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The Yankees could use another star right now

Having depth is nice, but substitute players can’t really be expected to carry the load in trying times.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Yankees’ start to the 2019 season really couldn’t have gone much worse. Never mind dropping consecutive series to two of the weakest teams in the American League; the injury bug has already bitten three Yankee starters in Miguel Andujar, Giancarlo Stanton, and Troy Tulowitzki. That comes in addition to the Yankees’ losses from spring training in Aaron Hicks, Luis Severino, and Dellin Betances. And don’t forget two roster mainstays were already slated to miss time to start the year in CC Sabathia and Didi Gregorius. Those eight players could conceivably be the foundation of a Wild Card contender. Instead, they’re all on the injured list.

Some have argued that the Yankees, given their offseason strategy of adding depth, are as well-equipped as possible to handle an injury epidemic of this magnitude. Chief among them is my colleague Freeni. In his convincingly argued post earlier this week, Freeni pointed out that the Yankees currently still have a dominant bullpen due to their additions of Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton, and capable fill-ins at third base (DJ LeMahieu) and the rotation (Gio Gonzalez), thanks precisely to their “depth above stars” offseason plan.

Despite the Yankees’ mediocre record to date, Freeni’s argument isn’t without supporting evidence. Ottavino and Britton have looked very solid, and while Gonzalez has yet to contribute to the team, LeMahieu certainly has. The infielder is currently running a .400/.500/.500 line through six games. These performances haven’t translated into wins quite yet, but still I’d wager that Aaron Boone feels glad that these players are on the team.

However, I have to disagree with Freeni’s argument. I was a staunch opponent of the Yankees’ “spread the wealth” strategy prior to the start of the season, and I remain so even now. The possibility of injuries mounting up doesn’t necessarily tip the scale in favor of adding multiple depth pieces over concentrating resources in one or two stars. It also highlights the value in having as much high-end talent as possible, because stars, not depth pieces, carry teams through tough stretches.

Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine if the Yankees had sunk over $30 million per year on Bryce Harper instead of, say, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and DJ LeMahieu, whose combined salaries amount to $34 million. Everything else being equal, current injuries and all, how would the team look now?

Yes, the Yankees’ bullpen would look considerably shorter, and no LeMahieu would mean a whole lot more Tyler Wade, which sucks. At the same time, this would replace Michael Tauchman with Harper, which would seem like substantial upgrade. Plus, the bullpen minus Britton and Ottavino would still be competent, and Harper can hit enough to cover for Wade’s offensive ineptitude.

Taking all that into consideration, wouldn’t having Harper been preferable to having a “deeper” team? In other words, doesn’t adding impact talent to an elite core function as a form of depth in itself, as it lessens the risk of a team losing the majority of its best performers at once?

Anecdotal evidence of the benefits of having many stars should be easy to find for Yankees fans. Just remember August of last year, when Judge and Gary Sanchez were both sidelined, leaving the offense with two black holes in Austin Romine (73 wRC+ for the month) and Shane Robinson (no statistics needed). Who stepped up to make up for the lost production? None other than the much maligned Giancarlo Stanton, who slashed a robust .267/.372/.578 (154 wRC+) during those dog days to keep the offense and the team afloat.

More wizened fans may recall 2005, when the Yankees got off to a 11-19 start, three-fifths of the rotation sucked, and a post-his-prime Bernie Williams and never-had-a-prime Tony Womack combined for negative 4.6 WAR between them. Who dragged the rest of the team, kicking and screaming, to the postseason? By and large, it was Alex Rodriguez, who put up 9.1 WAR in one of the finest years of his career. Stars like Derek Jeter (4.4 WAR) and Jason Giambi (165 wRC+) having vintage years didn’t hurt, either. Even though the Yankees’ depth that year was non-existent, their stars did star things, which allowed them to win the division.

The point I’m getting at isn’t that expensive free agent stars are locks to perform, or that signing them is a sure-fire way to guarantee playoff appearances and championships. It’s that stars help paper over holes in the roster caused by injury and ineffectiveness, because stars can be just that good.

What’s more, it’s unreasonable to expect depth pieces to capably full in holes left by sidelined stars. Barring out-of-the-blue performances like Aaron Small, or sudden breakouts like Luke Voit, lost production due to stars landing on the IL can only be supplanted by surplus value generated by other stars. Thus, the best way to insure against losing core players isn’t adding depth pieces, it’s adding elite performers to that core.

Sure, having one of Patrick Corbin, Manny Machado or Harper wouldn’t automatically shield the Yankees from a bad start. Like any other ballplayer, they themselves could have underperformed or gotten injured. However, if one of them was on the team as of now, then the Yankees’ chances of staying afloat while waiting for the likes of Severino, Stanton and Hicks to return would look much more nicer, as would their championship odds after that.

I get that we wouldn’t even be having this conversation if the Yankees’ injury luck hadn’t been so rotten to date. If the Yankees had actually signed a star this offseason, only to watch said player succumb to injury, then I would have said that there was really nothing more that Cashman and company could have done. But as things stand now, it’s hard to say this team was built as well as it could have been. Not when the offseason’s three best free agents are thriving in their new homes, while the Yankees are asking a select few players to carry a humongous load.