It feels at times like I’ve started a hundred columns this year with the phrase “…and just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse for the Yankees,” which is a somewhat remarkable testament to our enduring impression of them as a winning ballclub considering they’re still over .500 and only three games back in the division hunt. Nevertheless, given Wednesday’s events…
And just when it seemed like things couldn’t get worse for the Yankees, this happens. The morning after giving up 5 runs in 6.2 innings to the Cleveland Indians and informing the team’s training staff of elbow discomfort after the game, Masahiro Tanaka returned to New York City to get an examination, the results of which landed him on the disabled list. He’s hardly alone there, as he’ll be joining fellow starting pitchers Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova. Nova is absolutely done for the season following Tommy John surgery, and Sabathia may be as well, considering his rehab recently stalled with more complications in his injured knee and is out indefinitely.
The Yankees starting rotation is now some combination of 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, recent trade acquisition Brandon McCarthy, former relievers David Phelps and Chase Whitley, and virtually unknown Shane Greene, who was taken by New York in the 15th round of the 2009 draft out of Daytona Beach Community College and made the first MLB start of his young career on Monday night, giving up five runs in 6.1 innings (though only two of the runs were earned).
This is, without reservation or complication, the worst starting rotation in the AL East — which is not a slight against Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, because it took injuries to four out of his five starting pitchers to force him into fielding it. As the Texas Rangers have shown, there is effectively no way to prepare for a rash of injuries like this — in a modern, 30-team league obsessed with advanced analytics, even the backups to backups are being properly scouted and signed to minor-league deals, just in case.
It’s not clear yet if Tanaka will miss any significant time, and while season-ending elbow and arm injuries have been unusually prominent in the 2014 narrative, the Yankees can at least cross their fingers and point to two pitchers — the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (back/shoulder) and the White Sox’ Chris Sale (elbow) — who have been disabled and come back as effective as they were before they left, if not more so. The extreme amount of caution teams are taking now with elbow and shoulder issues means there’s at least a chance all this concern is for nothing — and that’s something that Yankees fans would be quite pleased with.
But the bottom line is that even if Tanaka is fine, unless the Yankees are willing to gut their farm to somehow acquire another 1-2 quality starting pitchers, a quality right fielder, and quality options at second and third base — which might not even be possible in this market — they’re not going to be favorites to make the postseason even in this year’s AL East. As weak as the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays are in some facets of their game — pitching, basically — the Yankees are even weaker, and both the O’s and Jays outclass the Yankees at the plate.
There’s no reason for the Yankees not to play this as cautiously as possible, especially given that they’ll be paying Tanaka $22 million a year or so through the end of the 2020 season. As painful as this might be for Yankees fans — especially for the second year in a row — the smart play is probably to handle Tanaka with the softest kid gloves possible, see what can be had on the trade market for what few trade chips the team actually has (Matt Thornton definitely, and perhaps even David Robertson if the Yankees aren’t willing to pay him top-flight closer money this offseason), and start thinking about what to do this offseason to try to regroup for next year.