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The Yankees must grapple with a new risk now that they are contenders

Turning playing time over to prospects in 2017 wasn’t a problem for the Yankees, but it could be this year.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Yankees are undeniably in a better spot now than they were a year ago. They’ve seen young players breakout, they’ve consolidated some of their prospects into current impact contributors, and they even messed around and traded for an MVP. Their outlook for the coming season is as rosy as it has been in years.

That doesn’t mean it’s a guarantee that they’ll be better in 2018 than they were in 2017, but the expectations entering this season clearly outstrip the team’s expectations heading into 2017. Last year was a “rebuilding” year. The forecast was for a team that could hover around .500 and perhaps hang in the Wild Card race.

The stakes are much higher now. The Yankees’ championship window is now. They left little doubt of that when they nearly won the AL pennant and followed up by making the aggressive move to acquire Giancarlo Stanton. The expectation is no longer to retool; the expectation is to compete for the World Series for the foreseeable future.

This is obviously a good thing. For a team that underwent a partial tear down in 2016 and was mostly expected to lay low until 2019 or so, this is a great position to be in. Yet now that the Yankees are built to win again, they have to deal with a new set of risks that they haven’t had to grapple with over the past couple years.

That risk is the inherent danger that comes with entrusting big roles to prospects on a contending team. There’s a profound difference between plugging green players into the starting lineup on a team in transition, and doing so on a contender.

Last season, with tepid expectations entering the year, there was no problem with the Yankees rolling with unproven youth. Aaron Judge was coming off a miserable start to his major league career. Luis Severino had an 8.50 ERA as a starter in 2016. Jordan Montgomery had thrown nary a pitch in the major leagues. All were slated for major playing time right off the bat, and no one batted an eye.

That’s because giving chances to unproven young players makes total sense for retooling teams. If those players perform, that’s great! If they sink, no problem! It’s not a huge deal for young players on a rebuilding team to struggle given the hopes for such a team are generally low in the first place.

In 2017, if Judge’s 2016 failures had plagued him through the first few months of the season, or if Severino continued to flash inconsistency as a starter, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. They likely would have been given at least some leash to work through struggles, since the 2017 season looked like a good chance for the Yankees to see what they had in their young talent, rather than truly compete.

That is no longer the case. The Yankees have fairly gaping holes on the infield dirt right now, with the trades of Starlin Castro and Chase Headley. The best options they have on hand are prospects Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres, and Tyler Wade, not to mention Thairo Estrada and backup Ronald Torreyes.

If the Yankees plug their holes with prospects, the risk is much higher than it was last season. If Torres takes the field at the keystone and looks rusty and not quite ready for major league pitching after missing much of last year with Tommy John surgery, his struggles will drag down what’s expected to be a contender. Same goes for Wade if the Yankees trot him back out there and he looks as over-matched as he did in 2017.

This isn’t to say that these prospects are guaranteed to fail. Torres is an outstanding prospect, and could possibly hit right away even after coming off major surgery. Wade is a versatile player with a diverse skill-set. Andujar has a plus bat.

There’s simply wide error bars with such unproven players, and the downside risk, the chance that they are entirely unprepared and far below replacement level right now, is a risk that’s much scarier for a contending team than a rebuilding one.

Perhaps the best recent example of the Yankees seeing things go sideways after heaping high expectations on prospects was 2008, when much of their pitching staff was made up of youth. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were expected to be big parts of a team that was looking to reach the postseason for the 14th consecutive year, but they floundered right out of the gate.

Kennedy posted an 8.17 ERA, Hughes ran a 6.62 ERA, and the Yankees quickly pulled the plug on the experiment. That year, Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera also had very poor seasons early in their careers. The Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.

That’s just one example, one scenario in which a team with high hopes was held back because young players turned out not to be ready. That’s certainly not how things will definitely play out now. But if the Yankees roll with prospects in the starting lineup, there’s now a real, if unlikely downside. The 2017 Yankees could afford for prospects to take their lumps. The 2018 Yankees probably can’t.