Since the trade that brought Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, most of the speculation around the team has focused on second base, third base and the starting pitching. The rest of the lineup seems pretty set and very potent. Nonetheless, there are some mid-level questions that remain. As the season goes on, particularly if a player or two gets hurt and stops hitting.
First, is the question of whether or not Brett Gardner can still play center. At the moment, Gardner is slotted to be the team’s starting left fielder and leadoff hitter, but there are at least two scenarios where Gardner could be needed to move to centerfield. Aaron Hicks was a productive player in 2017, but most of his production came during the first half of the season. For most of the second half, after returning to the team following an injury, he was was the same mediocre and underperforming hitter he has been for most of his career. Hicks is a very strong defensive player, but if he struggles with the bat next year, the Yankees would be in much better shape if rather than stick with Hicks, they could put Gardner in center, Stanton and Judge in the corners and use the DH spot to either give Clint Frazier or another prospect a shot or to rotate through some of the position players.
Additionally, the Yankees play ten games in NL parks in 2018. During those games, there will be no DH. Aaron Boone would be foolish to bench Judge or Stanton and so will play both of them in the outfield, leaving centerfield the only place for Gardner. Again, if Hicks is struggling or if Gardner is, as he has been for much of the last decade, making things happen at the top of the order, the Yankees will be a stronger team with Gardner in the lineup.
Gardner, a very good left fielder, played 22 games in center last year. He was also once a good centerfielder, but is at age 34, slowing down a bit. If Gardner can spell Hicks as needed in center, then the Yankees have even less of a reason to keep Jacoby Ellsbury around and can try to move him as well.
A second question facing the Yankees is what happens if Gary Sanchez’s defense does not improve. It may seem like a long time ago, but in the weeks after the Yankees were eliminated by the Astros, Gary Sanchez’s defense was a concern for many Yankee fans. Aaron Boone seems to be committed to Sanchez at catcher and has sought to bolster his confidence. That is encouraging, but it does not guarantee anything.
Austin Romine is likely to be the backup catcher again. Romine’s defense may be better than Sanchez, but he is nowhere near the hitter that Sanchez is. If Sanchez’s defense continues to be a problem, Boone may want to play him at DH, but that would mean either Aaron Hicks or Brett Gardner would sit. Giving four plate appearances a night to Romine rather than Gardner would be damaging for the Yankees, particularly if they are not getting production out of the rookies or utility players currently projected to play second and third.
Aaron Boone’s biggest on the field challenge in his maiden season as manager will be getting the most out of a pitching staff that has a lot of upside, but also a lot of question marks. His next challenge will be to get as many plate appearances as possible for the offensive core of Judge, Stanton, Sanchez and Gardner. If Greg Bird hits and stays healthy, he will be the fifth member of that offensive core, but if he doesn’t first base could be a problem too. This raises the third question facing the Yankees, is there a store nearby that sells first baseman’s gloves? If Bird is unable to nail down and keep the first base job, the position could be used as another place to fit one of the four core players in the lineup. In that scenario the Yankees would be a much stronger team if when Sanchez rested he could play first occasionally, or if the Yankees are playing in a National League park, or even if Judge or Stanton could work in there occasionally. Learning a position in spring training is not easy, and playing first is more difficult than many fans think, but Sanchez, Judge and Stanton all have the tools to do it. Beginning to think about that going into spring training would give the Yankees some badly needed flexibility and mean that non-hitters like Romine or Ronald Torreyes won't have to fill in at first base.
These are relatively minor issues for the Yankees, especially when compared with bigger challenges like keeping the team healthy or whether Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres are ready to be starters in the big leagues. However, championships and playoff spots are often won on the margins. thinking through these questions and planning accordingly will impact those margins.
Photo: cc/Keith Allison