TAMPA — The wait is over, Yankees fans. Baseball games are back.
It’s been busy at Yankees camp since pitchers and catchers reported earlier this month. The day spring training exhibition games officially begin, however, is always special. It’s that final step separating the long and cold winter from Opening Day in April.
In honor of New York’s first Grapefruit League contest of 2021—an afternoon matchup between the Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday—here are five observations I’ve made from the last week of full-squad workouts at camp.
Close to a clean bill of health
If I told you last November that only one player would be hurt heading into spring training exhibition games, you’d sign up for that, right? Top pitching prospect Clarke Schmidt is shut down at the moment with a strain in his right common extensor tendon, but even that is expected to keep him sidelined for no more than three-to-four weeks.
Asked on Saturday if there were any other injuries for this club heading into Sunday’s opener, manager Aaron Boone thought for a moment before uttering two words that are music to the ears of Yankees fans: “we’re good.”
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are healthy, gearing up to play in a full season together. Aaron Hicks is feeling 100 percent after Tommy John surgery last offseason. Gio Urshela is close to his return to in-game action after offseason elbow surgery and he’ll be ready by the time games really begin to count.
There’s even good news on Luis Severino as the right-hander could get back on a mound for the first time since his Tommy John in a little over a week.
It’s almost too good to be true! This time last year, the injury woes had already begun across this roster in what was shaping up to be yet another injury-plagued campaign. Sure, there will inevitably be some setbacks along the road—it’s impossible for a team to make it through a full 162-game campaign without injuries—but heading into Grapefruit League play with practically a clean bill of health could be a good sign of what’s to come.
Looking locked and loaded
Surely this is the case across Major League Baseball, considering these men play this game for a living, but I’m constantly impressed during these workouts at just how locked in some of these players are.
I’ve watched a lot of live batting practice over these last several days (sim games, whatever you want to call it) and as much as pitchers are supposed to be in a better place at this point in the year, these hitters are doing more than just hold their own.
There’s DJ LeMahieu taking line drives to the right-center field gap seemingly every time he steps up to the plate. Luke Voit mashed an absolute missile of a home run off Corey Kluber. Urshela has been spraying base hits across the outfield grass. Judge and Stanton have been working the count, getting their timing back at the plate. When all of these guys make contact, it’s simply extraordinary.
On the mound, Gerrit Cole has powered fastballs by hitters, snapping sharp breaking balls to make them look silly. Chad Green struck out three of the four batters he faced in one inning of work the other day. Michael King and Nick Nelson keep turning heads, showing the improvements they made in the offseason by hitting their spots and getting their work in.
We haven’t even flipped our calendars to March yet and it seems like those in pinstripes are ready for the season to begin. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still work to be done—workouts are very different than performing at game speed—but there’s a buzz at the ballpark that makes you feel like something special is building. Not to mention the fact that almost every single day, a player comments about aspiring to win a championship this season. These players know exactly what’s at stake.
Getting extra reps
As the infielders strolled away from Fields 3 and 4 on Friday, heading back to the clubhouse to get ready for batting practice, non-roster invitee Derek Dietrich stayed put.
He proceeded to take ground balls for several minutes by himself, following through with his throws from the hot corner before quickly retreating back onto the dirt at third base to go again.
Dietrich is one of those players that could win a spot this spring and while he’s been joking around with teammates during drills and BP, the veteran has also taken the time to get extra reps in.
It’s not just Dietrich. It’s Miguel Andújar shagging during batting practice, trying to improve in the outfield. It’s Jay Bruce jogging out to first base, logging more reps to show he’s capable of filling in if he earns a big-league roster spot. It’s the countless rounds of BP off the high velocity machine after practice is over, a slew of Bombers making tweaks to get better for the following day.
This is what spring training is for. You’d like to think everyone on your favorite team is taking the time to get better at camp with the regular season on the horizon. It’s just refreshing from our vantage point to see everyone working hard, getting set for what could (and should) be a deep run into the postseason later this fall.
One guy that caught my eye
Speaking of standing out by going the extra mile, I just want to take a moment to single out Tyler Wade.
Say what you will about his game, his numbers and his potential, but you can’t quantify what he’s been bringing to these full-squad workouts. I’ve seen Wade leading the way during sprints, standing alone in the outfield to track down some extra fly balls during batting practice and squeezing in some rounds of batting practice off the high velocity machine while surrounded by the Yankees’ biggest power hitters.
All the while, as he’s been bouncing around the entire facility, he’s had a smile on his face.
At this point in the spring, as I try to map out who will be on the Yankees’ bench when the regular season begins, I can’t envision a scenario where Wade doesn’t make the team.
I know he hit .170 last year, but Boone used Wade in 52 of last season’s 60 games. Only two other players appeared in more contests. That’s because Wade can play virtually every position in the field (plus, he’s a lefty bat with speed on the bases) and unless the Yankees decide to bring up Thairo Estrada, no one else is capable of backing up Gleyber Torres at shortstop.
Best guess for who gets the final rotation spot
We got to camp knowing the fifth spot in the Yankees’ rotation was wide open. Severino won’t be back until this summer, Kluber and Jameson Taillon slot in for Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton after Cole while left-hander Jordan Montgomery looks to continue to develop.
Now that games are starting, we have more of a sense as to who is in the running for the No. 5 spot.
Before I give my pick, I’ll preface this by saying I don’t think New York will start the year with a traditional five-man rotation. What I mean by that is don’t be surprised if the order changes every week depending on off days early on or a sixth and seventh arm is worked in to eat up innings and show what they can do. That’s something Boone alluded to the other day as he forecasts the month of April for his pitching staff.
That being said, I’d put my money on Deivi García serving as this club’s fifth starter early on. He showed last year, in his short period with the big-league club after he made his debut, that he has what it takes to be a starter at this level. Why not give him a shot to prove himself even more long before any sort of pennant race begins?
Sure, it means absolutely nothing (he probably had just taken pictures and didn’t want to change) but I got a kick out of García rocking his full home uniform in his first live BP at George M. Steinbrenner Field a few days ago.
I wouldn’t be completely surprised if Domingo Germán got a start, but he’s almost two years removed from his breakout season in 2019 due to the domestic violence suspension. You can’t count on him pitching at that level just yet, although maybe he can prove he’s ready to return to the rotation over the next several weeks of exhibition games.
From there, I think King and Nelson can both have roles on this team, working out of the bullpen. Not sure if both right-handers can make the Opening Day roster, because spots in the ‘pen are limited, but they’ve been impressive and Boone is very fond of their games.
Lastly, Boone continues to mention Jhoulys Chacín’s name. He’s a non-roster invitee, so no guarantees he sticks around through spring training, but each time Boone has been asked about the rotation, he goes out of his way to mention the 12-year veteran. We shall see. It certainly couldn’t hurt to have an experienced arm waiting in the wings in case someone gets hurt.