When spring training was knocked out by the coronavirus on March 12, the Yankees were the favorites to win the AL title despite knowing they would start the season with Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, James Paxton and Luis Severino on the injured list.
Three-plus months later, the Yankees remain the favorites and, barring further injury, will have Stanton, Hicks, Paxton and possibly Judge when the season opens in late July after three weeks of summer camp at Yankee Stadium that starts Wednesday.
When we left off
Injuries to Stanton (calf), Hicks (Tommy John surgery), Judge (top right rib fracture) and Paxton (back surgery) severely altered the starting outfield and created an opening in the No. 5 spot of the rotation.
Brett Gardner was going to play center field with Mike Tauchman (right) and Clint Frazier (left) in the corners instead of Hicks in center, Judge in right and Stanton in left.
Jonathan Loaisiga was a contender for the rotation’s fifth spot with Mike King.
Those landscapes have changed. Hicks said last week he would be ready for Opening Day. While Stanton will get a lot of action as the DH, he should be able to play left field when Gardner plays center or doesn’t start against a lefty. Judge is the wild card. If he isn’t ready, figure Tauchman and Frazier for right field. When the rib injury was discovered in March, the Yankees privately felt Judge wouldn’t be ready until June or July and they have been mum for the past month on Judge’s situation.
Other developments before March 12 were Gleyber Torres committing five errors in 10 spring training games at shortstop, where he is replacing the slick-fielding Didi Gregorius, who signed a one-year deal with the Phillies as a free agent.
And there was Gerrit Cole’s introduction to the team after signing a nine-year deal for $324 million. Everything appeared to go smoothly from a pitching standpoint and he quickly demonstrated a thirst for knowledge.
What to look for upon return (non-COVID)
How first-year pitching coach Matt Blake handles a condensed Spring Training 2.
Instead of the normal six weeks to get arms ready, Blake will have roughly half that many to prepare what many believe to be the top staff in the American League.
The biggest challenge for Blake will be to make sure the pitchers, especially starters, understand the difference between the workouts they did at home and what lies ahead.
“Most will feel they are ready to go and say they have been throwing a lot, but they haven’t been throwing under stress,’’ a former big-league pitching coach said Thursday. “You have to put the reins on them a bit.’’
Had Severino not required Tommy John surgery in late February, there wouldn’t have been room for Jordan Montgomery in the rotation that is headed by Cole and houses Masahiro Tanaka, Paxton and J.A. Happ. Now, after working four innings in two games at the end of last year following Tommy John surgery in 2018, the 27-year-old lefty is a heavy favorite for the fifth spot.
The delayed start likely cost Frazier early playing time, but he will be in the mix because the rosters expand from 26 to 30 players on Opening Day before shrinking to 28 on the 15th day of the season.
What to look for upon return (COVID)
What will the players look like after being away from the game for three-plus months? More importantly, where will their heads be concerning COVID-19?
For the most part players work out during the offseason and outside of a few cases, the majority are in good physical shape when they report to spring training in the middle of February. That will likely hold here, too, even though not all had access to the same type of facilities.
As for the mental side of it, this is new to everybody. Last weekend the Yankees had four members of the organization test positive in Tampa. How will a player react to a positive test? How will a player deal with the possibility of contracting the virus and bringing it home to his family? This is so much different than a pulled muscle, broken bone or Tommy John surgery. Safe to say it will be an issue for many and a serious one for players, coaches and everybody throughout the organization.
How about bad feelings toward baseball owners following an ugly labor situation?
When it comes to the extra four players at the start, it is possible some teams will use all those extra spots on relief pitchers, but some might go with a position player and three arms. A third catcher is an option, but a three-man taxi squad for road games must include a catcher.
New year. Way different game.