NEW YORK -- When we last saw the Yankees in action, it was a sunny 81-degree afternoon on Florida’s Treasure Coast for a March 12 Grapefruit League contest against the Nationals. Whispers that it would be their last game for a while filtered through the dugout during the middle innings, and the players traveled mostly in silence that evening, a 200-mile bus ride toward uncertainty.
Spring Training was subsequently canceled, with an announcement that Opening Day would be delayed for “at least two weeks” -- far longer than that, as it turned out. More than three months after the Yanks notched that 6-3 victory over the defending World Series champions, they will be back in uniform, reporting to Yankee Stadium this week to once again prepare for the 2020 season.
The Yanks’ first workout is set for Friday, targeting an Opening Day on either July 23 or 24. As pitchers, catchers and everyone else lace up their spikes, here is a look at some of the major Yankees storylines in what promises to be a unique campaign:
1. All aboard the Cole Train
The Yankees had landed their "great white whale," in the words of general manager Brian Cashman, when they signed Gerrit Cole to a nine-year, $324 million contract. Any concerns about how Cole might fit into the team’s universe had already been answered positively, as he was frequently holding conceptual pitching clinics with hurlers and hitters at his locker on the days that he wasn't firing high-octane heat.
Instead of taking the mound on March 26 in Baltimore, Cole shifted back to his winter program, even tossing across the yard of his new Connecticut home with manager Aaron Boone and -- at least on one occasion -- his pregnant wife, Amy. Cole is again preparing for that Opening Day start, heading a rotation that projects to also include Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery. The knock against last year’s club was that it didn’t have enough starting pitching depth; New York spent big to resolve that issue.
“Ultimately, we're in it to win it,” Cashman said on Tuesday. “I think everyone else should be feeling the same way, especially in a shortened season. That means it's going to heighten the ability for anybody to really take a shot at the title. Whether it's a full season, the short season, our mission statement is the same -- we want to win.”
2. Shutdown ‘silver lining’
After setting Major League records by having 30 players serve 39 stints on the injured list in 2019, the Yankees overhauled their strength, conditioning and medical programs for 2020. The earliest returns seemed to be a hangover from last year, as Aaron Judge (fractured right rib), Paxton (lower back surgery), Luis Severino (Tommy John surgery) and Giancarlo Stanton (strained right calf) were all diagnosed with injuries during the early weeks of camp, while Aaron Hicks (Tommy John surgery) was months away in his rehab.
Had the season started as scheduled, none of those players would have been ready for Opening Day. Now, all members of that group except Severino could be active, which Boone has called a “silver lining.” Stanton would have been ready in April, and Paxton was targeting May. Hicks’ projected return was set for July, and while there has been some question about Judge’s progress, it is encouraging that he has resumed swinging a bat.
“All of them, I'm optimistic will be ready to go when the bell rings,” Cashman said. “I think health-wise, we're in a good position where these things either are resolved or resolving to the point where it's just really more of a conditioning matter.”
3. A (Zoom) call to arms
Matt Blake will certainly never forget his first year as a Major League pitching coach. Known for his progressive philosophies, Blake was growing acclimated to his hurlers when his job shifted from overseeing bullpens and live batting practice sessions to monitoring shared Google spreadsheets, with his pitchers on the honor system to log their workout data from afar.
When the Bombers reconvene, Blake will have the luxury of working in person with a loaded staff, boasting a bullpen that will have Zack Britton, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino and others setting up for closer Aroldis Chapman. During the first iteration of camp, Montgomery and Jonathan Loaisiga had earned praise for their development, which they’ll look to continue in New York. Prospects Deivi Garcia, Michael King and Clarke Schmidt could also be factors.
4. Short story
Didi Gregorius performed admirably over his five years in The Bronx, tackling the title of shortstop following Derek Jeter’s retirement, but the club made its priorities clear with a laser focus on fitting Cole for pinstripes. Gregorius reunited with former manager Joe Girardi in Philadelphia, clearing the path for Gleyber Torres to take over as the Yankees’ everyday shortstop.
The 23-year-old Torres embraced the opportunity to return to his natural position, and though he made a few defensive miscues early in camp, the Bombers expressed confidence that his potent bat would easily cover for any shortcomings in the field. With three-time Gold Glove Award winner DJ LeMahieu taking over at second base, the Yankees appear to have the makings of a solid tandem up the middle.
5. Walk-year decisions
There were quizzical expressions exchanged among the Yanks’ beat reporters this spring when LeMahieu acknowledged that he had yet to discuss a contract extension, coming off a 2019 season when Boone had lauded the veteran as being the club’s most valuable player. Remember, some wondered if the former National League batting champion could hit outside of Coors Field -- his .893 OPS and 136 OPS+ for the Yanks seemed to answer that in the affirmative.
LeMahieu said that he would prefer to continue his career in New York, and he isn’t the only Yankee who could be playing for a new contract during the shortened 2020 season. Tanaka will begin his seventh campaign with the Yanks, having compiled a 75-43 record with a 3.75 ERA thus far in his career. Paxton is also a potential free agent, having gone 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA in ‘19.