If Stanton can't start, why is he on Yanks' roster?

Slugger has missed last two ALCS games with quad strain

October 17th, 2019

Wednesday's Game 4 of the American League Championship Series was postponed due to rain, giving us plenty of time to ponder the important things in life, such as: Why is still active on the Yankees' roster?

It's an appropriate question to cap an injury-plagued season. After a relatively successful first campaign in pinstripes in 2018, Stanton made it into just 18 games for the Yankees this year, missing all of April and May and half of June to a biceps injury. Once he got over that, he made it into just six mid-June games before missing most of the next three months to a knee injury, finally returning in mid-September. In October, he started the first four games of the playoffs in left field (being lifted for defense in each one), then missed ALCS Games 2 and 3 with a right quad strain apparently suffered running out a hit in Game 1.

With no Stanton, the Yankees are basically playing with a 24-man roster, which is less than ideal. The dilemma they face is that if they take Stanton off the ALCS roster, he'd be ineligible for the World Series roster if they advance.

Stanton was apparently available to pinch-hit in Game 3, though he never did, and manager Aaron Boone confirmed that Stanton has to play left field, not designated hitter, because of the presence of Edwin Encarnación. When Boone was asked on Wednesday if Stanton would be able to go on Thursday, the answer was a non-answer: "I'm not sure. I'm not really close to making that decision yet." Sure enough, he was not in the starting lineup for Game 4.

With Stanton on the bench for a third game in a row, aren't the Yankees essentially forced to make a roster move? A pinch-hitting-only version of Stanton is a huge limitation, primarily because of these two reasons:

1) The three-man bench features no backup infielder.

The Yankees are carrying 13 pitchers on their ALCS roster, in part because CC Sabathia, who missed the final week of the season and the AL Division Series due to shoulder soreness, is limited. Due to that, they have only three players on the bench. So, when the Yankees roll out a lineup like they did in Game 3, their bench consists of:

C Austin Romine
OF Cameron Maybin
OF Stanton

When Brett Gardner starts in center, as he did in Game 2, then Maybin is in left and Aaron Hicks is available off the bench, though that doesn't change the calculus here.

That's not a deep bench; it's barely a bench at all. There's no backup infielder there, though Romine is potentially an emergency option at first base. While Encarnación is capable of playing first as well, pushing DJ LeMahieu to second or third as needed, doing so in-game would cost the Yankees the use of the designated hitter -- potentially forcing a pitcher to bat, if it came to that. (The short bench would hit them in a second way, limiting the number of pinch-hitters available.)

2) Whom would he even hit for?

At his best, Stanton is a dangerous batter, though whether he's healthy enough to be "at his best" is an open question right now. But if he's just a pinch-hitter, there's also a strategic question of whom he would even step in for, given the depth of the Yankees' lineup, too.

It's safe to say that there's no scenario in which Stanton would hit for Aaron Judge, LeMahieu, Encarnación or Gleyber Torres. You could argue for him over the struggling Gary Sánchez, but in reality that's an unlikely move, because it adds the risk of removing one of your two catchers. You couldn't really take out Didi Gregorius or Gio Urshela easily, because of the lack-of-backup-infielder problem. You might hit him for Gardner against a tough lefty, except the Astros didn't carry a single lefty reliever on their roster.

You might be down to Hicks, inserting Maybin or Gardner into center, and that's a very limited scenario to plan for.

"Even though G hasn't been able to go yet, I did view him as a potential option off the bench in a hitting situation if we like something," Boone said. "So I don't look at it as we're entirely 24-man right now. I do believe we have his bat off the bench right now. And whether a situation for that arises, we'll see."

It would be one thing if there really were no other good options, if the Yankees had no one in the wings even worth considering; in that case, the waiting game makes sense. But that's not really the case here, because New York has five options to turn to if it wanted to.

1B/DH Luke Voit. Voit made the ALDS roster, though he didn't appear. Over the past two seasons, Voit has a higher OBP than Stanton (.383 to .349) and a higher SLG (.516 to .507). Sure, Stanton is more accomplished with a longer track record, but is there a large gap between these two with the bat right now? Starting Voit at first would also free up LeMahieu for other infield work, and also give the Yankees the option of an actual backup infielder.

1B/DH Mike Ford. Ford was impressive in limited time for the Yankees this year (.259/.350/.559, and 12 homers in 163 PA) though all things being equal, you'd prefer Voit's bat. The appeal here is that Ford is left-handed against that all-righty Houston bullpen, and no one on the current Yankees bench can swing lefty.

IF/OF Tyler Wade. Wade is a below-average hitter and would be a huge step down from even a limited Stanton. He would, however, add badly needed positional flexibility, since he made starts this year at second base, third base, shortstop, left field and right field. He was active on the ALDS roster.

OF Mike Tauchman. Of all the out-of-nowhere performances the Yankees received this year, it's possible that Tauchman's .277/.361/.504 (with 13 homers and strong defense) was the most surprising. If not for an early September calf strain that looked to be season-ending, he would have clearly been on the roster already. But, somewhat surprisingly, he's now apparently "healthy and eligible," according to Yankees GM Brian Cashman.

OF/DH Clint Frazier. Frazier's defensive issues have been well-documented, but his bat remains respected -- he did pop 12 homers in limited time this year -- and he's keeping himself ready as an option in Tampa, Fla.

It's not like there aren't other options, other ways to take advantage of the roster spot.

So, all of that being said: Why don't they?

"Because he's long been one of the game's most feared sluggers and because he'd be ineligible for the World Series if removed, ending his season," is the obvious answer, and that's fair enough, but it's also a lot more complicated than that. Down two games to one, and still needing to win at least one game started by Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole, worrying about the World Series seems like a "next week problem." The urgency, right now, is how to win three games before the Astros win two.

That's a concern made increasingly difficult by the fact that the Yankees are playing, essentially, without a bench. If Stanton can get into the lineup in time for Game 4, then waiting makes sense. If he can't? It's time to call upon Tauchman, Voit or someone else. As Boone said, if this were the regular season, then Stanton's injury would be serious enough to place him on the injured list. It's not the regular season, of course. It's the ALCS. There's no time to wait.