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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Yankees start their season with a plot twist

The Yankees gambled on Frankie Montas working through his shoulder troubles after a trade last summer, but Montas will be sidelined for much of this season after surgery.

By Tyler Kepner

Every baseball season is a television series airing from mid-February through early October, with possible bonus episodes until early November. Nowhere is this clearer than with the New York Yankees, the franchise that pioneered the team-branded cable network. And the pilot episode always starts at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

On Wednesday afternoon, as pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Tampa, Florida, the YES Network went live to the host of the show, manager Aaron Boone, for his opening monologue. It came in the form of a news conference, and the first question concerned starter Frankie Montas and the inflammation in his throwing shoulder.

“So, Frankie is going to have surgery …” Boone said.

And we’re off — with an instant plot twist!

The Yankees were not counting heavily on Montas, not with $63 million invested this season in their top two starters, Gerrit Cole and newcomer Carlos Rodón. But it sure would have been nice to have the version of Montas who was one of the league’s best starters in 2021. Now, Boone conceded, the hope is that Montas might return late in the season.

Montas, a power right-hander, was thought to be a high-impact addition when he arrived last summer in a trade from the Oakland Athletics. The Yankees gambled that his preexisting shoulder injury would not be serious, and lost the bet: Montas never managed a quality start (at least six innings pitched with no more than three earned runs) in eight outings after the trade, and now he’s unavailable.

Luis Severino and Nestor Cortes (out for the time being with a hamstring strain) will be part of the rotation, with Domingo Germán and Clarke Schmidt as solid options to replace Montas. But the Yankees’ depth has been tested before the first formal workouts.

“Anytime you have some attrition, especially at this time of year when you have pitcher injuries, that always scares you,” Boone said. “But it’s also a part of the team that I have a ton of confidence in. I feel like our rotation, on paper — and I caution we’re in the middle of February right now, but I’m excited about their potential impact and what they can be. I’m also really excited about the depth of our bullpen.”

The relievers, indeed, could be very strong, boosted by the return of right-hander Michael King, who has already thrown 10 bullpen sessions in his recovery from elbow surgery last July. King’s role is uncertain — can he still be a multi-inning weapon? — but his confidence in Boone’s options is unshaken.

“We can roll out an A squad every time out,” King said. “If someone needs a day off, you can replace them with someone just as good.”

The Yankees had enough talent and depth last season to pitch to a 3.30 ERA (third best in the majors), and the left-hander Rodón is an upgrade over right-hander Jameson Taillon, who signed with the Chicago Cubs. In the last two seasons, for the Chicago White Sox and the San Francisco Giants, Rodón averaged 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings — the most of any pitcher with at least 40 starts — while going 27-13 with a 2.67 ERA.

Even so, Rodón — who signed a six-year, $162 million deal with the Yankees in December — has this in common with his new teammates: He, too, has been beaten by the Houston Astros in the postseason. (Rodón lost a playoff start to Houston in 2021.) The Astros have won four of the last six American League pennants, stifling the Yankees in the championship series three times.

Last fall’s effort was an especially emphatic flex: The Astros swept the Yankees, who batted .162 with 50 strikeouts in the four dreary games. The Yankees had hoped to blend contact hitters with sluggers in the series, but injuries to D.J. LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi reduced them to a one-dimensional offense and kept the Yankees without a pennant since their 2009 championship season.

“We led the league in runs scored last year — that’s actually a thing, trying to score runs,” Boone said. “We ran up against a buzz saw and we were a little depleted. But that said, if we’re going to win it all, we’ve got to find a way to get by these teams that in a given year really got it rolling on the mound. We’ve got to find a way to be able to win those nip-and-tuck games, too.”

Houston went on to set a World Series record for strikeouts while beating Philadelphia (71 in six games), and Boone acknowledged that the Astros had “set the standard” in the league. But while the Yankees did lead the AL in runs last year — the Los Angeles Dodgers scored more overall — they lost Benintendi to the White Sox in free agency and have questions at several positions.

Is Aaron Hicks — who has hit .211 in his last 162 games — a viable everyday left fielder? Which of the three starting shortstops in the ALCS (Oswaldo Cabrera, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Oswald Peraza) will emerge as a starter in spring training — or will the top prospect Anthony Volpe win the job? How much does third baseman Josh Donaldson have left?

The Yankees retained their new captain, Aaron Judge, after his 62-homer explosion, and brought back dependable first baseman Anthony Rizzo. LeMahieu’s broken toe has healed, and it will be fun to watch a Gold Glove winner, Harrison Bader, fly around center field all season. There is still a lot to like from a team that just won 99 games.

“Every year that I’ve been here, we’ve gone in with the idea that we want to be a championship team,” Boone said. “It’s a reasonable goal.”

A reasonable goal. As slogans go, it is accurate but uninspiring. The show is compelling, but the Yankees need to punch up the script — get more range from the cast, that is — to stretch it to November.

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