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No concern hovered over the 2021 Yankees more than the durability and dependability of their starters. There was Gerrit Cole and ….
The Yankees liked the upside potential for Domingo German, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon. That trio, though, had combined for one start last year, and Kluber and Taillon had combined for 15 starts and 74 innings between 2019-20. Jordan Montgomery had just 17 starts and 75 ¹/₃ innings from 2018-20.
So that Cole started Thursday’s matinee against the Astros to begin a seventh turn around this Yankees rotation without an injury was a positive first step.
Of course, it is just that — a first step. The worry is not vanishing, since concern with the non-Cole starters centered also on how they would endure as innings mounted on arms that had recently pitched so few.
After all, going from comfortable to uncomfortable about rotation depth can occur quickly. The Dodgers were the envy for rotation volume even before what felt like the luxury sign of Trevor Bauer. But Dustin May blew out his elbow last week and won’t pitch before late next season. Tony Gonsolin and David Price — starters in almost any other rotation — began the year in the bullpen before joining the IL. Both are due back soon. For now, though, Edwin Uceta had to make his major league debut and the Dodgers could employ a bullpen game Saturday.
Which explains why, when asked Thursday before the 7-4 loss to the Astros about his team’s health, Brian Cashman said, “I feel comfortable that we are in a position we need to be on May 6, 2021.”
But in a season befitting “Survivor” due to a return to 162 games after 60 regular-season games in 2020, a positive baby step has significance. The Yankees did not place a starter on the IL in April 2021. That marked the first time April-to-August (there are not many September IL stints after rosters expand) that the Yanks had not put a starter on the IL in a calendar month since July 2018.
The Yanks have manipulated to allow Cole to pitch regularly while providing more down time for others. Thus, Deivi Garcia was promoted for one start and Nick Nelson was used once as an opener. But that was strategy, not injury. And through 31 games, the Yanks’ 3.56 rotation ERA was the AL’s second best.
The Yankees were doing well injury-wise overall through 30 games — and then in Game 31, Gio Urshela hurt his knee and was sent for a postgame MRI exam with no immediate results made public.
In a Wednesday report by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, MLB injuries were up 15 percent in the first month this year from the first month of 2019 (the last full season), including 22 percent for pitchers and 97 percent for soft-tissue injuries such as hamstring or oblique strains.
The Yanks have had eight IL stints this year for non-COVID reasons, which was tied for the 17th most. But they had just two since the season began: Darren O’Day’s right rotator cuff strain and Rougned Odor’s strained left knee. Odor’s injury — incurred in a home-plate collision — is the kind no training staff can help avoid.
That has meaning, too. In 2019, the Yanks set a record with 30 different players on the IL covering 39 stints. In reaction, Cashman overhauled the team’s training/medical staff, notably hiring Eric Cressey as director of player health. Yet, the injuries persisted in 2020. Perhaps that reflected a disjointed season, including two spring trainings with a long shutdown in between. But Cashman said studies done by his front office showed injuries actually went up with a new training staff, in part because time is needed to install new systems and get player acceptance. Cashman said results would come in time. Perhaps we are seeing that now.
“I know that our implementation and compliance is a lot higher,” Cashman said. “You have gotten, top to bottom, a lot more buy-in — mostly everyone has converted. It gives you more harmony and belief that you are in a better place to maximize ability to stay on the field.”
Cashman described a process in which managers and coaches — who normally want their players to play — also have to be part of the chain that backs players off more regularly with the big picture in mind. Which explains Aaron Boone keeping usual starters out of the lineup with greater frequency. Aaron Judge recently missed games with what was nebulously described publicly as lower-body aches.
In the big picture, Judge and Giancarlo Stanton — who both mentioned in spring amended training methods higher in flexibility and lower in bulk weight training — were in the starting lineup together Thursday for the 23rd time in 31 games this year. It was just 33 times in all between 2019-20.
And the preseason injury group also has offered optimism. Justin Wilson returned quickly to the majors, Luke Voit is on rehab and close to a return, Miguel Andujar is playing at Triple-A, and the Yankees have reported positively on the rehabs of Zack Britton, Clarke Schmidt and Luis Severino. In the Yanks’ greatest scenario, Severino arrives in late June to help ease the workload as the innings mount on those so far healthy, but still questionable starters.
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