiled by Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs, the club seems to lose another player every other day at its Tampa, Florida, spring training camp. The Yankees overcame their injuries last season to win 103 games, but can they do the same this year?

The Yankees lived on the injured list last season

Number of times on the injured list by MLB team and days lost during the 2019 regular season

New York Yankees 39 2,464
Pittsburgh Pirates 34 2,098
San Diego Padres 21 1,884
Toronto Blue Jays 25 1,443
Seattle Mariners 24 1,409
Los Angeles Angels 32 1,394
Tampa Bay Rays 29 1,385
Texas Rangers 23 1,331
Philadelphia Phillies 30 1,311
New York Mets 28 1,181
Arizona Diamondbacks 18 1,148
Chicago Cubs 23 1,147
Atlanta Braves 24 1,113
Detroit Tigers 24 1,112
Washington Nationals 26 1,102
Cleveland Indians 18 1,097
Boston Red Sox 23 1,086
Los Angeles Dodgers 25 1,065
Chicago White Sox 23 1,062
Oakland Athletics 16 1,027
Miami Marlins 22 1,006
Milwaukee Brewers 18 957
St. Louis Cardinals 20 862
Kansas City Royals 13 852
Houston Astros 17 809
Colorado Rockies 24 748
Baltimore Orioles 17 725
Cincinnati Reds 18 673
Minnesota Twins 26 619
San Francisco Giants 19 603

Source: FanGraphs

Giancarlo Stanton, whose total contract value is surpassed only by that of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, missed 162 days last season. He had a lengthy injury history in Miami before he was acquired by the Yankees, and he’s unlikely to be ready for opening day. Their other super-sized slugger, Aaron Judge, has played just 214 games over the past two regular seasons. Judge is dealing with a pectoral strain and is also unlikely to be ready for opening day.

The team’s injury woes extend to their pitchers. Their homegrown ace, 26-year-old Luis Severino, missed 176 days last season and is out for the year after Tommy John surgery. The excellent but oft-injured James Paxton — who has never pitched more than 160 innings in a season — is out several months after shoulder surgery.

It now appears that the Yankees will enter the season with J.A. Happ as their No. 3 starter. The 37-year-old had a 4.91 ERA and a 5.22 fielding-independent pitching mark last season. Jordan Montgomery (limited by injury to four innings last season) and Jonathan Loaisiga (who threw 48 innings between the majors and Triple-A) could round out the rotation, according to projected depth charts at FanGraphs.

We checked in with our friends at Out of the Park Developments to see what bearing those injuries might have on New York’s season. According to a 250-simulation run of the 2020 season, a healthy Yankees team — with Stanton and Judge at full strength and Severino and Paxton beginning the season in the rotation and remaining there — would win the AL East by an average of five games and would go on to take the American League pennant. A moderately injured Yankees team — with Severino, Paxton and center fielder Aaron Hicks missing significant time — would finish as the top wild-card team and lose to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. A severely injured Yankees team, with those injuries plus significant injuries to Stanton and Judge, would finish third in the AL East and miss the playoffs.

While not every injury was a major one last season — the Troy Tulowitzki experiment ended in July with his retirement, for instance — there were plenty of significant problems. Hicks, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal before the season, missed 118 days and opens this season on the IL after Tommy John surgery. Miguel Andujar missed 173 days, though he has returned and hit well early this spring. Didi Gregorius missed 74 days before departing as a free agent. The injury issues extended into the prospect ranks.

In sum, New York’s list of injuries is a long one. But the silver lining is that the Yankees have done very well at extracting surprising value out of their own depth.

Injuries allowed for unlikely players like Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, Mike Tauchman and Cameron Maybin to emerge as contributors last season. Perhaps Clint Frazier could join them this year.

The Yankees have added instructors like Tanner Swanson, who is trying to improve Gary Sanchez’s catching in the same way he did with Mitch Garver in Minnesota. They made the surprising hire of Matt Blake, a former Cleveland Indians pitching development guru, as their pitching coach. The Yankees have been among the most aggressive clubs in buying into the data-based player development revolution, including hiring former Driveline head trainer Sam Briend. The Yankees fired strength and conditioning coach Matt Krause in December. He’d been with the club since 2014.

Perhaps the Yankees’ approach and personnel will continue to get the best out of their players. But as the injuries keep mounting, it’s not making anyone’s job any easier in the Bronx.

Travis Sawchik is a former sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.