The forecast for spring training is ordinarily sunshine, blue skies, and optimism. For Yankees fans still scarred from last year’s injury woes, however, a few dark clouds have appeared on the horizon. As the calendar nears March, there’s understandable concern about the Yankees’ rotation. James Paxton is out until at least May, although his recovery from back surgery appears to be going well, and Luis Severino is currently in New York undergoing tests for forearm tightness of indeterminate origin.
If Severino’s debut is delayed, the Yankees could begin the season without two of their five projected starters. But while losing up to 40% of the rotation is never ideal, March and April might be the best time of the 2020 season to have it happen. Thanks to a fortuitous schedule, the Yankees will mostly avoid the American League’s heavyweights in the early going, particularly teams with high-octane offenses that might trouble a patchwork pitching staff.
The Yankees play 32 regular season games from March 26th through April 30th, just about a fifth of the season, and the AL’s most punishing lineups—the Twins, the still-dangerous Red Sox, and the newly reinforced Angels come to mind—are nowhere to be found. Instead, the Yankees play seven games against both the Orioles and the Tigers, along with three apiece versus Tampa Bay, Toronto, Oakland, Texas, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.
The 14 total games against Baltimore and Detroit offer a soft landing spot for a potentially injury-depleted Yankees staff. The Tigers scored a measly 582 runs last season to go with a 77 wRC+, both worst in the majors. The Orioles were better, but that’s a low bar to clear; they managed 729 runs and a 88 wRC+, good for 22nd in the league on both counts.
Even if the Yankees played the rest of their early schedule to a stalemate, they ought to comfortably push over .500 by taking care of business against the AL’s lighter weights. For context, last year’s 103-win Bombers sat at 17-12 at the close of April, a rough benchmark that seems attainable in 2020, especially if Gerrit Cole anchors the rotation with a half-dozen or more starts in that time.
It won’t all be a cakewalk, though. The A’s sported a 107 wRC+ as a team last season, fifth in all of baseball, and have won 97 games in back-to-back years. Interestingly, ZiPS projects only 88 wins for the A’s in 2020, but similar estimates the previous two years have underrated them, and their three-game set with the Yankees in Oakland should still present a stern test.
Beyond the A’s, the Rays and the Indians have been perennial playoff contenders in recent memory, but their offensive production in ‘19 (769 runs each) didn’t dazzle. Cleveland made changes along the margins of their Lindor-Ramirez-Santana nucleus, while Tampa Bay shipped out Tommy Pham, their strongest contributor with the bat, and could be leaning heavily on Austin Meadows repeating last year’s strong production.
But past performance doesn’t always predict future returns—for Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and the rest of the Yankees’ early 2020 slate. Despite middling output last season, Cincinnati and Texas both have opportunities to mix it up in their divisions, and plenty of motivation to do so; the Reds have invested in their roster these past two years, while the Rangers have invested in Globe Life Field, their new $1.1 billion park opening this spring.
The young Blue Jays core is evolving into a real threat, and should plate more runs than last year’s squad. Baltimore and Detroit are knee-deep in rebuilds, but if some of their kids bloom early or their vets (shout out to former Yankees backstop Austin Romine) excel, they might steal some early wins. If the Bombers’ bats start cold and they drop games against weaker opponents, as they did in last season’s opening two series against—surprise, surprise—the Orioles and the Tigers, it could ratchet up the pressure on the rotation versus more potent teams.
Operating without Paxton in March and April, and perhaps without Severino, undoubtedly leaves the Yankees less margin for error. But their upcoming schedule serves as a silver lining to the injury cloud. While Yankees hitters are still searching for their timing in advance of the regular season, the team’s pitching injury worries might have come at the best, or more accurately, the least damaging moment.