Starting Nine: How the Yankees built a dynamic lineup they hope can beat Cole, Verlander

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Oct 7, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; The <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/ny-yankees/" data-ylk="slk:New York Yankees">New York Yankees</a> celebrate their victory in the locker room after defeating the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/minnesota/" data-ylk="slk:Minnesota Twins">Minnesota Twins</a> in game three of the 2019 ALDS playoff baseball series at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 7, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; The New York Yankees celebrate their victory in the locker room after defeating the Minnesota Twins in game three of the 2019 ALDS playoff baseball series at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — The New York Yankees used 155 different lineup combinations during the regular season.

But in the American League Division Series, they only used one.

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It wasn’t necessarily the combination they thought they’d use — or even have, for that matter — come playoff time.

But that’s how baseball works.

You always have to be ready for anything — in this case, an MLB-record 30 different players on the injured list with a total of 39 different IL stints.

And that means having depth.

Just take a look at the team’s Opening Day lineup — Brett Gardner CF, Aaron Judge RF, Giancarlo Stanton LF, Luke Voit DH, Miguel Andujar 3B, Gary Sanchez C, Greg Bird 1B, Gleyber Torres 2B, Troy Tulowitzki SS — and compare it to its postseason lineup below.

Quite a difference.

Yet, the at-bat quality. The ability to control the strike zone. The ability to do damage. And the ability to wear opposing pitchers down with long at-bats. That all remains the same for manager Aaron Boone’s “savages in the box.”

The Yankees led the majors with 943 runs, and ranked second with 306 homers during the regular season. And they followed it up with 23 more runs and five more homers during their three-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins.

The Bronx Bombers now face the Houston Astros in the ALCS, four wins away from their first World Series appearance in a decade. And they’ll have to overcome a ridiculously good pitching staff that includes Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke to get there.

Cole, in particular, has been brilliant, posting 11 straight double-digit strikeout performances (including playoffs). He is 18-0 with a 1.66 ERA in his last 24 starts (also including playoffs). A scout who has seen him pitch this season referred to Cole as a “one-in-a-million arm.” “Right up there with the deGroms and Scherzers,” the scout said. “He’s been pretty special.” A combination of high velocity, late movement and precise location makes him so.

The Yankees selected the 29-year-old righty — a fan of the Bombers growing up — in the first round of the 2008 MLB Draft but never even got a chance to negotiate with him (despite a reported $4 million signing bonus that awaited) because Cole was dead-set on attending UCLA.

They then tried to trade for him a decade later, but wouldn’t include emerging youngsters Torres or Andujar in a package with the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was certainly understandable at the time (the Pirates went for Joe Musgrove and Colin Moran over a Yankees’ package built around Clint Frazier and Nick Solak). And now they could look to him again in free agency depending on what happens the rest of the way.

Anyway, here’s how GM Brian Cashman and the rest of his vaunted front-office staff assembled the October starting nine:

1. 1B D.J. LeMahieu: signed last offseason for two years, $24 million

2019 Salary: $12,000,000

It seemed like an odd fit at the time. And the splits suggested LeMahieu benefitted a ton from hitting at Coors Field.

But in reality, LeMahieu turned out to be one of the best free-agent signings in franchise history, hitting .327 with 26 homers and 102 RBIs in an All-Star age-30 campaign for the ages.

Cashman credits assistant GM Mike Fishman, director of quantitative analysis David Grabiner and director of baseball operations Matt Ferry for selling him on LeMahieu. In particular, Cashman said of the analytics-reliant Fishman: “He should be everyone’s go-get No. 1 GM candidate. He’s as smart as they come.”

“Our pro scouting side confirmed that he could play first and third and was very athletic,” Cashman said of LeMahieu, who wound up playing all over the infield and cementing himself in the leadoff spot. “(Special assistant to the GM) Jim Hendry had him when he was with the Cubs. He spoke highly of D.J.’s character as a baseball rat. Everything matched up.”

And it certainly worked out. No need for Manny Machado or Bryce Harper after all.

2. RF Aaron Judge: No. 32 overall selection in the first round of the 2013 MLB Draft

2019 Salary: $684,300

Yankees ownership reluctantly extended Nick Swisher the $13.3 million qualifying offer in November 2012 upon convincing from Cashman.

“‘What if he accepts it?’” they asked.

“‘No, he’s not going to accept it because he’s going to get a multi-year deal elsewhere,’” replied Cashman, who had good intel on the situation.

Swisher did get a multi-year deal elsewhere — from the Cleveland Indians.

As a result, the Yankees got a compensation pick in the form of Judge, one of three-first rounders the team selected that year (3B Eric Jagielo, SP Ian Clarkin).

VP of domestic amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer ultimately pulled the trigger on the raw slugger out of Fresno State with massive help from his department.

From there, Judge began to script a storybook beginning to his career, ascending to the role of superstar, leader and franchise player.

3. CF Brett Gardner: No. 109 overall selection in the third round of the 2005 MLB Draft

2019 Salary: $7,500,000

Read Tim Brown on how the Yankees found him. It seems unfair to summarize it here.

But just think about the role Gardner was supposed to be playing now: fourth outfielder/defensive replacement/pinch-runner.

“That’s the way baseball works,” Cashman said. “Things never work out as choreographed.”

And there are some things that can’t be explained.

Because seriously: How could a 36-year-old veteran who often fades in the second half go from projected odd-man out following the Encarnacion deal to posting a career-high 28 homers, filling in admirably for Aaron Hicks in center and hitting right in the heart of the order?

It’s quite a comeback story.

4. DH Edwin Encarnacion: acquired via trade from the Seattle Mariners with cash on June 15 in exchange for Juan Then

2019 Salary: $21,666,666 ($8 million covered by Yankees)

This one was the perfect storm.

The Yankees were more in the market for a pitcher — not a veteran impact hitter — but they ended up being in the right place at the right time, with Seattle looking to rebuild and shed salary.

The Mariners agreed to pay $8,397,849 of the remaining $16,397,849 Encarnacion was owed.

Plus, Then, a 19-year-old pitcher, wasn’t considered a top prospect in New York’s farm system.

It added up to the Yankees acquiring Encarnacion, who has a history of delivering in clutch moments.

Again, Cashman credited his analytics staff for putting the wheels in motion on the move.

“We knew what he’s capable of because we’d seen it first-hand, obviously, with Toronto, Cleveland and Seattle,” Cashman said. “It was just how he would fit? And so we were willing to play on it under certain circumstances, and those circumstances played out right for us.”

With all the injuries the Yankees endured, Encarnacion quickly went from luxury to necessity. And in October, nothing has changed in that regard.

5. LF Giancarlo Stanton: acquired via trade from the Miami Marlins with cash on Dec. 11, 2017 in exchange for Starlin Castro, Jorge Guzman and Jose Devers

2019 Salary: $26,000,000

It’s pretty well-documented at this point.

Derek Jeter’s Marlins were looking to gut their roster and get out of their massive remaining commitment to Stanton — the reigning NL MVP at the time — whom they still owed $295 million over 10 years.

Cashman and Marlins GM Michael Hill had their first talks about the slugger at the GM Meetings. At the time, the Yankees were pursuing Shohei Otani but didn’t land him, turning Cashman’s attention toward Stanton.

Stanton ultimately vetoed trades to the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals via his no-trade clause before agreeing to go to The Bronx. The blockbuster deal — which the Bombers felt was simply too good to pass up after Jeter’s attempt to strong-arm Stanton failed — became official during the winter meetings.

The Marlins will pay the Yankees $30 million if Stanton doesn’t opt out following the 2020 campaign.

Two years in, it’s a move the organization probably regrets — although no one has ever admitted so publicly.

Granted, Stanton can quickly change the narrative with a couple big hits in the next round (or two).

6. 2B Gleyber Torres: acquired via trade from the Chicago Cubs with Adam Warren, Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford on July 25, 2016 in exchange for Aroldis Chapman

2019 Salary: $605,200

The Yankees won. The Cubs won.

It’s how blockbuster deals are supposed to work.

Chapman helped Chicago snap a 108-year World Series title drought. And Torres has emerged as a superstar — albeit with more power than expected — just like everyone anticipated. The key, of course, was Cashman convincing ownership it was time to sell.

As has been written in this space before, the Yankees pursued Torres as an international free agent in 2013 before losing out to the Cubs. But they were eventually able to get their man, prompting Cashman to call the team’s director of international scouting, Donny Rowland, and exclaim: “‘We got him! We finally got him!’”

Torres posted a team-high 38 homers during the regular season and added another against the Twins — the first playoff homer of his career.

Again, he’s only 22. Also, the Cubs would do it all over again. The payoff was worth it for both sides.

7. C Gary Sanchez: signed as an international free agent on July 2, 2009 for $3 million

2019 Salary: $669,800

A decade ago, Cashman traveled to Boca Chica, Dominican Republic to work out Sanchez and sign off on his bonus.

“He was going to see the Mets later that afternoon, and we agreed (to terms) before he did,” Cashman recalled. “I was like, ‘I’ll do it.’ Because I didn’t want (former Mets GM) Omar Minaya to work him out.”

The Yankees were ultimately the beneficiaries of adding one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. Sanchez has also improved behind the plate as well.

And the depth of their lineup really shows with a hitter as impressive as Sanchez hitting seventh.

8. SS Didi Gregorius: acquired via three-way trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks on Dec. 5, 2014 in exchange for Shane Greene

2019 Salary: $11,750,000

Vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring was highest on Gregorius, who was thrust into the spotlight from the start, having to replace a franchise icon in Jeter.

After a slow start to his career in pinstripes, Gregorius’ development has been extremely impressive, as he’s evolved into a two-way sensation at short.

Coming off Tommy John surgery, the 30-year-old veteran ended this season in a massive slump, though, and there have been outside rumblings that the Yankees may look to move on from the pending free agent.

Yet Gregorius has rediscovered his swing so far in October, perhaps the team’s most impactful player in the first round (four hits, one homer, six RBIs).

He’s certainly making a strong case to stay — or get paid elsewhere — if he can keep it up.

9. 3B Gio Urshela: acquired via trade on Aug. 4, 2018 from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for $25,000; ultimately stuck with Yankees on a minor-league deal which contained a spring-training invite

2019 Salary: $547,177

No Machado. No Andujar. No problem.

But the craziest part of it all: any team could’ve picked up Urshela in the Rule 5 Draft this offseason.

Regardless, the Yankees got him on the cheap — and then kept him on the cheap.

Urshela was able to transform his swing and post a career-high .889 OPS after posting a combined .589 OPS in parts of three seasons with Cleveland and Toronto.

“I remember talking to Aaron (Boone) at the batting cage in the first week of spring games,” Cashman said. “And he told me, ‘I think this guy is for real.’ And I was like, that’d be great if he was. But no one expected him to be Manny Machado.”

The Yankees have incredible resources at their disposal — and also use them well.

Sure, they’ve had their fair share of misses on players. But there have also been plenty of hits.

“Baseball is a six-month season, but putting together a roster is really a 12-plus months a year job,” Cashman said. “And that’s why every aspect is important — from the domestic amateur side to the international amateur side to pro scouting to analytics to player development. All of them are so vital to put together what we have here.”

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