Just about everyone has a plan on how to “fix” the Yankees. After four years of contention but zero World Series appearances, there is fear around Yankees Universe that the “window” could be more closed than open, especially with several of the supposed core pieces hitting free agency in two years or less.
Some of these plans are simple — spend more money. Others involve trading from a position of strength to address a position of weakness, or cutting payroll and embracing analytics fully. However, the common denominator in many of them involves the Yankees getting more “balanced.” The premise behind this point is that the Yankees are too predictable — they are too righty-heavy, rely too much on the home run, strike out too much, and are generally all-or-nothing at the plate or on the mound. Supposedly, they need more contact hitters, more lefties and less whiffs.
Personally, I’d love a team full of DJ LeMahieus. Who wouldn’t? But, that’s not exactly realistic, is it? Is it really possible to get a team full of guys who have elite contact rates, power at the plate and positional versatility? The scarcity of players like LeMahieu is what makes him so valuable. When people say, “the Yankees need more players like LeMahieu on the team,” well, of course they do. The problem is, there’s not a ton of them readily available.
So, when rumors persist that the Yankees might let LeMahieu walk in free agency to save money, it’s maddening. There isn’t a better second baseman in the game right now than LeMahieu, so if they let him go, they wouldn’t be able to easily replace him. He can be retained for nothing more than money, which is something the Yankees have a lot of.
It’s also true that the Yankees are righty-heavy. Is this a bad thing, though, if all their righties are above-average bats? Other than Gary Sánchez — who was a net negative this season but just one year removed from a 118 OPS+ showing — the Yankees’ lineup is one of the most fearsome in baseball. It’s the kind of lineup that other teams would love to have.
Last I checked, the best way to win in sports is to assemble the best collection of talent. Yes, there may be teams every once in awhile who buck this trend, but typically speaking, the best teams win in the end. Why then, would it be a good idea to actively replace above-average players with worse ones in the sake of “balance?”
Aaron Boone and Brian Cashman seem to agree with that premise:
“I think in a perfect world you always have that balance where you have a switch-hitter or two or you have three or four lefties,” Boone said. “But it’s hard to have everything, right?
“Of course you’d like to have the balance if you can,” Cashman said. “But then when you’re faced with the decision, do I not try to re-sign DJ LeMahieu because he’s right-handed so I can get a left-handed bat in there?
“To pull the trigger on making decisions like that, you have to come up with the ability to secure the alternative, and then feel like you’re actually better.”
Look at the Los Angeles Dodgers, the most comparable team to the Yankees. Their window has been open longer than the Yankees’ and although they’ve made three World Series, they’ve yet to win one yet. What did they do when they faced their crossroads? They went out and got the best player available, Mookie Betts, and promptly signed him to a huge and well-deserved contract extension. Even their moves that didn’t work out were predicated on giving them the best chance to win, such as trading for Yu Darvish and Manny Machado at past deadlines instead of standing pat like the Yankees did. The Dodgers can take solace in knowing they took every measure possible to try and accomplish their goal. Can the Yankees say the same right now?
Top talent, unless it is developed internally, is not cheap. The Dodgers and Yankees have the assets to acquire top talent that small-market teams like the Rays don’t. The reason the Rays have to embrace analytics is because it’s the only way they can gain a competitive advantage over their richer foes. The key to winning is to attack the opponent’s weakness and ideally make it your strength. For the Yankees, that means the path to success is to double down on acquiring talent that the Rays can’t get.
The Yankees have to put the best version of themselves out on the field next year to finally win that World Series. Choosing to cut payroll just to save a few dollars won’t accomplish that goal, and neither will replacing capable talent like LeMahieu or Masahiro Tanaka with more “balanced” options who may throw with a different hand or hit for more contact while producing less overall value. If winning the championship before the window closes is truly the most important thing to the Yankees, then they need to do what the Dodgers did and pull out all the stops in pursuit of a title before that ever-closing window finally slams shut.