The New York Yankees haven’t looked this vulnerable during spring training in a very long time. Having lost Nick Swisher and Russell Martin to free agency, planning around a rehabilitating Alex Rodriguez, the 2013 Yankees needed a healthy camp while hoping legends Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera make full recoveries from major surgeries.
Sunday’s news bulletin: Curtis Granderson will miss 10 weeks with a fractured right forearm.
Season-ruining? No. Devastating? Absolutely.
Given the Yankees’ current structure, Granderson was one of their most indispensable players. He led the Yankees with 43 home runs last season, a career high. The other projected outfielders — Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki — supplied a grand total of nine in 2012.
In fact, with Granderson out until sometime in May, the Yankees are expected to begin the season with only two of their top eight home-run hitters from last season: Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira. Granderson and Rodriguez are injured; Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibañez and Eric Chavez signed elsewhere as free agents.
The Yankees have one of baseball’s oldest rosters, so wear-and-tear on their eldest position players was expected during the year. But not Granderson — and certainly not now. Granderson, 31, projected to be the third- or fourth-youngest member of the Opening Day lineup.
The timing of Granderson’s absence was particularly damaging on a number of levels: Granderson surely hoped to get off to a strong start entering his final season before free agency, and the Yankees planned for him to work on playing left field this spring, with Gardner shifting to center.
Toronto Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ hit Granderson with a pitch during the first inning of the Yankees’ Grapefruit League home opener Sunday afternoon. However unlucky it was, the incident has exposed the Yankees’ flawed roster construction.
The Yankees didn’t sign Swisher — or Josh Hamilton, or Michael Bourn — at least in part because of a desire to keep their payroll beneath $189 million beginning next year. They didn’t trade for Justin Upton — an ideal acquisition, due to his reasonable contract — because they lacked the high-ceiling, close-to-the-majors prospects Arizona wanted.
Now, only two days into spring training, the Yankees have discovered what happens to organizations that decline to spend on free agents and fail to successfully develop their best prospects: They are forced to hope their top players stay healthy because they lack the depth to withstand significant injuries. With Granderson out, the mighty Yankees could be forced to open the season with Matt Diaz or Juan Rivera — each a non-roster invitee — as the everyday left fielder.
Of course, the Yankees could swing a trade. Chicago Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano, a former Yankee, is a natural candidate. Soriano is coming off an excellent season — 32 home runs, 108 RBI, .821 OPS — and the rebuilding Cubs are willing to consider offers for him. (Soriano is owed $36 million over the next two seasons and has full no-trade protection.)
But it’s rarely easy to agree on a trade, particularly when one party (Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, in this case) knows the other (Yankees general manager Brian Cashman) is at a strategic disadvantage. The fact that Epstein and Cashman once were on opposite ends of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry only adds to the intrigue.
The Yankees have reached the postseason 17 times in the past 18 years. That is a major league record. But there were serious doubts about their ability to stretch that to 18 for 19 even before Granderson’s injury. Now, even after leading the American League with 95 wins last year, it’s hard to say the Yankees are strong favorites to win their division, let alone the World Series.