Yankees Magazine: Piece by Piece

Working with an abundance of talent, Aaron Boone puts the 2022 Yankees’ puzzle into place

June 21st, 2022
New York Yankees

The conversation took place behind closed doors at the Yankees’ spring home in Tampa, Florida, just a few hours after the club pulled the trigger on a trade to rework the left side of its infield by importing third baseman Josh Donaldson and shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa from the Twins.

DJ LeMahieu was looking forward to greeting his new teammates, but the veteran jack-of-most-trades infielder was curious how this arrangement might affect his playing time. Anthony Rizzo was installed at first base, Gleyber Torres was back to taking most of his reps at second base, and LeMahieu wanted to know how the math worked -- five infielders for four spots.

“They told me that they weren’t really sure either,” LeMahieu said with a chuckle. “Just kind of be ready for whatever.”

Of course, manager Aaron Boone and the coaching staff have made good on what they promised LeMahieu that March afternoon, stressing that they would find at-bats for one of their most talented hitters. LeMahieu’s versatility has become one of his most appealing characteristics, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner at second base who can slide over to first base or play third at a moment’s notice.

That was the Yankees’ plan for LeMahieu entering the 2019 season, his first in pinstripes -- Boone recalls, correctly, that LeMahieu wasn’t even in that year’s Opening Day lineup, yet wound up tallying the most plate appearances (655) of anyone on the club. Boone likes having LeMahieu’s bat-to-ball skills in the heart of the lineup behind high on-base guys such as Aaron Judge, but the skipper also figures to continue using LeMahieu in the leadoff spot throughout the season.

“You kind of look at the week ahead -- who we’re facing, who’s on the mound for us, what makes the most sense where we get a guy that day [off],” Boone says. “It’s as simple as that conversation, trying to look ahead when we’re going through a long stretch. Maybe we want to get our big guys a day here in the next week, so what’s the best day to do that, and who do we have replacing him? The next day usually throws you a wrinkle too; maybe a guy is banged up that day.”

LeMahieu nods to the top shelf of his locker at Yankee Stadium, pointing out two Rawlings “gamers” -- one glove that he uses at second base and third base, and another one that he carries to first base. If LeMahieu had to choose a position where he feels most comfortable, his response would be second base, though he expected to use the first baseman’s glove more often this season. That changed with the Bombers’ St. Patrick’s Day move to re-sign Rizzo.

Nine players for eight spots, as LeMahieu puts it, makes for a complicated blueprint -- and in some ways, a manager’s dream, one that LeMahieu admits is “a good problem to have.”

“DJ’s a total pro,” says bench coach Carlos Mendoza. “He’s consistent; he’s prepared. All you’ve got to do is open up to him and kind of lay out the plan, knowing it could change at any moment, and he’s good. He’ll be prepared, and that’s what makes him such a good player and such a special person.”

From the time he signed as a free agent before the 2019 season, LeMahieu has rarely had a single defined position with the Yankees. Yet by moving him around the infield, Boone was able to deploy “The Machine” in 379 of his first 420 games in pinstripes, good for 90%.New York Yankees

Occasionally, Boone receives pushback from players when he sketches out his lineups; most days, he does not. “There’s a little bit of everything,” Boone says. “Sometimes there’s a little frustration on the day, but more often than not, guys are on board. They get it; they understand we’re just trying to be strategic. With a lot of them, I’ll have those conversations ahead of time: ‘Hey, I’m thinking [you’ll sit] one of these days in Chicago.’ You try to create a dialogue. For the most part, I think they appreciate that and understand that. Every now and then you get a guy that’s pissed off that he’s not in there, which is fine, too.”

After years of navigating a rigid roster stacked with many similar pieces, the ’22 Yankees boast some different looks around the diamond, equipped to beat opponents in various ways. General manager Brian Cashman credits some of the club’s new staff members, such as baserunning coordinator/roving hitting coach Matt Talarico, for aiding in that arena.

“It’s certainly something valuable for the manager, especially when he’s doing matchups on a daily basis or dealing with the bumps and bruises during the grind of the season,” Cashman says. “I think some of the new staff members are setting a tone through Boonie on trying to take advantage of any opportunity, especially on the basepaths.”

Giancarlo Stanton’s return to defensive duty has swelled Boone’s options in filling out the lineup card. After injuries limited Stanton to just 41 of a possible 222 regular-

season games over the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, the Yankees were hesitant to have Stanton bring his glove to the outfield during ’21. But Boone finally acquiesced and gave Stanton a couple of starts in left field during a late July series against the Marlins in Miami, a city where the slugger won the 2017 National League MVP, years before the Senior Circuit would grudgingly adopt the designated hitter rule.

The Yankees soon discovered what those ’17 Marlins knew; playing the outfield each night seemed to have a positive effect on Stanton’s offensive performance. In 108 games as a designated hitter last year, Stanton hit a very formidable .267 with 26 home runs and 78 RBI. But his performance ticked to an even higher level over 26 starts in the outfield down the stretch in ’21, hitting .302 with nine homers and 18 RBI -- a small sample size, sure, but it’s worth noting that 14 of his 29 hits in those 26 games went for extra bases.

“I can’t tell you why I hit them when I’m playing outfield, but there’s a different rhythm to the game,” Stanton says. “I’ve got to be able to master both of them because I’m going to do both. I like being out there a couple of times a week, whenever and wherever I’m needed. Whatever rolls the best lineup out there.”

Stanton’s readiness to play the corner outfield spots allows Donaldson to take a few half-days in the DH spot, and it has also had a direct effect on Stanton’s fellow beast in the lineup, Judge. The Yankees had Judge abandon center field shortly after he was drafted out of Fresno State in 2013, but he is enjoying the opportunity to go back to school, in a sense.

“The first thing they told me once I got drafted was, ‘I know you played center field in college, but we’ve got [Jacoby] Ellsbury there in center, and he’s going to be there for a long time,’” Judge says. “‘If you want to make this Major League team at some point, you’ve got to learn to play right.’ So I said, ‘All right, I’m fine with that.’”

That plan didn’t quite work out for Ellsbury, whose final big-league appearance came in 2017, but it sure has for Judge. Blessed with agility and a strong throwing arm, Judge soon established a reputation as one of the league’s finer defensive right fielders, though he always believed deep in his heart that he could return to center field and play the position well.

Through May 17, Stanton had started more games in 2022 as an outfielder than a designated hitter, giving Boone the flexibility to rest or DH other regulars in the lineup. It also helps to have another slugger in Judge (pictured), who can play right field or center depending on the situationNew York Yankees

When injuries to Ellsbury and Aaron Hicks prompted the Yankees to start Judge in center field for a March 2018 game against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, the emergency situation garnered headlines. It also sent researchers scurrying to the history books, where they discovered that the 6-foot-7 Judge tied Walt Bond of the 1960 and ’61 Cleveland Indians and the ’64 Houston Colt .45s on the list of tallest center fielders ever to appear in a big-league game. And at 282 pounds, Judge was the heaviest center fielder in MLB history; Wily Mo Peña and Carlos Peguero were each listed at 260 pounds.

But Judge handled his chances flawlessly that day, a fact that Boone and the Yankees tucked away for future reference. Judge came knocking on the manager’s door about center field again last season, when Hicks missed most of the campaign due to injury. Judge reminded Boone and the coaching staff that he had proven himself out there before, volunteering his services to offer respite to Brett Gardner, who started 92 games in center during his age 37 season.

Judge wound up making 21 starts in center field in 2021, patrolling 158 innings with such relative ease that it no longer generated much attention when the lineup card read, “Judge -- 8.” The all-MLB first teamer started 10 of the Yanks’ first 30 games in center field this season; when asked if he now considered Judge to be a right fielder moonlighting in center field, or a true center fielder, Boone hesitates and offers a wry laugh.

“He’ll probably get mad. He thinks of himself as a center fielder, I’ll tell you that much,” Boone says. “He loves playing out there. The reason I’ve gone to him so many times out there in the back half of last season and this year is the fact that we can get Giancarlo out there [in right] as much as we have. But the other is that he plays the position really well; he’s a good baseball player. He’s a really good defender, and he’s shown that -- in right, and now with more extended reps in center field as well.”

The Yankees’ most recent championship clubs all have examples of players who could fill multiple roles, a crucial ingredient for any winning ballclub. The 2009 Yankees played Jerry Hairston Jr. at six defensive positions, while having Cody Ransom play every infield position and Melky Cabrera in each outfield spot. (Nick Swisher even played four positions, if we include an April pitching appearance in a blowout loss at Tropicana Field; Swisher retired with an ERA of 0.00.)

And in the late 1990s dynasty years, Clay Bellinger and Luis Sojo were among the players whom manager Joe Torre could deploy wherever needed; in 2000, for example, Bellinger played every position but pitcher and catcher.

“Those guys, the reserve players, they might do something to help a team win in the postseason,” says Hairston Jr., who played 45 games for the ’09 Yankees after being acquired in a midseason trade, then scored the winning run in Game 2 of that year’s American League Championship Series against the Angels. “I took pride in my versatility. I was still young, I wanted to play every day, but I knew when I was traded over there, I wasn’t going to. I was perfectly fine with that. I knew my role. All I cared about was winning.

“I remember I’d take ground balls at shortstop before every game with Derek [Jeter], and he’d always talk me up: ‘Hey, you’re going to do something special for us in the postseason. Something’s going to happen.’ And he was right. He understood it wasn’t just the star players; it’s sometimes the Luis Sojos.”

Out of that mold, the ’22 Yankees were able to open the regular season with just three players on the bench, in large part because of Marwin Gonzalez’s emergence. A non-roster invitee to spring camp, Gonzalez secured a place on the Opening Day roster with nine hits in 24 spring at-bats, including three homers and 10 RBI. But his flexibility in the field arguably carried just as much appeal to the coaching staff as his live bat.

The switch-hitting Gonzalez has played every position but catcher in a big-league game; he even tossed a clean 11-pitch inning for the Red Sox in a blowout loss to the Blue Jays last June. The Yankees don’t figure to need Gonzalez on the mound much this year, but he’s the primary defensive option behind Kiner-Falefa at shortstop and -- like any insurance plan worth its paper -- always seems ready to answer the call when necessary.

“That was definitely part of it,” Boone says. “Having Marwin’s experience and ability to go out and play a lot of positions definitely mattered and helped [him make the team].”

Given the array of pieces that fit into different spots, this roster is somewhat reminiscent of a Rubik’s Cube, that multicolored 3-D combination puzzle thrown across untold numbers of childhood bedrooms out of frustration. Boone believes that he has a grip on how to click the pieces into place, expecting his group to handle anything a 162-game gauntlet can toss at them.

“It’s just this ongoing, living organism,” Boone says. “You try to make the best decisions you can in the present, while also keeping the big picture in mind.”