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J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery are suddenly pivotal pieces for the Yankees in 2020

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The injury to James Paxton makes the two southpaws crucial to the team’s success in the early months of the season.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Welp, here we are again. Pitchers and catchers have not even reported to spring training and we have an injury to a key player to discuss. Let’s hope this isn’t the start to a 2019 sequel.

James Paxton is going to miss 3-4 months due to back surgery, taking away one of the Yankees’ top starters for at least the first month of the season, and very likely more. We saw how injury complications held up Dellin Betances and Luis Severino last season, and while Paxton doesn’t have to follow that same path, let’s be safe in assuming that Paxton will be out until at least the end of May, meaning nearly two full months of a shorthanded rotation.

Paxton’s injury leaves uncertainty in terms of exactly when he will be back and how he will respond to the surgery and late start to the season, but what has become certain is the newfound importance of fellow lefties like J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery. These two starters are the front-runners to fill out the rotation with Paxton out, and now might be pivotal pieces to that starting staff.

Happ was seen as a clear trade chip when the offseason began, given his lingering struggles last season, but Brian Cashman’s comments on Wednesday regarding why Happ was kept make a lot of sense now. With surgery for Paxton lingering as a possibility, Happ was, and now is, a top candidate for the fourth starter spot in the rotation, and there aren’t any internal or external options left that would feel like much of an upgrade over Happ, even with his struggles last season.

It’s important to remember that Happ’s best month of the season was his last, pitching to a 1.65 ERA and a 3.10 FIP in 27.1 innings during the month of September. The Yankees don’t need that kind of production from Happ out of the fourth spot in the rotation, but an overall improved version from last season as a whole would be a welcomed sight to say the least, especially given the Paxton news. The return of the Happ we saw during the first half of last season could put the Yankees in a tough position early on.

The fifth spot in the rotation will likely go to Montgomery or Luis Cessa, who has no minor league options remaining. Montgomery threw just four innings last season after coming back from Tommy John surgery and is far removed from his strong 2017 campaign, but now the Yankees could really use at least some durability from the young lefty, or some replicated success from Cessa that we saw at times in 2019.

Montgomery is probably the leader for the fifth spot entering spring training, and the Yankees will have to hope he is up to the task after missing so much time. He managed a strong 117 ERA+ as a rookie in 2017, but that was years ago now. He’s made just eight appearances in the big leagues since, and the Yankees will need him to reacclimate fast with Paxton out.

Of course, the Yankees could just elect to use a bullpen day for the fifth spot, opening with Chad Green and using Cessa or Montgomery afterward to eat up the middle innings. Regardless, they have all become a lot more important to the Yankees’ cause in 2020 given the Paxton news. It’s unclear when Paxton will return, but it’s clear that those who will try to fill the void in his absence are much more vital to the team’s success than initially anticipated.