It was at some point during the last two weeks, as the Yankees were slumping for the first time since late April, that General Manager Brian Cashman decided his roster needed an upgrade. He wasn’t, however, looking to add another pitcher, as most outsiders assumed he would — at least not yet.
Instead, Cashman bolstered a known asset — home run power — in acquiring Edwin Encarnacion from the Mariners for a minor league pitching prospect and cash considerations. Encarnacion, a 36-year-old who leads the American League in home runs with 21, gives the Yankees’ lineup the potential for comic-book strength once Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton come off the injured list, as they are expected to do within the next few days.
There is little doubt that Cashman will make several follow-up moves before the July 31 trade deadline, presumably to bolster his wobbly starting rotation. But for now, the Yankees are returning to their 2018 formula for success: overwhelming opposing pitchers with pure power.
“There’s always room for good players,” Manager Aaron Boone said Saturday night, referring to Encarnacion, who is in the middle of a three-year, $60 million contract with a 2020 club option for $20 million or a $5 million buyout.
The Yankees and Mariners will split the remaining $15 million of Encarnacion’s 2019 salary, according to multiple news media reports. Seattle received Juan Than, a 19-year pitching prospect from the Dominican Republic who started his professional career with the Mariners.
Encarnacion’s arrival will require some reshuffling of the depth chart, but it should result in a distinct surge in the Yankees’ offense at home.
Encarnacion, also from the Dominican Republic, has hit 18 career home runs at Yankee Stadium, his second-highest total in any road ballpark behind Fenway Park. Entering 2019, Encarnacion had seven consecutive 30-homer seasons, the longest active streak in the major leagues. And given his current home run-to-at-bat ratio — one in every 11.5 — it is likely that streak will remain intact.
The primary question is where and how Encarnacion will fit in. One possibility is that he’ll share first base and the designated hitter spot with Luke Voit. In the long term, that would turn Stanton into a full-time left-fielder, put Aaron Hicks in center and make Judge the everyday right fielder. Brett Gardner would be left to come off the bench, while Clint Frazier, Cameron Maybin and Kendrys Morales — now on the I.L. with a calf strain — could all be squeezed out.
The infield could have a new look as well, as D.J. LeMahieu, arguably the Yankees’ most consistent contact hitter and primarily a second baseman throughout his career, will be slotted at third base in place of Gio Urshela, who has slumped in June after a hot start. Theoretically, Urshela could still be part of any late-inning defensive upgrade, as he would move to third and LeMahieu, could replace Voit or Encarnacion at first base, a position LeMahieu had played in only four games before this season.
Regardless of how the pieces are reassembled, Cashman’s move comes at a crucial point in the Yankees’ schedule. On Monday, they begin a seven-game homestand against the Tampa Bay Rays and the Houston Astros, two of the American League’s best teams and the primary obstacles to a pennant.
Both clubs excel at run prevention: The Rays and Astros are atop the A.L. in E.R.A. After leading the league with a record-setting 267 home runs last year, the Yankees ranked fourth entering Sunday, so the addition of Encarnacion’s bat is a welcome one.
Cashman and a clubhouse full of new teammates are hoping Encarnacion will reignite that long-ball energy. “He’s going to fit right in with our lineup,” pitcher J.A. Happ, who played with Encarnacion in Toronto, told reporters Saturday night. “Taking a little pressure off other guys is a good thing.”
While Encarnacion assimilates, the focus will inevitably shift back to Cashman and his pursuit of another starter. With Domingo German having joined Luis Severino on the I.L. with a hip flexor injury, the Yankees have been using reliever Chad Green as an opener. Although he’s been effective — including racking up six strikeouts in two innings in Saturday’s 8-4 win over the White Sox — the rest of the rotation remains underwhelming.
Three of the remaining four healthy starters have an E.R.A. over 5.68 in June, including the enigmatic James Paxton (11.05) and the brittle C.C. Sabathia (6.89). The Yankees have given up 101 home runs this season, the most by any American League team with a record above .500.
Cashman’s options for a new starter dwindled when Dallas Keuchel signed with the Braves this month for slightly more money than the Yankees were offering. Other potential targets include Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants, Marcus Stroman of the Toronto Blue Jays, or the biggest prize of all — the Washington Nationals’ Max Scherzer.
In any case, it is likely the Yankees would have to surrender a front-line player like Frazier. Only 24 with an explosive bat — albeit glaring deficiencies on defense — Frazier is hopeful his current hot streak will force the Yankees to keep him around. He is batting .333 with a .903 O.P.S. this month.
“This is where I want to be,” Frazier said last week. “I hear all the rumors about getting traded and try to ignore them. I want to be a Yankee for a long time.”