Well, the Yankees trying to solve their center-field crisis with Aaron Judge did not hold a space on my 2021 bingo card. And I’m not the only one.
“I don’t think there’s one fan or one person in this organization who drew up the outfield being Miggy [Andujar] in left, Judge in center and me in right,” Clint Frazier said Wednesday night, after the Yankees held on for their second straight victory over the Rays, 4-3, at Yankee Stadium.
In my defense — and who knows, maybe Frazier’s, too — that’s because Judge ranks second on the team in games (12) and plate appearances (52) as the team’s designated hitter. That’s not an indictment of Judge’s defensive skills, but rather a reflection of the Yankees’ concerns about his durability.
So now they’re going to ask a guy who missed 29 games (out of 60) last year with a strained right calf, who has clocked a pair of multi-game breaks already this season with vaguely described “lower-body” issues, to roam the middle of the outfield?
That seems like quite the risk for an offensively struggling team to pull with its most important offensive player, no matter the size of the crisis.
“It’s something that I considered,” manager Aaron Boone said earlier Wednesday. “But then again there’s days where he’s really moving around a ton in right field.”
After explaining that the Yankees had attempted to preserve Judge’s bullets with all of the reps at DH, the manager continued: “So I feel like we’re in a good spot with him going out there, and obviously, once we get through this weekend, we’re going into a stretch where we do have a few [three] off-days in about an eight-day period. So it is something that I pay attention to and I’m monitoring. But I’m excited to see him go out there tonight.”
Judge handled only one ball Wednesday, Francisco Mejia’s soft fly out in the fourth inning, and switched to his more familiar right field for the seventh inning, with Brett Gardner taking over center as the Yankees nursed a slight lead. Actually, the behemoth’s best moment at his new position might have come in the first inning, when he responded to the Yankees’ fans Roll Call with Gardner’s trademark “bodybuilder flex,” as Frazier aptly put it. Hilarious and sweet.
Meanwhile, the team’s bullpen delivered again, although Aroldis Chapman sure made it interesting in the ninth, and the Yankees’ flailing offense did enough, including Frazier’s two-run single in the fourth, to overcome more poor fielding and poor baserunning.
Such are these Yankees, very much a work in progress, more in center field than anywhere else. Boone didn’t commit to any revised schedule at the vital spot, saying, “We’ll see how it goes.” Gardner’s mighty struggles with the bat, Aaron Hicks’ season-ending injury and the trade of Mike Tauchman to the Giants have made the status quo untenable.
“I’m sure it’s not the last time we’ll see Judge in center,” Frazier said.
Nevertheless, would it be worth giving Tyler Wade, who started Sunday’s game in center, some more action there? How about Frazier who, like Judge, started one 2018 game in center? If Judge can match anyone “athletically and fundamentally,” to use Boone’s adverbs, both his frequent-flyer miles on the injured list and his value to the team relative to Wade or Frazier make him a less safe play in center.
“He very much wants to do it and is game to do it,” Boone said. It’s good to have players buy in (and bad not to have it, as we all witnessed last October with the disastrous Deivi Garcia/J.A. Happ idea in the American League Division Series), yet then it falls upon management to maximize assets and ensure the benefits of choices outweigh the costs.
“There’s no job or no task that’s too big for Aaron,” Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ best pitcher, said of their best player. “I probably assume he’ll come through this with the Superman cape that he tends to wear every time he plays.”
While he is a super performer, will so much outfield action wind up as Judge’s kryptonite? Great Scott, will the Yankees have some answering to do if this experiment goes awry.