The first step of the season is complete, as the Yankees have officially punched their playoff ticket after clinching the AL East for the first time since 2012. In that seven-year span, plenty has changed with the franchise. Only a few veterans have either been on the roster or at least within the organization the whole time. Dellin Betances came onto the scene in 2014, immediately thrusting himself into the conversation for best reliever in the game. Unfortunately, as fast as we became excited about Betances’ return earlier this week, two days later the Yankees announced he would miss the rest of the season with a partial tear of his left Achilles tendon.
Injuries have taken many Yankees off the field this season, but the team kept adding replacement players who performed above expectations. However, in the case of Betances, it’s hard to envision someone filling the shoes he left, in terms of what he brings both on the field and off the field.
Betances was essentially the first Baby Bomber in a long line of players who made their debuts in recent years and formed the core of these talented Yankees teams. First came Betances, then Luis Severino and Didi Gregorius, then Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, so on and so forth. Now one of the three longest-tenured Yankees will be forced to support from the sidelines.
Betances is the guy who after his appearances pounds away at the padded rail on the top step of the Yankees’ dugout cheering for his teammates. The guy who made sure he was the first to give CC Sabathia a hug after Sabathia’s Wednesday night start at Yankee Stadium. The same pitcher who, after losing his arbitration case and seeing Yankees president Randy Levine drag him to the press, continued to prove why he deserved to be paid the amount he asked for that offseason. His performance will surely be missed, but so will everything else he brings to the table.
Of course, his absence is significant on the the performance side of things as well. Having only recorded two outs this season, Betances currently ranks 10th in innings pitched by relievers since 2014, about 60 innings behind first place Yusmeiro Petit, meaning if he was healthy this season he would mostly likely be the leader over that timeframe. Additionally, only two relievers have posted a better WAR since 2014, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman according to FanGraphs. These are two of the best closers the game has ever seen, and Betances was clearly their peer before his injury.
In terms of roster construction, Betances’ absence now opens the door for some of the younger relievers who might have been after-thoughts just a few days ago. Assuming the Yankees carry a four-man bench and four starting pitchers, that leaves space for eight relievers. Chapman, Zack Britton, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green, and CC Sabathia are all locks. Long relievers like Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga both are on the bubble. Farther down the road are relievers Nestor Cortes Jr., Ben Heller, and Jordan Montgomery, who returned along with Betances.
In a season ravaged by injuries, it was foolish to believe forming a postseason roster would be a simple task. On the offensive side Mike Tauchman, Gary Sanchez, and Edwin Encarnacion have all recently been injured as well. Many decisions are still up in the air, and with just over a week of baseball left it should be interesting to see how the Yankees use the bullpen to figure out who they want to carry next month.
On top of being one of the best relievers on the Yankees pitching staff, Betances also would have entered as one of the few Yankees who has been through all the ups and downs of this decade of Yankee baseball. He will be a free agent this offseason, and it would be disappointing if his last outing is the one that landed him on the injured list. For now, the Yankees will have to deal with his absence in more ways than one.