The runner-up for last year's American League Most Valuable Player award, the best all-around player on last year's AL wild-card team, and the best closer in the history of the game: what do these three players have in common? They're all impact players in the AL East, and they're all injured. Injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Evan Longoria, and Mariano Rivera have changed the look of what was supposed to be baseball's best division. They are also just the tip of the iceberg of the AL East's disabled lists.
Entering the weekend, the Red Sox had 11 men on their disabled list, including regulars Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis, starting pitchers John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and closer Andrew Bailey. Boston will also skip Josh Beckett's next start due to muscle tightness in his back. The Rays and Blue Jays are also without their intended closers due to injury, with the Orioles being the only team in the division to have avoided that particular plague, and New York's biggest offseason acquisition, sophomore starting pitcher Michael Pineda, won't throw a single pitch for the Yankees this season.
So which teams will suffer most as a result of this rash of injuries?
The Rays are getting along fine without 2011 closer Kyle Farnsworth, who opened the season on the disabled list due to an elbow sprain and was just transferred to the 60-day DL, making him ineligible to return until June 5. Echoing Farnsworth's transformation from frustrating setup man to dominant, strike-throwing closer at age 35 last year, 35-year-old former Tigers and Angels closer Fernando Rodney has seized the job in Farnsworth's stead, converting all nine of his save opportunities thus far this season with surprising dominance (0.73 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, and a decidedly uncharacteristic 1.5 walks per nine innings). Rodney's performance doesn't look sustainable in light of his track record, but the same was said about Farnsworth last year.
The loss of Longoria, who tore his left hamstring on Wednesday and is expected to be out six to eight weeks, would appear to be far more significant for the Rays. Tampa Bay has gone 4-0 without their third baseman, but they've done so against the feeble Mariners and A's, so that doesn't tell us much. More informative is the fact that they managed to go 15-10 (.600) without Longoria last April, when their star third baseman missed a month due to an oblique strain, and that their lineup is deeper this season that it was a year ago thanks to the additions of first baseman Carlos Peña and designated hitter Luke Scott and the presence of sophomore left fielder Desmond Jennings. The Rays, who just got B.J. Upton back from a back injury 10 days before Longoria's injury, could expect Ben Zobrist to heat up after hitting just .198 through his first 26 games, and entered Friday's action tied for the best record in baseball. That gives them some margin for error and suggests that Longoria's injury won't be devastating to the team as long as he's able to return close on time, but that margin will be devoured by Longoria's absence and the drop from his contributions to those of his replacements (thus far some combination of Jeff Keppinger, Will Rhymes, and Elliot Johnson). Fortunately for the Rays, the Yankees and Red Sox will be hurt more by their injuries.
For the Yankees, Rivera's injury won't be the one that will hurt the most, at least not on the field. As great as Rivera is, a large part of what has made him the greatest closer of all time has been his year-to-year consistency. Though it may sound like heresy, over a single season, he's as replaceable as any other quality closer, particularly on a team with a bullpen as deep as the Yankees. The Yankees' best reliever both last year and this April was not Rivera, but David Robertson, who should take over as closer with former Rays closer Rafael Soriano and the rejuvenated Cory Wade (1.90 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 4.50 K/BB in 50 appearances beween last year and this) each moving up a notch on the depth chart.
That shifts the problem to the middle innings, where the team can try out various in-house options to try to absorb the 50-odd innings vacated by Rivera without each one making the back page of the local tabloids. One solution might be to use Andy Pettitte's impending arrival as an excuse to move struggling starter Phil Hughes into the bullpen in the hope that, with his velocity and strikeout rate having recovered from his lost 2011 season, he could recapture the form that made him an ace setup man for the world champion Yankees of 2009. Beyond that, the Yankees have a number of quality arms at Triple-A for whom a middle relief opening would be the perfect introduction to the major leagues, though Rivera's ACL tear does make Joba Chamberlain's similarly fluky, traumatic, and season-ending ankle fracture all the more significant, as Chamberlain's return from Tommy John surgery midseason would have otherwise made him a neat fit to help replace those lost innings.
Far more significant for the Yankees is the loss of Pineda for the season due to a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. Pineda, who posted a 1.10 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, and 3.15 strikeout-to-walk ratio as a rookie for the Mariners last year, was expected to be one of the top three pitchers in the Yankee rotation, contributing some 200 innings of solidly above average, if not significantly so, work. With Freddy Garcia having already lost his rotation spot and Hughes on the verge of doing so, Pineda's loss will be acutely felt as the Yankees turn to some of those Triple-A arms (rookie David Phelps replaced Garcia in the rotation) and the soon-to-be 40-year-old Pettitte, who sat out last year, to try to compensate. Doing so will also exacerbate the Rivera situation as the use of those starters will surely result in a heavier workload for the bullpen, particularly in those middle innings. If, as I wrote at the time, the additions of Hideki Kuroda and Michael Pineda made the Yankees heavy favorites in the division this winter, the loss of Pineda undermines that status significantly.
Then there's the Red Sox. If there's a positive spin to put on Boston's overstuffed disabled list it's that, beyond Ellsbury, their injuries are more an issue of quantity that quality, though even that is hard hear for Boston fans. The Red Sox are without starter John Lackey for the year following November Tommy John surgery, but he posted a 5.26 ERA in 61 starts for the Red Sox over the last two seasons, so what have they really lost? Ditto Carl Crawford, who opened the season on the disabled list following January surgery on his left wrist and has since developed a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Crawford won't return before midseason, but he was a replacement-level player for Boston last year, hitting .255/.289/.405, stealing just 18 bases and struggled to adjust to playing in front of Fenway Park's Green Monster, completely undermining his previously excellent play in the field. Daisuke Matsuzaka has been rehabbing from his own Tommy John surgery this season and is reportedly just two more rehab starts away from being activated, but he posted a 5.03 ERA in 44 starts for the Red Sox over the last three seasons, so how much will the Red Sox really gain when he returns. Kevin Youkilis was hitting just .219/.292/.344 before hitting the DL with a back strain earlier this week. He may only miss the minimum 15 days, and the Red Sox won't miss his slumping bat while he's away. Some of the other men populating the list include outfielder Jason Repko, lefty Andrew Miller, fallen White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, Theo Epstein compensation Chris Carpenter, and supposed right-fielder-in-waiting Ryan Kalish, none of whom have left significant holes on the 25-man roster, or even on the 40-man.
Assuming Beckett won't miss more than the one start, the only particularly damaging injuries among the Red Sox near-dozen are those of Ellsbury and intended closer Andrew Bailey, the latter of whom had surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament at the end of spring training. Boston lost three of their first 14 games due to the failures of Bailey's replacements, former Astros closer Mark Melancon, since optioned to Triple-A, and Alfredo Aceves. Through Thursday's games, the Red Sox had the worst bullpen ERA in the majors at 5.35, further evidence that, unlike the Yankees, who were second in the majors with a 2.08 mark, they didn't have the relief depth to compensate for the loss of their closer.
As for Ellsbury, it's impossible at this stage to say whether or not he would have been able to repeat his near-MVP campaign of a year ago had he not suffered a separated shoulder in the season's seventh game. In February, I predicted some regression, particularly with regard to his power numbers, but thought he'd settle in as a still very valuable player as a quality defensive center fielder who might produce batting lines comparable to teammate Dustin Pedroia. He didn't hit a lick in those first seven games, but that's insignificant.
What is significant is that, even without any kind of contribution from Ellsbury or Crawford and with poor starts from Youklis and Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox have had one of the best offenses in baseball in the early going. Thank a monster April from David Ortiz, the steady contributions of Pedroia, and unexpectedly strong starts from shortstop Mike Aviles, outfielder Cody Ross, and especially right fielder Ryan Sweeney. However, with the exception of Pedroia's, which should actually get better, none of those performances seem sustainable, and unlike the Rays, the 11-13 Red Sox have no margin for error, largely because of the dreadful performance of their pitching staff (only the Twins had allowed more runs per game through Thursday).
So how will all of this impact the pennant race? Well, I didn't expect the Red Sox to make the playoffs even before the injuries to Ellsbury and Bailey, though they've now created an even greater opportunity for the Blue Jays to sneak into the race for the second wild-card spot provided Toronto can jumpstart or replace some of their struggling hitters. The Rays seem to be in decent shape despite the loss of Longoria, though shoring up their middle relief would help. The team whose stock has dropped the most in my eyes is the Yankees, whom I picked to go all the way in March, a pick predicated in large part, and perhaps foolishly, on Pineda's healthy return. Losing Pineda and Rivera for the season will hurt the Yankees far more than losing Longoria for two months will hurt the Rays, setting up a third straight season in which those two teams should battle for the division into September, and the Rays have an early 4½ game lead.