Bernie weighs in on Yankees' outfield, Judge in CF

March 22nd, 2024

TAMPA, Fla. -- Bernie Williams’ sneakers rested in dew on a recent morning at George M. Steinbrenner Field, observing each of the Yankees’ modern-day outfielders as they pursued popups, navigating a crunching warning track and padded right-field wall with aplomb.

As , , and pocketed each drive, Williams grinned. It has been nearly two decades since his number was called in drills like these, a fact that seems impossible -- at least, until creaky joints and random aches remind him of the years that have passed.

“These guys practice with a purpose,” Williams said. “We talk before and after about communication, about trying to be the best unit out there. I think guys like Judge and Soto, who are better known for their offensive prowess, these guys are going to cause some damage.”

Having spent a good chunk of the past six weeks patrolling these grounds, and with his legacy cemented as a Monument Park Yankee, Williams is uniquely qualified to comment on the Bombers’ 2024 outfield.

His take is especially relevant considering the club’s December acquisition of Soto, which pushed Judge into regular duty in center field, where Williams collected four Gold Glove Awards. Williams said he’ll be watching Judge closely this season.

“Trying to get to every ball and making sure you’re the captain out there, it’s going to demand a lot more movement and a lot more wear and tear on his joints,” Williams said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but I don’t think it’s something he can’t handle.”

Center field is an assignment that Judge covets and welcomes. The 31-year-old looked sharp in his return to Grapefruit League action against the Pirates on Wednesday, chasing down a Jack Suwinski drive in deep center field.

Williams believes regular turns in the DH role will be necessary for Judge to maintain his performance.

“When you see a guy his size, it’s going to be interesting to see how much time he’ll have to take [off] from playing center so he can stay the offensive power that he is,” Williams said.

“He’s putting in a lot of work. I think he came in a lot lighter this year, and he’s still hitting the ball well. The guys he has on his sides are going to help him be a good center fielder. Grisham is going to give him a few days off, so I think they have that covered.”

Yankees manager Aaron Boone points out that Judge played 78 games in center field during his healthiest season in 2022, when he eclipsed Roger Maris’ single-season American League home run record.

“There were parts of that year where he was nursing something or banged up,” Boone said. “He’s gotten really good at playing through things with [performance] still at a really high level.”

Each of Soto’s batting-practice displays has become appointment viewing, as the 25-year-old seems to try to smash line drives through the wall with each swing. Williams sees Soto, arguably the game’s top left-handed hitter, as “ready to go.”

“If spring ended a week before, he still would’ve been in midseason form,” Williams said. “His swing looks really good, and his approach and work ethic have been tremendous. He has very specific exercises that he works on to make sure his mechanics are as good as they can be at any time.”

Soto has said that playing in New York will be “electric” and “feel like home,” noting the city’s sizeable Dominican population. Williams agrees that fans should fall in love with Soto, though he adds that it may be necessary for Soto to get off to a fast start.

“If he starts hitting, they’re going to praise him. If it takes him a little while, he’s going to have to learn how to be patient with the fans,” Williams said. “One thing is for sure, they are very consistent about demanding excellence from their players and the people that wear the pinstripes.

“This is going to be unlike any situation that he has been in before, but I think with his demeanor and attitude, he’s going to be very well suited for the city. He doesn’t talk a lot, but he’s flamboyant when he plays. I think people in New York will love that.”

Given the high-wattage star power on the roster, Verdugo has been able to fly under the radar for most of the spring; hard to believe, considering an outsized personality and game-day attire that features heavy diamond-studded and gold chains underneath his uniform top.

Verdugo said his time with the Red Sox “ran [its] course” after clashes with manager Alex Cora. Williams sees Verdugo as a top-notch defender and a good situational hitter, believing that Verdugo will benefit from a change of scenery.

“I think he’s going to be a revelation on this team,” Williams said. “He’s going to keep people loose with a lighter attitude. Like everything, how he performs in the early part of the season is going to set the tone in showing the fans what kind of player he’s going to be.”