The arrival of Edwin Encarnacion in the Bronx has many calling the Yankees’ lineup “Murderers’ Row 2.0”. The scary part is, that might not even be hyperbole. Even without Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankees’ lineup has provided plenty of offense, ranking seventh in baseball with a 106 team wRC+. When those two return, this is what the lineup could look like.
Excuse me while I go cool myself off.
The Encarnacion trade was a bit strange considering that the Yankees already have a roster logjam, but apart from that, it was a no-brainer. Anytime you can build a super-offense, you do it. Plus, what the Yankees gave up for Encarnacion—pitching prospect Juan Then—seemed surprisingly light for the return, even when you consider the money that the Yankees had to eat.
The Yankees, however, may have had another reason for adding Encarnacion. Put simply, he provides the Bombers with insurance in case they don’t get the rotation upgrade they’re looking for. By strengthening an already scary offense, the Yankees are hoping to take a little pressure off a beleaguered rotation.
Right now, the front office is probably hard at work looking for a starting pitcher. Names like Marcus Stroman, Matthew Boyd and Madison Bumgarner are being mentioned as potential targets, and any one of them would be a welcome addition to the rotation down the stretch. It’s far from a given, however, that the Yankees will land any of them.
Stroman and Boyd, given their relative youth and performance level, should command a strong prospect return. The cream of the Yankees’ farm may not be able to snag them, especially when compared to the prospect hauls that other contenders like the Astros and Phillies could offer. Meanwhile, the wear and tear on Bumgarner’s arm will probably make him more affordable in terms of prospects, but that only means that more teams will enter the sweepstakes. Given these circumstances, it’s a distinct possibility that the Yankees may not end up with any of them, even if they do try their hardest.
The Encarnacion trade, then, can be seen as a rotation move in disguise. At least in theory, an overpowering offense can compensate for a relatively underwhelming starting five. After all, the point is to outscore your opponents, not to keep the team ERA under a certain threshold. Adding the veteran slugger gives the Yankees some much needed breathing room in that regard.
The Yankees aren’t the first team in recent memory to adopt this offense-heavy strategy. The 2015 Blue Jays, of which Encarnacion played an integral role, was perhaps the most striking example of this tactic. They led the majors with a 117 team wRC+, while ranking just 10th in team ERA- with a mark of 94. While their season ended in the ALCS at the hands of the eventual World Champion Royals, they did win 93 games en route to a division title. I’m inclined to call this one a success.
If you’re not satisfied by this example, maybe the World Series-winning Houston Astros may convince you of the merits of an offense-heavy squad. That team mashed its way to a 122 team wRC+, while posting an essentially average team ERA- of 98 in the regular season. It just goes to show that having an historically great offense absolves many sins.
Can the Yankees emulate the 2015 Blue Jays or the 2017 Astros? This is where it gets tricky. Once the Yankees get Stanton and Judge back, they should have an equally imposing offense. However, it’s still going to be tough to match the Astros’ 122 wRC+, considering that’s the highest such mark for an MLB offense since integration. The Yankees would have to have all of their big bats on their A-game for the second half in order to make that happen. It’s certainly possible, but less than probable.
Meanwhile, the Yankees’ pitchers stills own an 89 ERA- despite the rotation’s recent struggles. However, considering German’s injury, CC Sabathia and J.A. Happ’s continued ineffectiveness, as well as the questions surrounding returning starters Luis Severino and Jordan Montgomery, the Yankees’ team ERA- might take quite the hit in the second half. In fact, it could end up higher than the 2015 Blue Jays’ 94 mark and around the 2017 Astros’ 98.
This is a scenario that the Yankees would like to avoid. In 2018, no playoff team had a regular season team ERA- mark above 98. The year before that, only the Minnesota Twins ran a team ERA- higher than 98 (103) and made the playoffs, but we all know what happened to them. And while there have been World Series winners in the past 10 years with similarly mediocre ERAs—the 2012 and 2014 Giants—the overall track record isn’t great. Even with an unholy offense, the Yankees should keep searching for pitching. There’s only so much that a great lineup can allow you to get away with.