TAMPA, Fla. — When Gerrit Cole agreed to his record nine-year, $324-million deal with the Yankees in December, pitcher J.A. Happ sent a congratulatory text message to his former throwing partner with the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates. “I hope we’re teammates again,” Happ wrote.
At first, it was unclear whether the Yankees would hold on to Happ. He sputtered last season, and it seemed logical that the team would unload his remaining $17 million salary in a trade to help avoid more onerous penalties under Major League Baseball’s payroll luxury tax. The Yankees resisted that urge and have kept Happ, 37, for various reasons. Chief among them was a factor unknown to the public: a perplexing injury ailing James Paxton, their best starter last year.
Baseball executives often say a team can never have too much pitching depth, and few clubs know that better than the Yankees. Last year, they survived a major league-record 30 different players landing on the injured list thanks to shrewd moves and deep pockets.
They used the latter this off-season to shore up their biggest weakness, the rotation, by not only handing Cole a record contract for a pitcher but by keeping Happ.
The decision to retain Happ — and risk bigger luxury tax penalties — already seems prescient. Paxton, 31, wound up requiring back surgery in February, which could cause him to miss the first two months of the season. Starting pitcher Domingo German will miss the first 63 games of the season because of his suspension for violating M.L.B.’s domestic violence policy.
And this week Luis Severino, a key piece of the starting rotation, informed the Yankees of recurring soreness in his throwing elbow, a worrisome symptom for any pitcher. He is headed back to New York on Monday for several meetings with specialists, and the Yankees said they are unsure how much time he might miss, if any.
With a healthy Paxton, Happ was slated to be the Yankees’ fifth starter to begin the season, slotted behind Cole, Paxton, Severino and Masahiro Tanaka. But shortly after the Yankees’ 2019 season ended, it became clear something was wrong with Paxton, who had pitched through discomfort during the postseason.
In November, Paxton said he felt pain down his left leg. Doctors tried different injections, which numbed the pain but didn’t remove the problem completely. Finally, after several visits to specialists, the cause was identified in January and a cyst along the nerve root in his lower back was removed in early February.
“I wish I could’ve had it done in October,” Paxton said last week. “We just didn’t know exactly what was happening then. But I’d rather have it happen now than midseason and miss a full three months of the season.”
So shortly after the Yankees improved their 2020 rotation with Cole, the biggest free agent prize on the market, it was suddenly weakened again by the injury to Paxton, making Happ more valuable.
“It’s good to be back,” Happ said last week. “Should I be surprised that I’m back?”
The Yankees did listen to trade proposals for Happ early in the off-season. Cashman said the initial offers “weren’t satisfactory,” but he thought teams in need of starting pitching would circle back after whiffing elsewhere. But in December — after Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, told Cashman only to move Happ if it made sense for the roster — Cashman told rival teams that he was under no pressure to trade Happ for payroll relief.
“We’re going to need Happ,” Cashman said Steinbrenner told him.
But keeping him will not be cheap. With Happ on the roster, the Yankees’ projected payroll for luxury tax purposes is $261 million, according to RosterResource.com — above the highest threshold ($248 million). That would incur the steepest penalties, including a change in one draft pick.
The luxury tax bill isn’t calculated until the end of the season, leaving time to add or subtract from the payroll. Should Severino fail to at least start the regular season, the Yankees might have two spots up for grabs during spring training. Jordan Montgomery, who pitched well in 2017 and returned from Tommy John surgery late last season, is a front-runner for one spot at the back of the rotation. The other could be filled by young or less proven options like Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, Deivi Garcia or Michael King.
“You’d prefer to have your A team out there,” Cashman said. “But I think we have a pretty strong B, C and D team as well.”
The Yankees won 103 games last season without Severino, who dealt with a shoulder ailment and a mysterious latissimus dorsi injury. His current elbow injury has also been puzzling because the discomfort has been intermittent and has appeared only when he throws his changeup, one of his three pitches.
Minor soreness first appeared following Severino’s start against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series in October, but it disappeared quickly. While at home in the Dominican Republic in early December, Severino felt renewed soreness, and the Yankees flew him to New York, where a magnetic resonance imaging examination revealed no issues.
When the discomfort re-emerged after Severino began throwing, the Yankees again brought Severino to New York. Again, Cashman said, a second M.R.I. plus a CT scan showed no problems.
Severino, 26, was throwing in spring training without pain until he tried his changeup in recent days, and the soreness returned. So the Yankees shut Severino down, gave him more anti-inflammatories and the team doctor recommended more extensive tests in New York.
The Yankees couldn’t rule out if a “loose body,” often a bone fragment, in Severino’s elbow was the cause. The team had long known of its presence in Severino’s arm, including last February when they signed him to a four-year, $40-million extension, but he had yet to show any negative symptoms.
Cashman said active, healthy pitchers sometimes have loose bodies in their arms, and only require surgery until it manifests itself as a problem. Severino, who appeared in just three games last year, is hoping for positive news soon.
“I just want to play baseball,” Severino said. “I just want to pitch.”