Despite the addition of marquee free agent Gerrit Cole, the back-end of the Yankees’ starting rotation will be in flux entering spring training. Left-hander James Paxton will be sidelined for the next three to four months after undergoing a microscopic lumbar discectomy (spinal surgery) to remove a peridiscal cyst on Wednesday. According to multiple reports, the surgical procedure is expected to correct a back issue which cropped up last September. “I think hopefully this is what knocks it out for good and we can put this past him, and we end up saving some bullets or the end,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters on Thursday. "We feel good about the surgery and look forward to him being back soon."
The hard-throwing 31-year-old southpaw is coming off an underwhelming Pinstripes debut in which he recorded a 3.82 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 186/55 K/BB ratio across 150 2/3 innings (29 starts). Per Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average metric, Paxton turned in a lackluster 4.18 DRA last year, his highest single-season mark since the 2015 campaign. The elite strikeout potential remains his signature calling card, but Paxton’s control skidded backwards and graded out as merely pedestrian from a run prevention standpoint last year. He isn’t consistently dominant enough to warrant consideration as a fantasy rotation anchor, but he’s made at least 28 starts in back-to-back seasons and represents an outstanding complementary stud at the front of any fantasy staff at this stage of his career.
There’s some debate regarding his exact recovery timetable. MLB Network insider Jon Heyman tweeted Thursday evening that Paxton’s agent Scott Boras believes his client “will be back sooner than estimated/suggested following his microscopic lumbar discectomy.” Boras is also “very optimistic” Paxton will return to the Yankees’ rotation in the “first third of the season.” Even if Paxton makes a swift recovery and avoids any potential setbacks, the Yankees still need to fill his vacated spot for at least a few weeks to begin the 2020 campaign. They’ll also be without right-hander Domingo German, who will be sitting out the first 63 games of the season as part of his 81-game suspension levied under MLB’s domestic violence and abuse policy.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters on Wednesday that there will be an “open competition” for the fifth spot in the team’s rotation this spring. He specifically mentioned Jordan Montgomery, Mike King, Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Cessa, and top pitching prospect Deivi Garcia as candidates presumably in the running for the final spot in the Yankees’ Opening Day rotation. At this point, Montgomery would appear to be the clear-cut front-runner, despite missing nearly the entire 2019 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery. However, if he’s healthy, there's a good chance he wins the job. The 27-year-old southpaw owns a solid 3.91 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 172/63 K/BB ratio across 186 2/3 innings in 36 career major-league starts. Garcia is a true dark horse contender and is one of the most exciting pitching prospects in the game. The 20-year-old righty racked up a whopping 165 strikeouts over 113 1/3 innings across three levels in the Yankees’ minor-league system and finished last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. If he breaks camp in the big-league rotation -- like Padres right-hander Chris Paddack did last spring -- there’s a chance that he simply never looks back.
From a pure fantasy perspective, Paxton becomes an intriguing buy-low candidate. Especially if this latest surgical procedure manages torpedoes his fantasy stock, causing him to plummet to the middle-to-late rounds of re-draft formats this spring. Per NFBC early average draft position data, Paxton was being selected on average as a top-30 starting pitcher (91st overall, SP27) in drafts prior to the surgery. Fantasy owners looking to speculate on a high-upside lottery ticket should strongly consider targeting Montgomery and Garcia in the late rounds of drafts this spring.
Medical Review Stalls Blockbuster Trade
According to extensive reporting by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Tuesday’s blockbuster three-team, five-player trade shipping former American League MVP Mookie Betts to the Dodgers remains unofficial, and may be adjusted, due to concerns that arose during the Red Sox medical review of Twins’ pitching prospect Brusdar Graterol. Per Rosenthal’s sources, the Red Sox project the hard-throwing 21-year-old right-hander as “more as a reliever than as a starter” after reviewing his medical records. Rosenthal also wrote that the Red Sox “might ask for an additional player and/or money to bridge the gap, though it is unclear whether the player would come from the Twins or Dodgers.”
Yet, the deal hasn’t officially been finalized. According to a tweet from MLB Network insider Jon Heyman on Thursday evening, there’s a realistic possibility that this mega-deal collapses entirely. According to Heyman, the Red Sox are trying to reconfigure the part of the three-team trade involving the Twins, which means they are likely seeking additional assets in addition to Graterol, whom they clearly no longer view as a future member of their starting rotation. Heyman also noted, “there’s still hope the mega-deal gets done in some form, some involved are now suggesting it’s not a certainty.” The saga continues from there. According to a tweet from MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand shortly thereafter, his sources indicate that the three sides involved in the trade are “making progress,” and while a deal isn’t likely to be finalized any earlier than Friday, it’s still “more likely to happen than not.” USA Today’s Bob Nightengale tweeted on Thursday evening that the Red Sox and Twins are trying to work out their differences Graterol’s medical reports and complete the trade without involving the Dodgers.
Graterol -- the Twins' top pitching prospect -- owns a checkered injury history and has already undergone Tommy John surgery once in his professional career. He was sidelined for two months due to a shoulder impingement, but recovered in time to make his big-league debut last September. He recorded a 4.66 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 10/2 K/BB ratio across 9 2/3 innings (10 appearances) over the final month of the regular season. He’s headed to Boston along with Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo in exchange for Betts and veteran left-hander David Price. According to multiple reports, the Red Sox are also expected to pay nearly half of the remaining $96 million left on Price’s contract. Meanwhile, Minnesota will receive right-hander Kenta Maeda from Los Angeles. According to Rosenthal, officials involved in the three-team deal remain confident the deal will ultimately cross the finish line, “but perhaps not in its original reported form.” This muddled situation has also stalled an additional Dodgers trade that would reportedly jettison outfielder Joc Pederson, right-hander Ross Stripling and outfield prospect Andy Pages to the Angels in exchange for versatile infielder Luis Rengifo and additional prospects. Stay tuned. This could escalate quickly.
Muncy Inks Long-Term Extension
According to a report by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic on Thursday, the Dodgers have signed versatile infielder Max Muncy to a three-year, $26 million contract extension, which includes a $13 million club option for the 2023 campaign. The 29-year-old late-blooming on-base machine has morphed into one of the premier sluggers on the senior circuit over the last two seasons, hitting .256/.381/.545 with an eye-popping 70 home runs, 176 runs scored and 177 RBI across 1,070 major-league plate appearances during that span. The power-hitting second baseman requested $4.675 million and was offered $4 million by the Dodgers when arbitration figures were exchanged in early January. Instead of simply going to a hearing to decide his salary for the impending 2020 campaign, the two sides have worked out a deal that will cover all three of Muncy’s arbitration-eligible seasons -- and one year of free agency if the option is exercised. He’s proven that his late-career metamorphosis wasn’t a fluke and he should remain an integral part of the high-powered offense in Los Angeles for years to come.
American League Quick Hits: Rangers manager Chris Woodward confirmed Wednesday that right-hander Jose Leclerc will enter spring training as the team's projected closer ... Jeff Passan and Kiley McDaniel of ESPN reported Thursday that outfielder Pedro Leon, considered one of the top international prospects available this summer, will sign with the Astros when the international signing period begins on July 2 … Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Thursday that the Indians are nearing a one-year, $1 million deal with free agent outfielder Domingo Santana … Twins right-hander Jose Berrios lost his arbitration case against the team and will earn $4.025 million in 2020. Berrios asked for a $4.4 million salary when arbitration figures were exchanged last month … Angels righty Felix Pena (knee) has been cleared to throw off a mound … Orioles sent INF/OF Stevie Wilkerson and RHP Branden Kline outright to Triple-A Norfolk.
National League Quick Hits: Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi told reporters on Thursday that third baseman Pablo Sandoval (elbow) could get at-bats during spring training … Phillies claimed RHP Deolis Guerra off waivers and designated RHP J.D. Hammer for assignment in a corresponding move. Phillies re-signed RHP Blake Parker and also signed RHP Anthony Swarzak to minor-league contracts with invites to spring training … Cardinals claimed LHP Ricardo Sanchez off waivers and designated INF Ramon Urias for assignment … Rockies signed RHP Ubaldo Jimenez and LHP Tim Collins to minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training … Marlins signed INF/OF Sean Rodriguez to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training … Reds designated RHP Sal Romano for assignment.