BOSTON — Despite missing the entire season to date with injuries, Luis Severino will pitch in the playoffs — before any of his Yankees teammates.
Severino, the Yankees’ most talented starting pitcher, will get an early taste of low-level postseason action when he makes his final rehabilitation start on Wednesday for the Yankees’ Class AA team, the Trenton Thunder, in the Eastern League championship series. After that, he is expected to join the major league team for his long-awaited season debut.
His return will also have big implications for the M.L.B. playoffs. The addition of Severino will be a desperately needed lift for the Yankees’ rotation, their biggest flaw in an otherwise magical season so far, as the team closes in on its first American League East title since 2012 and sets its sights on its first World Series title since 2009.
Severino is a crucial piece in what remains a convoluted pitching puzzle for the Yankees. When the postseason comes, how will the Yankees juggle their many moving parts? Where will starting pitchers C. C. Sabathia, Domingo German and Severino, plus relief pitcher Dellin Betances, fit in?
“The games are going to dictate where we are,” Larry Rothschild, the Yankees’ pitching coach, said over the weekend. “A lot of different things come into play. We’ll get as creative as we have to to win games.”
With a rotation hammered by injuries, the Yankees have leaned heavily on their bullpen all year. They have even resorted to regularly using an opener, an increasingly popular tactic in which a relief pitcher starts the game and is followed by a more traditional starting pitcher. The strategy has worked well: The Yankee are 11-2 in games started by relief pitcher Chad Green this season.
Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said it was “certainly possible” the team employs an opener in the playoffs, depending on the progress of Severino, who has been out with shoulder and latissimus dorsi injuries, and Betances, who is a few steps behind Severino in his return.
In the playoffs, the roles in place during the 162-game slog of the regular season dissipate. Last October, the Milwaukee Brewers adopted the pragmatic mantra of securing 27 outs no matter the method, successfully navigating around a weak rotation and relying heavily on their stout bullpen.
They fell one game short of the World Series, which was won by the Boston Red Sox, a team that did the reverse: Deploying their starting pitchers in different ways to account for a shaky bullpen. The Houston Astros employed a similar approach during the 2017 playoffs, which ended in a World Series title.
“If you look at the teams that have won the World Series the last few years, they have had good starting pitching or have used their starters,” Yankees relief pitcher Zack Britton said. “I don’t think you can just bullpen your way to a World Series.”
Though, as Britton noted, the rotation has shown signs of improvement. James Paxton has gotten stronger after a summer knee injury and has performed more like the key off-season acquisition he was billed as. Entering his start against the Red Sox on Monday, Paxton had a 2.98 E.R.A. and 51 strikeouts since the July 31 trade deadline — when the Yankees failed to add a starting pitcher.
J.A. Happ has a 5.10 E.R.A., but has allowed just three runs over this past three starts, two against the potent offenses of the Red Sox and Oakland Athletics. Masahiro Tanaka has a 3.80 E.R.A. since the trade deadline, even with a few rougher outings in that span.
Traditionally in a five-game playoff series, teams use at least three starting pitchers, and four in the later rounds. Will Severino be in that group? Boone has said Severino would return to the Yankees this month as a starter, but how much his strength has been built by early October remains a question. He was expected to throw more than 60 pitches in his final minor league start this week.
The Yankees are already taking steps to adjust their staff with an eye toward October. When Sabathia returns on Wednesday from his fourth trip to the injured list this season with chronic knee pain, he will start against the Detroit Tigers and be followed by German, who had been the Yankees’ most consistent starting pitcher until he sputtered of late. Boone said he hoped each pitcher would toss between two to four innings. He said it was a way to control German’s career high workload and evaluate him as a relief pitcher, since he could pitch in either capacity in the playoffs.
As far as Sabathia’s postseason role, Boone said all options would be considered. He added, “We want to win, and C.C., as much as anyone, does.”
Sabathia concurred on Monday: “It doesn’t matter whatever my role is in the postseason, whether it’s in the bullpen or starting.”
The bullpen’s usage, too, has been tweaked in the run-up to the postseason. Over the summer, the team’s big four relievers — Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle and Britton — were all on pace to match or top their career highs in appearance for a season. But thanks to a steadying of the rotation, a more favorable stretch of off-days and, recently, an expanded roster in September, the workloads have eased. Entering Monday, Kahnle was the only one of the big four on pace to top his career high in appearances, while Ottavino may simply match it.
None of the four had pitched three days in a row all season, following an internal guideline aimed toward preserving the Yankees’ arms. And only Ottavino had more than two outings longer than one inning. Come October, though, that will likely change.
“It’s basically what you have to do to win,” Rothschild said. “If the starter is the guy to do it, then you do it. If it’s not, then you have to be creative with the bullpen.”
MIKE TAUCHMAN’s regular season is over, as he was diagnosed on Monday with a significant left calf strain. His timetable for recovery is six to eight weeks, which would rule him out for most if not the entire postseason. Tauchman, a surprising contributor this season, had been dealing with discomfort in his calf but reported feeling better over the weekend. He took a big step back on Sunday when he said it felt like he had been kicked in the leg while fielding a ball in left field. … With AARON HICKS shut down with an elbow injury and CAMERON MAYBIN playing with left wrist soreness, the Yankees’ outfield depth has been depleted. GIANCARLO STANTON, who has played in only nine games this season because of several injuries, most recently a knee sprain, may rejoin the Yankees next week, Yankees Manager AARON BOONE said.