NEW YORK -- If the buckets of baseballs that Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres deposited into the Yankee Stadium bleachers during Summer Camp serve as any indication of the days ahead, the Yankees can plan on putting tons of crooked numbers on the scoreboard during this unprecedented 60-game sprint.
Those flexed muscles represent a Yankees unit operating nearly at full health -- a luxury they would not have been afforded had the season started as originally scheduled. Having the big bats to protect Gerrit Cole and the rest of the pitching staff should give the Bronx Bombers everything they need to finish on top of the American League East.
“It's unreal,” Stanton said. “It's unmatched in the league if we can all stay out there. We definitely know what we're capable of. It's just a matter of putting it out there.”
Even with the shorter season, reduced travel and new social-distancing guidelines to absorb, manager Aaron Boone said that the Yankees’ goal remains the same as always: to be the last team standing, hoisting the World Series trophy at the end of October.
“These games are more important, just because there's only 60 of them,” Boone said. “There's no question about the urgency. I feel like we’re equipped to handle whatever comes our way.”
What needs to go right?
Cole was lauded as the team’s “great white whale,” in the words of general manager Brian Cashman, when the ace right-hander switched uniforms after helping the Astros end the Yanks’ season in 2019. The Yankees want to place the ball in Cole’s hand as frequently as possible, hoping he more resembles the Cy Young candidate from his final 22 starts (16-0, 1.78) than his first 11 starts of 2019 (4-5, 4.11 ERA).
Having Judge and Stanton in the lineup will also be key. Had the season started on March 26, neither would have been available, joined by Aaron Hicks and James Paxton on the injured list. The shutdown permitted them all to rest and heal. After the Yanks overhauled their strength and medical team, they can’t afford a repeat of last year’s “Next Man Up” revolving door -- as fun as it was to watch at times.
Stanton provided the Yankees with only 59 at-bats during the regular season last year, but he’s less than three years removed from an NL MVP campaign in which he hit 59 homers with 132 RBIs, pacing the Majors in both categories. Even in Stanton’s first year with the Yankees, he hit 38 homers with 100 RBIs, though he heard boos from his home crowd at times.
“The problem with last year was I couldn't keep that groove, getting hurt a few different times,” Stanton said. “You get the groove and then you get hurt and you’ve got to start from scratch in a sense. It's definitely something that I need to carry on to this year.”
He’ll only hear computer-generated cheers after his at-bats now, so can Stanton take advantage of the opportunity? As Reggie Jackson likes to say, if you have a bat in your hands, you can change the narrative.
Schmidt and fellow top prospect Deivi García will begin the season at the Yanks’ secondary training site, but right-hander Michael King has been told that he will be on the Opening Day roster. The 25-year-old King made his big league debut last September and was sharp in an exhibition start against the Mets at Citi Field, featuring a four-pitch mix while allowing a run over four innings.
On the schedule
Every team understands the importance of getting off to a strong start this year, but in the Yankees’ case, there is a substantial reward for doing so. Twenty of their final 23 games are against teams that lost at least 95 games last year in the Orioles, Blue Jays and Marlins. The outlier during that stretch is a three-game series against the Red Sox from Sept. 18-20, and Boston is generally forecast to be a middle-of-the-pack club again this year.
By the way, the Yankees claimed the best record ever by an AL East team in the division by going 54-22 (.711) against their rivals last year.
Team MVP will be …
Torres. As he returns to his natural shortstop position, the 23-year-old appears ready to take his game to the next level, solidifying his place among the game’s next generation of superstars. Torres has hit .275/.338/.511 with a 125 OPS+ through 977 big league at-bats, earning All-Star selections in each of his first two seasons. There’s more to come, likely to the chagrin of Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne.
Team Cy Young will be …
Cole. He was the best pitcher in the Majors from May 27 on last year, and while some around the league were catching up on their Netflix queues, Cole regularly tossed in Connecticut with Boone and teammate Adam Ottavino. That was how Cole explained touching 98 mph in his first live batting-practice session earlier this month, handcuffing his new teammates. The stuff should kick up another level once he finally faces hitters in a different uniform.
When Cole agreed to his $324 million contract (now $301.3 million, since this year is prorated), managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said that he expected “multiple” World Series championships to be celebrated over the life of that deal. Cole nodded, saying that he embraced the challenge. He’ll make good on the first one this October, leading the Yankees back to the promised land for the first time since 2009.
“There is only going to be one coronavirus World Series champion,” Cole said. “That's unique in and of itself. I don't see why you wouldn't want to take that trophy home.”