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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Greed never sleeps on Yankees' 'Death Star'   

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman looks on during

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman looks on during a press conference at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

LAS VEGAS -- The Evil Empire doesn’t suddenly choose to play nice overnight. So when Scott Boras called the Yankees’ bluff Wednesday afternoon, it wasn’t all that surprising to hear Brian Cashman follow by walking back his claims of being totally out on Bryce Harper.

Cashman already was on the verge of completing a two-year deal (with an option) to bring back J.A. Happ, who will join James Paxton as the second lefty of the GM’s two-pronged attack to upgrade the rotation this offseason. But he also left the door open on acquiring another starter -- Corey Kluber? Trevor Bauer? -- to go with a wish list that includes the bullpen and middle infield.

As for the $300-million outfielder with the Mickey Mantle fixation? The one Cashman didn’t have room for only two days earlier? The Yankees being the Yankees, he’ll never hang up when Boras comes calling.

“I try to promote that we are a progressive, open-minded operation,” Cashman said. “That every day is different, and that we are prepared to pivot and react at any point if things change, if the rosters adjust. If something doesn’t make sense today, it doesn’t mean it won’t make sense tomorrow.

“All I can keep telling you is, you know where my current focuses are. But at the same time, we’re a fully operational Death Star.”

Cue the Imperial March. Just when we were ready to buy into Cashman’s preaching on financial “discipline” from a few days ago, the GM restored our faith in the Yankees’ taste for overkill, just as they did a year ago with the trade for Giancarlo Stanton. Merely checking off boxes may be fiscally responsible, but it doesn’t stir excitement in the Bronx, and Cashman rekindled our imagination by conjuring up the Dark Side’s planet destroyer from "Star Wars."

Just to be clear: This is not to say the Yankees are hellbent for Harper. As Cashman acknowledged, the outfield is full -- at the moment -- and his priorities remain elsewhere. Just how big he decides to go in filling those holes is the $300-million question. He remains in contact with Manny Machado’s camp as a middle-infield option, and should have no problem scooping up a reliever from a stocked market.

We get the sense, however, that Cashman may not be entirely satisfied with the rotation, even after his winter additions. Paxton is a potential ace, but new to the ultra-competitive AL East, while Happ is a known quantity on the wrong side of 35. Bringing back Happ was like signing a security blanket, as the lefty went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA for the Yankees before imploding in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Red Sox.

Happ should be a solid No. 4 starter, but do the Yankees then have enough firepower at the front end of their rotation? Who is their Chris Sale? Or Justin Verlander? Can Cashman count on Paxton, Luis Severino or Masahiro Tanaka to be a bona-fide No. 1 on that level? All three have shown the ability to do so, but none of them is a Kluber, who may wind up being within the Yankees’ reach in the coming weeks.

When I asked if any of the Yankees’ top three measured up as a true No. 1, Cashman hedged, understandably not wanting to assign specific labels to his pitchers. But if you can’t identify the No. 1 on your rotation -- say, as the Mets can with Jacob deGrom -- then it’s more likely you have a collection of promising twos.

“I don’t want to say either way on that,” Cashman said. “Every day we have a guy on the mound, we want that person that day to have bring the No. 1, A-game ability we hope. Saying someone is a No. 1, that’s not going to matter. It’s just we hope they perform like a 1 every time they take the mound for us.

“Obviously, Paxton and Sevy have electric stuff, and Tanaka’s got a wicked split-finger that’s really a difference maker for him. They’re all capable of shutting down anybody’s offense on any given outing. The same is true of CC [Sabathia] and hopefully whoever else we add to the mix.”

The first three, if backed again by a shutdown bullpen, could be enough to get the Yankees deep into October. And if health becomes an issue, Cashman can always find reinforcements at the trade deadline. But if he’s truly revving up the Death Star, maybe the rest of the league needs to brace themselves for some approaching shock waves that we’ve yet to see coming.

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