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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Brian Cashman needs to secure a top-shelf pitcher for Yankees to have a chance at a championship

Brian Cashman speaks to the media during a

Brian Cashman speaks to the media during a news conference held at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 12, 2018. Credit: Errol Anderson

There really is no debate when it comes to the Yankees’ acquisition of Edwin Encarnacion. Brian Cashman plucked the American League’s home-run leader from Seattle for virtually nothing (sorry, Juan Then) to add even more power to a muscular lineup that gets back Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge this week.

In a season where baseballs are flying out of stadiums like never before, might as well double-down. And given the fragile nature of the Yankees’ roster this year, stockpiling some extra lumber as a hedge is a smart precautionary measure.

As the GM has stated many times, Cashman loves his “big hairy monsters.” Nothing makes him happier.

What the Yankees need for a 28th world championship, however, is hardly a secret -- and this front office has roughly six weeks left to secure it. The missing piece is another top-shelf starting pitcher, and that’s going to involve much more work -- and cost -- then prying Encarnacion from the fire-sale Mariners.

Rest assured Cashman knows all this. He has eyes. He sees that half the rotation is pitching on bad knees, with a few others gone entirely, and before Monday night, the group’s 4.13 ERA as a whole ranked 10th in the majors -- well below the AL East rival Rays (1st, 2.72), Twins (3rd, 3.56) and Astros (4th, 3.59).

Cashman’s offseason upgrades -- James Paxton and J.A. Happ -- haven’t performed to the club’s lofty expectations. Plus, the rotation has averaged just 5.1 innings per start, which eventually has to take a toll on the relief corps. Masahiro Tanaka bucked that trend by pitching a two-hit shutout in Monday’s 3-0 victory over the Rays, but that 111-pitch gem was an outlier in the Bronx.  

The GM understands Encarnacion was a luxury purchase. But another front-line starter, preferably ace-caliber, can in no way be considered an optional accessory for the 2019 Yankees. It’s essential, and Cashman has to pull out all the stops to get one if this team is going to be the last one standing in October.            

“We’’ll be aggressive,” Cashman said. “We’re always aggressive. We just want to be smartly aggressive, that’s all. We want to be strategic. We want to push the process the way we always have, which is take our time, be diligent, get as much information as possible and find what the pressure points are. Then make a final tough call, whatever it happens to be.”

There are obvious candidates, even as the market still develops. Madison Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman, Trevor Bauer, maybe Max Scherzer and even Zack Wheeler, should the Mets choose to go the seller route next month. Around the deadline, contending teams are always chasing their own version of the ’17 Justin Verlander, the key addition to the Astros’ championship that season.

Verlander is the dream anyway. Cashman’s big fish was Sonny Gray that same year, and he turned out to be such a colossal mistake that the GM repeatedly admitted the he wasn’t cut out for New York before shipping him to Cincy last winter. We don’t envision the Bronx scaring pitchers like the class mentioned earlier, but Cashman is probably going to encounter some sticker shock in his conversations with other clubs.

When someone brought up his reluctance to deal for Chris Sale before the ’17 season -- in light of the Yankees heading into what they thought would be a rebuild -- Cashman pointed to the exorbitant cost attached to the pitcher before the White Sox ultimately sent him to Boston. We recall Gary Sanchez being mentioned as a central piece, along with possibly Luis Severino.

“The asking price on Sale back then was some of the anchors of what we have on this team now,” Cashman said.

The Yankees were in a different place that December. Or so Cashman thought. Just imagining a playoff berth felt like a stretch, never mind reaching Game 7 of the ALCS in Houston, where Verlander helped extinguish the dream.

Two years later, it’s World Series or bust. We’re not saying Cashman should consider moving anchors on this club, but he’ll probably have to dig deep, and the recently-demoted Clint Frazier is likely to headline any package out of town. The Yankees can’t afford their GM balking at prices as this deadline draws closer. And the sooner he can get another starter to the Bronx, the better.

Cashman chose not to outbid the Braves on Dallas Keuchel earlier this month, so we’ll assume he’s fairly confident in his chances to eventually land a difference-maker. Grabbing Encarnacion was more Yankees’ flexing, but the hard part still lies ahead.

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