Money and Modern Strategy: How the Depleted Yankees Kept Winning
For most teams, 17 players making trips to the injured list — including a major-league-leading 13 currently — only a quarter of the way through the season would be crippling.
But not for the 2019 Yankees. As they entered a three-game series this weekend against the American League East-leading Tampa Bay Rays (26-15), the Yankees (26-16) sat just one half-game behind in the standings.
How have they managed to keep winning?
It is not just the Yankees’ financial might (though their $204 million opening day roster constructed by General Manager Brian Cashman, the second largest in the major leagues, is certainly a significant aspect) but also their embrace of the modern baseball smarts that now pervade the game — along with sprinkles of opportunity and luck.
“When you have the resources that we do to go out and acquire high-end free agents but at the same time give yourself the options in AAA or AA to help cover for injuries like we are right now, it’s important,” Yankees relief pitcher Zack Britton said. “A lot of times you think about only spending money at the major league level and neglect having backups or replacements, and obviously Cashman didn’t.”
So while the Rays are applauded for their use of advanced analytics and innovation despite the lowest payroll in the majors, at $60 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts — less than the combined 2019 salaries of the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton, Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury — the Yankees have blended some of those ideas with a large wallet under Cashman. It has allowed them to more than stay afloat despite many missing stars.
“It’s like a perfect storm,” Britton said.
An enormous payroll certainly helps a team buy itself more margin for error. Consider D. J. LeMahieu. Despite having a seemingly already-set infield, the Yankees handed LeMahieu, a high-contact hitter and Glove Glove-winning second baseman, a two-year $24-million contract over the winter. He was slated to be a multipurpose infielder, while Troy Tulowitzki, a low-cost gamble, expected to hold down the shortstop position with some help from Gleyber Torres, until Didi Gregorius returned at some point this summer.
But LeMahieu has instead become an irreplaceable player: Tulowitzki has played just five games because of a nagging calf injury, and third baseman Miguel Andujar elected on Wednesday to have season-ending surgery on his injured shoulder. LeMahieu has shone as a fill-in, hitting .322 in 38 games entering Friday along with stout defense around the diamond.
Other facets of the Yankees’ operation, however, have helped them get to this point. Shrewd scouting and negotiating helped the Yankees pluck Domingo German, who is now guiding their rotation, from the Miami Marlins’ minor league system five years ago. The analytics department, among the largest in baseball, pointed the Yankees to first baseman Luke Voit’s hard-hit rates when he was stuck in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system, and they traded for him last year. He led the Yankees with 32 runs batted in entering Friday.
Coaching and a bit of luck helped the Yankees turn slick-fielding but light-hitting infielder Gio Urshela into an everyday third baseman in Andujar’s absence and the team’s most valuable player, one teammate said earlier this month. Acquired in a minor league trade late last season, Urshela tweaked his swing with the help of the Class AAA hitting coach Phil Plantier, and it caught the eye of Yankees Manager Aaron Boone this spring.
After hitting .225 with the Cleveland Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays, Urshela is hitting a team-best .330 entering Friday — a pleasant surprise for the Yankees.
[Read More: Gio Urshela Is Creating Magic, and a Logjam at Third Base, for the Yankees]
“I feel like we are a full-operation baseball department,” Cashman said. “We aspire to draft well. We aspire to develop them well. We aspire to sign international amateur players well. We’re getting them in many forms or fashions, from waiver claims to six-year minor league free agents. There’s help from the coaches and the field staff.
“It’s just a collaborative effort to find solutions to what ails us.”
Still, this season has presented a challenge like no other. Cashman, in his position since 1998, said he probably had never made this many roster transactions within the first two months of a season. As a result, the Yankees’ major league lineup has been makeshift at times.
Instead of the usual star-studded outfield of Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Stanton, it was any combination of Thairo Estrada, a top infield prospect who had never played outfield until last month; the 35-year-old Brett Gardner; Clint Frazier, a highly touted prospect who missed most of 2018 with a concussion; Mike Tauchman, acquired in a trade with the Colorado Rockies at the end of spring training as the Yankees’ injuries piled up; Cameron Maybin, a trade acquisition in late April; and Tyler Wade.
“We’re cashing in on our insurance policies,” Cashman said.
Cashman commended Boone as a calming voice for the team through the troubles and the players, no matter where they came originally, eager to pull their weight.
The Yankees have been led by a stable pitching staff despite being without a four-time All-Star (reliever Dellin Betances) and the ace of their starting rotation (Luis Severino). Entering Friday, the Yankees had a 3.74 E.R.A., seventh in baseball, thanks in part to German — a pitcher who was once viewed as a potential reliever and arrived in New York as a small part of a 2014 trade that included Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Jones.
German’s command has improved through working with the Yankees’ pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, and he now leads baseball with eight wins and paces the team’s rotation with a 2.50 E.R.A.
German has mitigated the loss of Severino, who may not return from the strain of his right latissimuss dorsi until this summer. The Yankees’ deep pockets have also helped ease the absence of Betances, who recently began throwing as he recovers from right shoulder inflammation.
Taking the modern baseball strategy of building around a bullpen to heart, the Yankees spent $86 million on the star closer Aroldis Chapman in 2017. This winter, they lavished $66 million on the standout relief pitchers Adam Ottavino and Britton. Better health from Tommy Kahnle and improved pitching from Luis Cessa, both of whom spent a lot of last season in the minor leagues, softened some of the blow of Chad Green’s struggles.
“We recognize that we’re fortunate in the market we exist in and with the ownership that runs this operation,” Cashman said. “They’re fully committed and financially able to do more than most, if not all. At the same time, our operations, we’re culturally wired to respect everybody else in the game. We are in a constant battle to determine what they are doing better than we are.”
He added later, “It’s the never-ending battle for higher ground.”
As Britton noted, old-fashioned scouting and advanced analytics have allowed teams to better spot potential contributors hidden on other minor or major league squads.
“The Yankees are picking up on guys that teams maybe don’t have the resources to go that deep and run the analytics on, and snatch some guys from other teams that are good players,” Britton said. “It wasn’t just that we turned them into some great players. They were good players that were given an opportunity.”
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