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Seriously, the Yankees should still be World Series favorites

But only if they start acting like the Yankees again

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees, Game 6 Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

As if you needed a reminder, the 2019 Bronx Bombers have suffered a decade’s worth of injuries this month, and the resulting team bears little resemblance to the one that broke camp. No less than 13 players on their 25-man active roster played in the minor leagues last season — an almost certain recipe for disaster. Yet after winning seven of their last eight contests, this ragtag group of overachievers is now 13-10, good enough for second place in the AL East. Without superstars like Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, and the list goes on, remaining competitive is an astonishing achievement.

On the other hand, many fans have already written off 2019 as a lost season, and there’s no shortage of justification for that view. The Yankees are now running out lineups with Clint Frazier — who began the year in Triple-A as the sixth outfielder on the depth chart — hitting cleanup. Incidentally, Frazier sat out Tuesday after spraining his ankle, so who knows where they go from here. At some point, this replacement squad that boasts an above-average offense is bound to regress, right? A schedule that has allowed the Yankees to play 20 of their first 23 games against losing teams certainly suggests that the current record is inflated.

When healthy, of course, the Bombers are probably the best team in baseball. Take a look at their projected lineup at full strength if you don’t believe me, with italics indicating players on the injured list as of Tuesday:

Lineup

  1. CF, Aaron Hicks — 4.7 WAR in 2018 was third-best among all MLB center fielders
  2. RF, Aaron Judge — Averaging 8.4 WAR per 162 games since the start of 2017
  3. DH, Giancarlo Stanton — MLB-leading 97 home runs from 2017-2018
  4. C, Gary Sanchez — Career .856 OPS ranks in top five among all catchers in history
  5. 1B, Luke Voit — Has 20 homers in 62 games with NYY, a 55 HR-per-162 pace
  6. SS, Didi Gregorius — Broke his own record for home runs by a Yankee SS in 2018
  7. 3B, Miguel Andujar — Tied the all-time AL record for doubles by a rookie last year
  8. 2B, Gleyber Torres — Was named an All-Star in 2018 as a 21-year-old rookie
  9. LF, Brett Gardner — 2015 All-Star has a career-high .851 OPS this season

Bench

  1. 3B, DJ LeMahieu — 2016 NL batting champion won Gold Gloves in ’17 and ’18
  2. OF, Clint Frazier — Former fifth overall pick has a sparkling .974 OPS in 2019
  3. IF, Troy Tulowitzki — Five-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, two-time Gold Glover
  4. C, Austin Romine — Hitting .250 this season after career year in 2018

Not a single player on the Yankees injured list is expected to be out past August, while most will likely return well before the All-Star break. By and large, these are short-term hiccups rather than long-term roadblocks. And for a team as loaded as the Yankees, this difficult stretch is a very rare opportunity to see which prospects are worth keeping around. Once most of the casualties return to action, the Bombers will have too many contributors to give playing time, which is a wonderful problem to have.

The real problem, then, is to keep within striking distance in the standings while the top two-thirds of the lineup recovers. Even taking into consideration the Yankees’ unprecedented injured list, FanGraphs still gives them a 52% chance to win the division and an 86% chance of making the playoffs — truly a testament to this team’s depth. However, being forced to play a win-or-go-home Wild Card Game against, say, Trevor Bauer or Blake Snell would be a nightmare, one that would cut their title hopes in half. As a result, the Yankees need to do something they’ve been loathe to consider ever since George Steinbrenner’s passing: overpay.

As fellow PSA writer Brett Borzelli pointed out last week, the Yankees are the only team in baseball that spent less than 30% of its revenue on payroll last season, ostensibly because ownership wanted to reduce its luxury tax bill after splurging this offseason. But when the Yankees surprised fans by barely increasing payroll over the winter, they themselves shouldn’t be surprised when those fans — rightly or wrongly — blame ownership for underperformance. Now is their chance to change that perception by trading for an overpaid but productive veteran on a one-year contract, who can help the young guys weather the storm in May while potentially pushing them over the top in October.

Leaving public image aside, it’s actually in ownership’s financial interest to add $15 million or so in payroll, as counterintuitive as that sounds. As illustrated in the chart above, the team’s revenue increased by roughly 8% annually from 2001 to 2008, then shot up 18% in 2009 when the Yankees won their last World Series. Revenues proceeded to increase by only 3% yearly from 2010 to 2016, a transitional period for the franchise, before skyrocketing by 18% again in 2017 when the Bombers came within a game of the World Series. That represented a $93 million boost in earnings year-over-year — the product of fielding a contending roster. Moreover, as a $4.6 billion franchise that ranks as MLB’s most valuable by far, just a 2% change in the Yankees’ valuation is equivalent to almost $100 million. The difference between making and missing the playoffs, purely from an economic perspective, is therefore hard to overstate.

Who exactly the Yankees should target depends on which of their injuries turn out to be the most severe, but here are two candidates who are free agents after the season:

Overpaying for established talent — as the Yankees once did — would signal the team’s intention to go all-in this season, without losing any more top prospects. During the last year of Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez earning the league minimum salary, this may yet be their best chance at the championship, injuries and all.