The New York Yankees have been perfectly fine in the absence of Aaron Judge. Better, even.
Since losing their 26-year-old superstar to a right wrist fracture back on July 26, when he was clipped by an errant pitch from Jake Junis, the Yankees have gone 19-14, good for a .576 winning percentage. Only one National League team has won a higher percentage of its games this year. That their prospects of winning a division title have all but disintegrated in that time – throughout which Gary Sanchez hasn’t played, either – is more a testament to the indomitability of the Boston Red Sox than their supposed mortality.
Even sans Judge, in other words, the Yankees – who also lost Didi Gregorius to injury last week but are expected to welcome Sanchez back to the lineup this weekend – could easily win the American League wild-card game. They could probably win a World Series, too. And Judge, who said earlier this week that the pain in his wrist is slowly subsiding, may well be back in time for his club’s seemingly inevitable one-game play-in against the Oakland Athletics (or some lesser opponent), transforming them back into the homer-happy juggernaut they were for the first four months of the season. (Before Judge landed on the disabled list, the Yankees led the majors in wRC+ and isolated power; since, they’ve dropped to 11th and sixth, respectively.)
He may not, though. Hand injuries seriously suck, and Judge is already behind schedule in his recovery. He was expected to miss roughly three weeks. He has already missed five. Of course, with another month-plus between now and the wild-card game – and a still-pretty-good lineup intact – the Yankees didn’t need to make a Big Time Move. But, as evidenced by last month’s additions of J.A. Happ, Zach Britton, and Lance Lynn, with their World Series ambitions almost certainly hinging on a coin toss, the Yankees seem pretty keen to eliminate as much chance from the equation as possible.
So, roughly 12 hours before the Aug. 31 deadline to acquire players who will be eligible for postseason play, New York bought an insurance policy for Judge, acquiring five-time All-Star Andrew McCutchen from the San Francisco Giants in exchange for a pair of prospects. A free agent at season’s end, McCutchen has roughly $2.4 million left on his contract, but the Giants will absorb about half of that, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, allowing the Yankees to remain under the luxury-tax threshold.
McCutchen, of course, isn’t the superstar he was back in Pittsburgh, but the one-time National League MVP is still an above-average hitter who has retained (and, in a sense, refined) his on-base skills even as his power has waned. Through 130 games with San Francisco this season, he has hit .255/.357/.415 (115 wRC+) with 15 home runs, 28 doubles, and 13 stolen bases while walking at his highest clip (12.9 percent) since 2015 thanks to a career-low chase rate (19.6 percent). The only players who have swung at a lower percentage of pitches outside the strike zone than McCutchen in 2018 are Joey Votto and Cesar Hernandez.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
As long as Judge remains sidelined, then, it’s easy enough to see how McCutchen fits into the lineup. For now, he’ll replace Shane Robinson – author of a .143/.208/.224 line through 24 games – in right field (Neil Walker also saw some time there of late), allowing Giancarlo Stanton, who has dealt with a tight left hamstring in recent weeks, to rest his weary legs in the DH spot.
Additionally, McCutchen gives manager Aaron Boone a viable option to replace Brett Gardner atop the lineup, as the longtime leadoff man has been setting the table about as effectively as a privileged teen of late. Since the All-Star break, the Yankees’ leadoff hitters have combined for a ghastly 67 wRC+, and the brunt of the blame falls on their 34-year-old left fielder, who’s mired in his worst offensive season since 2009 and has been, by expected weighted on-base average, the majors’ eighth-worst hitter over the last six weeks (min. 100 plate appearances).
Brett Gardner, 1st half vs. 2nd half
If Judge does make it back in short order, working McCutchen into the lineup gets a little more complicated. That’s a good problem to have, of course. With five (six?) dudes – all of them decent, at worst – vying for four lineup spots, Boone will have the luxury of playing the matchup down the stretch and in the wild-card game (and beyond, potentially). He can sit McCutchen against tough right-handers, for instance, and deploy an outfield composed of Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Judge, left to right, with Stanton at DH. Similarly, he can shield Gardner from lefties or give Stanton or Judge a day off in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, they probably would’ve been fine without McCutchen, even if Judge isn’t able to get back on the field for the postseason. But, well, these are the Yankees, and they haven’t won a pennant in nearly a decade. “Probably” won’t do.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.