With key players injured, which Yankees will step up?

March 11th, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. -- Harrison Bader stood near his locker at Steinbrenner Field on Saturday morning, the injured outfielder striking a philosophical note as he put a brave face upon a frustrating development. He will likely remain behind when the Yankees go north, continuing to mend a strained left oblique that figures to linger past Opening Day.

“It is definitely a punch in the face,” Bader said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened with an ample amount of time left in Spring Training; you don’t want to go down at all. You shift now, when things happen, to a much more positive outlook and focus on the healing process. There are a lot of things in my favor, so I’m just looking forward to coming back when I’m ready.”

As Bader spoke, he sported a well-loved workout T-shirt with "Let the Kids Play" screen-printed in purple and teal letters. That’s not a suggestion to management, though maybe it should be; it's certainly notable amidst a camp where top prospects Anthony Volpe and Jasson Domínguez have generated so much excitement.

So as the Yankees conclude a week in which they received the jaw jab of not only Bader’s injury, but gut punches that will keep Carlos Rodón, Tommy Kahnle and Lou Trivino waiting longer than anticipated to begin their 2023 seasons, it is a good time to survey the roster landscape and see which players could be challenged to step up.

Center field
Bader sustained his oblique strain on his final swing of Wednesday’s exhibition against the Cardinals, and though the club has not provided an official timetable for his return, similar injuries typically require four to six weeks.

That leaves manager Aaron Boone looking for an Opening Day center fielder, and the likeliest candidate could be Aaron Judge, who made 78 starts at the position last season. Judge loves playing center field, calling it “the best view in the house,” and proved to be a capable defender (1 out above average, per Statcast). But there is concern about the wear and tear of daily duty there.

Though most of Aaron Hicks’ career has been spent in center field, the club seems reluctant to shift him from left field, where he appears to be the frontrunner. Boone has mentioned Rafael Ortega and Estevan Florial as being in the mix; club officials are enthused about the lefty-hitting Ortega, a non-roster invitee who compiled a .753 OPS over the last two seasons with the Cubs.

Then, of course, there’s Domínguez, the youngest player in camp. The 20-year-old “Martian,” who homered in the Yankees' 6-3 loss to the Phillies on Saturday, would be the fans’ choice, but he has only played five games at Double-A.

“He’s been impressive,” Boone said. “It’s my first time getting to be around him and really seeing him for an extended look here. He’s comfortable in the box. He’s got a really good feel for the strike zone. He made huge strides last year from ’21. He’s a guy to be excited about, but yeah, he’s played a couple of games literally over [High-A] ball.”

Starting rotation
Rodón’s left forearm strain figures to keep him off the Yankee Stadium mound until at least the middle of April, which opens the door for Domingo Germán and Clarke Schmidt to open the season in the rotation. Of Germán and Schmidt, Boone said “we love where they’re at and the way they’re throwing the ball.”

The duo would join Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino and Nestor Cortes; Cortes has yet to make his Grapefruit League debut, being brought along slowly after a hamstring strain forced him from the World Baseball Classic.

With Frankie Montas out until at least the All-Star break, the depth choices beyond Germán and Schmidt are murky. Brian Cashman mentioned Deivi García and Yoendrys Gómez, the latter of whom was optioned to Minor League camp earlier in the week but will return to make his first spring start on Sunday. Jhony Brito and Randy Vasquez, another pair of prospects whom officials like, were sent to Minor League camp on Saturday.

“The difficulty from a front-office standpoint, when you try to line up those people, the guy you want might not even be available because he just threw 100 pitches a day or two earlier,” Cashman said. “So you never have enough. We’ll deal with it as it comes.”

With Kahnle out until at least mid-April due to right biceps tendinitis and Trivino not expected back until May with a right elbow ligament sprain, there are fresh opportunities to join the back end of a bullpen that projects to include Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loáisiga, Michael King, Wandy Peralta and Ron Marinaccio.

While Albert Abreu is out of Minor League options, Greg Weissert’s crossbody sinker/slider combination has drawn raves.

"[He's] freaking nasty," Cole said recently of Weissert. "He keeps getting better, trying to find that cadence and delivery that allows him to pressure the strike zone. [On Wednesday], Weissert threw a fastball and the guy fell over trying to swing at it. The action on the pitch was shocking.”

Jimmy Cordero is on the 40-man roster and has pitched well this spring, with Boone saying that he likes his power arm and command, adding, “I think he’s going to be a key piece for us.”

The club is converting Matt Krook into a reliever, seeing the 28-year-old as a devastating left-on-left option. Additionally, Ian Hamilton’s slider has drawn attention as a pitch that Boone describes as “a problem” for opposing hitters.