With apologies to the Minnesota Twins, who have clubbed their way into the national consciousness and first place in the AL Central, there has been no greater surprise this season in Major League Baseball than the achievement of the New York Yankees.
This may sound counter-intuitive; the Yankees seemingly are in the pennant race every year. But what distinguishes this group is how spectacularly its survived a variety of major injuries to record the 44-27 record that has it sitting pretty in first place of the AL East heading into Tuesday’s action.
Consider that Giancarlo Stanton, thought to be the thunder of their lineup, has only played in three games thus far, going 2-for-8 with seven walks and four strikeouts. He originally went on the injured list April 1 with a left biceps strain. Then he exacerbated the situation by straining his left shoulder rehabbing the first injury.
The Yankees say he is finally ready to return. They plan to activate him Tuesday before their game with the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium. How do they know he is ready? Stanton hit five home runs in five games in his latest rehab stint.
Part of the reason the Yankees have stayed afloat with Stanton and Aaron Judge out of the lineup has been the ingenuity of general manager Brian Cashman. The depth the Yankees have built in their Minor League system, and the acquisition of veterans Cameron Maybin and Kendrs Morales, has more than compensated for the loss of the core players.
At various times this season, the Yankees have received significant contributions from their second tier – Clint Frazier, Mike Tauchman, Thairo Estrada, Mike Ford and Gio Urshela.
Maybin, who may be cut to make room for Stanton, has homered in his last three games.
Urshela, who took over at third base when Miguel Andujar was lost for the season after just 12 games, is hitting .306 with a .358 on-base percentage and has played superior defense.
Frazier was hitting .283 with 11 homers in 53 games when he was suddenly demoted over the weekend to make room for Cashman’s latest acquisition, slugger Edwin Encarnacion, who was leading the AL in homers with Seattle.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow, yeah,” Frazier said on Sunday. “It’s never fun, especially with how much I felt like I’ve contributed to this team this year.”
Through 53 games, Frazier had 22 extra-base hits. His 11 home runs are tied for fourth on the big league roster. He also hit .375 with runners in scoring position. He would be an everyday starter on most teams in the Major Leagues. But he is an accessory part for the Yankees.
“He’s played a big role on a winning team, and that doesn’t necessarily stop now, but this is where we’re at with the roster situation,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “So obviously tough news to deliver, but hopefully he can make the most of it and continue to get better at his craft and know that he’s going to play a role for us again.”
The aggressiveness with which Cashman has worked to keep the Yankees functional is best exemplified by his acquisition of Encarnacion. He went 0-for-4 in his debut as designated hitter during the Yankees win on Monday. But big things are expected from his huge bat.
“I’ve got more work to do,” Cashman said. “We’ll be aggressive. We’re always aggressive. We just want to be smartly aggressive.”
Encarnacion, who has 21 homers, said he expected the Seattle Mariners would trade him because of his salary and the fact the team has dropped out of the pennant race.
“I play the game to win, and it’s exciting to come to a team that’s battling and doing so well right now,” Encarnacion said.
Imagine what the middle of the Yankees lineup will look like soon with Gary Sanchez, Encarnacion, Judge, Stanton and Luke Voit poised to batter pitchers with their power.
“I can’t wait to see that. It’s going to be fun,” Encarnacion said. “We’re going to hit a lot of homers, and we’re going to win a lot of games, too.”
When Stanton returns, the Yankees plan to use him mostly in left field with Aaron Hicks in center and Judge in right. This would constitute the most significant change to compensate for Encarnacion, who will be the full-time DH.
“We have a great lineup, and with those two animals coming back, it will be even more powerful. An even better lineup,” Sanchez said. “We just have to stay healthy and keep on playing baseball.”
Encarnacion, who has 18 career homers at Yankee Stadium, is a three-time All-Star with 401 career home runs. He has averaged 37 homers and 109 RBIs in his past seven seasons and his 322 dingers this decade are the most of any MLB hitter.
Here’s how the Yankees made this work: Seattle will send $8,397,849 to them, which means New York is only on the hook for what remains of the $16,397,849 that’s guaranteed to Encarnacion – $11,397,849 of his $20 million salary this year plus a $5 million buyout of a $25 million club option for 2020.
As long as Cashman is the GM, and as long as the money holds up, the Yankees will never be caught short-handed, no matter who is hurt and how long they may be out.