Just what the Yankees needed: Another home run hitter

NEW YORK — Here in the Bronx, they like home runs. After all, they don’t call Yankee Stadium “The House that Rizzuto Built.’’

So it should come as no surprise that for his first major move of the 2019 trading season, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman added Edwin Encarnacion to a lineup that within the next 10 days is likely to welcome back Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, who combined for 111 home runs in 2017.

At first glance, it might seem that the Yankees need Encarnacion -- who leads the AL with 21 home runs -- about as much as Jeff Bezos needs your spare change.

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And in fact, Cashman admitted on Monday that the addition of Encarnacion, who has 401 career home runs and averaged 37 dingers a year for the past seven seasons, represents no more than “incremental improvement’’ to the Yankees lineup.

But at Yankee Stadium, nothing succeeds like excess, and if four home run hitters in a lineup is good -- currently, the pre-Encarnacion Yankees lineup sans Judge and Stanton featured three players with at least 15 home runs, led by Gary Sanchez, who has 20 -- five are better, and by the time the other two get back, opposing pitchers will be forced to navigate a minefield of no less than seven players capable of sending baseballs out onto River Ave.

Whether it works in October remains to be seen; right now, the Yankees seem to need all the firepower they can get their hands on to hold off the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays, who trail them by 1 1/2 games in the AL East.

Stanton, who has missed the last 68 games with a biceps strain, is expected to be reactivated for Tuesday’s game against the Rays. The return of Judge, who has missed 51 games with an oblique strain, is about a week behind Stanton’s.

In his first game in pinstripes, Encarnacion stayed in the yard, going hitless in four at-bats in Masahiro Tanaka’s complete game 3-0 shutout over the Rays on Monday night.

But even the less-fearsome Yankees can hit the ball out of the park. D.J. LeMahieu, acquired as infield insurance last winter but now the everyday third baseman with Miguel Andujar out for the season, belted a two-run homer in the third inning of Monday’s game to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. Two innings later, Cameron Maybin, no one’s idea of a slugger, lined one over the left-field fence to make it 3-0. It was the 20th consecutive game in which the Yankees have homered; the franchise record is 25, set in 1941.

With Encarnacion in the lineup and Stanton and Judge soon to join him, that mark seems to be in serious jeopardy.

Edwin Encarnacion, the newest slugger in the Yankees lineup, strikes out in his first at-bat in pinstripes Monday night at Yankee Stadium. (USA TODAY Sports)
Edwin Encarnacion, the newest slugger in the Yankees lineup, strikes out in his first at-bat in pinstripes Monday night at Yankee Stadium. (USA TODAY Sports)

This, naturally, is bound to re-ignite the argument, advanced by certain baseball purists, that too many home runs are somehow a bad thing. Bad for the game, bad for the quality of play and ultimately, bad for a team that hopes to succeed in October when, so the theory goes, the games become more pitching-dominated and the all-or-nothing approach of a home run hitter is doomed to dismal failure.

It is a theory Yankees manager Aaron Boone is not buying into.

“I want great players, I want great hitters,’’ Boone said. “A bit of a false narrative gets driven about the postseason. I think it’s a little bit of a myth that in the postseason all of a sudden we’re just moving guys along and touching the ball. Home runs are still good in October.’’

And yet, the recent history of the Yankees says otherwise. Since their last World Championship, in 2009, the Yankees have led baseball in home runs four times, including last season, when they hit a record 267, 40 more than the runner-up Oakland Athletics.

Still, the closest they have come to returning to the World Series was in 2017, when they extended the eventual champion Houston Astros, to a seventh game in the ALCS. Last year, that historically-powerful Yankees lineup managed to win just one game in the ALDS to the Boston Red Sox, who had hit a comparatively puny 208 home runs.

It seems as if the long ball might be the way to win a bucketful of regular season games but hardly the way to win October.

That is why rather than serving as the final piece of the Yankee puzzle, the acquisition of Encarnacion seems like merely the first move in the mid-season chess game that Cashman often excels at.

By Cashman’s own admission, the Yankees real need is starting pitching, what with Luis Severino on the IL indefinitely with a rotator cuff injury, James Paxton hobbled by a knee injury, and CC Sabathia hobbled by being 39 years old in a couple of weeks.

Aside from allowing the Yankees to win the majority of their remaining games by scores of 12-11, getting Encarnacion affords Cashman the option of trading away someone like Clint Frazier, who was batting .283 with 11 home runs and an .843 OPS in just 53 games but became expendable with the new addition, for a front-line starter. Cashman has hopes of prying someone like Madison Bumgarner away from the reeling San Francisco Giants, or maybe even Max Scherzer from the equally hapless Washington Nationals.

It is the kind of move Cashman resisted in 2016, when the Chicago White Sox were dangling Chris Sale -- in exchange for some combination of Severino, Sanchez, Gleyber Torres as well as other unspecified prospects. Cashman demurred, only to see the Red Sox part with Yoan Moncada and three prospects, a deal that came back to haunt the Yankees last October when Sale beat them in Game 1 of the ALDS and came back to throw a shutdown relief inning in Game 4.

But, as Cashman pointed out, “The asking price on Sale back then are some of the anchors of our team now.’’

This time around, Cashman believes he can pluck off an equally impactful starter without mortgaging his team’s future.

Or, betraying the legacy of its past. From their inception, the Yankees have been built around the home run. Since the days of babe Ruth, they have lived by the long ball and apparently, are willing once again to die by it.

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