The Yankees’ conundrum

MLB

The New York Yankees have so far defied most “expert” predictions (including my own) as to their fate this season. A 21-13 record is far better than even the most optimistic fans and media shills could have hoped for. The question is whether or not they can maintain it as currently constructed and, if not, what they have to do to bolster their current roster.

Objectively, it’s difficult to see the Yankee sustaining this current method of running games and winning. If they continue down this road, the bullpen is going to be shot by July. What they can do is bring in reinforcements to bolster the bullpen and starting rotation. But how? In the past, the Yankees would have worried about today today and figured they could buy whatever they needed on the market in the winter. That’s no longer the case.

There are internal options if they hold their fire and resist the temptation to misread the situation, panic and again abandon any plans they formulated. They can wait out Masahiro Tanaka’s return and hope that the injury issues – that have now extended into something totally different from his partially torn UCL – will recede into the background and he can be effective. They can wait for Ivan Nova. They can hope that the warmer weather rejuvenates CC Sabathia who, in spite of his record, has actually been relatively effective, albeit unlucky.

The Yankees have the prospects to get Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies, but that might not be the wisest decision. It would be a repeat of what the Yankees did in the past and put them on the treadmill they’ve been on over the past several years with aging players, bloated contracts, and limited prospects in the minors.

Even if they resist the temptation to get Hamels, they’re going to need help. They’re not getting enough length from their starting pitching and as long as they’re treating Nathan Eovaldi as if he’s a combination of a work-in-progress who they’re trying to develop and a reincarnation of the untrustworthy Javier Vazquez in Vazquez’s ill-advised and poorly considered second tenure in the Bronx, he can’t be trusted. They have to closely monitor Tanaka if/when he returns. They’re dealing with the aging star Sabathia. Nova is returning from Tommy John surgery and can’t be expected to provide significant depth. Adam Warren is showing that he is probably better suited to the bullpen. Chris Capuano is on the way back, but he’s mediocre at best.

They can improve the bullpen from within by using Warren. Jacob Lindgren is expected to be in the Bronx sooner rather than later. They could use one of their younger pitchers whose future is as a starter. But will they want to run the risk of repeating what they did with Joba Chamberlain with Luis Severino and let him be a weapon out of the bullpen with the understanding that no matter how dominant he might be that he’s going to go back to the starting rotation next year? Much of what happened with Chamberlain was the Yankees’ own fault. While they might proclaim that Severino’s future and Chamberlain’s past will have no bearing on their plans, it will be a looming if unacknowledged concern that the same thing could happen with a debate bordering on pending violence as to whether he should start or relieve.

That bullpen has been battered by manager Joe Girardi early in the season. Faced with the dueling necessities of trying to win and develop/protect their starting pitchers, he’s used his relievers to a degree that is indicative of his training as Joe Torre’s catcher and former bench coach. Already Chris Martin is injured. David Carpenter has been predictably bad. Every key short reliever in the Yankees’ bullpen has appeared in at least 13 games. The most important components – Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller – have been pushed remarkably hard for so early a point in the season. That cannot continue if they want any of those relievers to be effective in August and September.

Then there are the bats.

Alex Rodriguez, as good as he’s been, is still about to turn 40 and has a lengthy injury history if you completely ignore his PED use. Given his past, it cannot be ignored that he’s been busted for PED use so many times and lied about it even more. There are those who will believe anything A-Rod says; others who won’t believe anything he says; and those who will believe that he can’t possibly be stupid enough to get caught again.

Anything’s possible. With his age, it’s silly to believe that he’ll remain healthy and fresh all season even with the Yankees giving him periodic and strategic days off. He’s always be a threat due to his baseball intelligence, but he can’t keep this up.

Carlos Beltran has shown signs of life over the past few days, but he’s a testament to how baseball players aged pre-PED use – they inevitably become declining shells of their former selves when they reach their late-30s. There will be brief bursts of prior glory, but expecting that to continue is delusional.

Mark Teixeira is enjoying a renaissance, but he’s 35.

Chase Headley will undoubtedly hit better. Didi Gregorius remains a complete unknown with the reasonable expectation that he’s going to hit like Mark Belanger for the entire season. They need a second baseman as Stephen Drew is a weak stopgap.

Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have gone above-and-beyond the call of duty, but both have been injury-prone and cannot continue this production.

Once everyone falls back to what they really are, the Yankees will have to make some additions from somewhere.

This is where the Yankees’ conundrum arises. Do they trade some of their prospects for veteran help to try and win a weak and wounded division? Do they hold onto the players they want to keep instead of acquiring a veteran arm or bat? Much like the dilemma they faced as they phased out Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, this is a different “damned if we do/damned if we don’t” circumstance. They had to play Jeter to placate the fans even though his bat and glove warranted him being benched. They were lucky with Rivera in that he was effective through to the end, but even if he wasn’t, they still would have had to keep him in the closer’s role whether he deserved it or not. In this situation, they’ve closed the vault and adhered to a certain plan rather than spend money to fill holes with other players who were eventually going to create the same holes they have now. To make matters worse, if this team gets into the playoffs, that bullpen combination of Betances and Miller gives them a chance to do damage once they’re there, but if they burn out Betances and Miller to get there how much will they have left in October (or August)? And what about the subsequent years that could be physically mortgaged in a similar way to the Yankees’ financial mortgaging for players like Beltran, Brian McCann, Sabathia, and even, to a degree, Tanaka?

The American League East itself is putting the Yankees in a position that, barring a monumental collapse or spate of injuries, they’ll have a chance to win the division. Right now, it could be a division that takes 84 wins. That falls right into what the Yankees have been over the past several years and what their reality is now. Considering the preseason flaws, this undoubtedly comes as a pleasant surprise to the front office. As much as they said they liked this team, there was a tactical diminishing of the previously lofty expectations of World Series or bust with ambiguous phrasing that essentially said, “If everything goes right…” It’s May and everything has gone right resulting in a 21-13 record and first place.

That can be as negative as positive because it might lead Hal Steinbrenner and Randy Levine to order GM Brian Cashman to do something stupid through misinterpreting what they currently are. Cashman won’t want to do it and could convince the front office that it’s preferable to get a Scott Kazmir, Aaron Harang, Mike Leake, Kyle Lohse, John Axford, or Tyler Clippard for far less in terms of players and financial commitment than it will cost to get Hamels.

However, if it’s late July, the bullpen is fading and the starting rotation is faltering, he might not have a choice. He might be ordered to take Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon or some other combination of pricey players Cashman doesn’t want and the Yankees don’t need in the short or long-term. That would undo all the good things they did this past winter in a similar fashion to them abandoning the $189 million goal for the retrospectively poor spending spree they embarked upon in the winter of 2013-2014 that made them older, more expensive and, overall, worse than they would have been if they’d held to their financial line and shown some patience.

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