TAMPA, Fla. -- When Aaron Judge enters the home clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the slugging outfielder sees the building blocks of a championship team inhabiting those woodgrain lockers: a deep pitching staff assembled on the near wall and a stacked lineup on the far wall. Now they’ve just got to go out and prove it.
“I’m as fired up as ever,” Judge said on Monday. “Every year, I know I come in here and say that’s our goal, to win a championship. But, for us, the first thing to do is we’ve got to win our division. That starts with Game 1. … We’ve got to knock off the Rays first. That’s the team that won the division last year, got all the way to the World Series, beat us in the Division Series. That’s our first goal.”
The Yankees were widely forecast as division favorites in 2020, but a 33-27 record placed them seven games behind Tampa Bay’s 40-20 mark. New York lost eight of 10 meetings with the Rays, then it was bested in a five-game, neutral-site American League Division Series played at San Diego’s Petco Park. Judge believes that the story will be different in '21.
“We're playing 162 games; it's not a sprint like it was last year,” Judge said. “But every game still matters. We want to go out there and win our division and put ourselves a good position in the postseason. With this depth, with the pitching we have, with this lineup -- we can be in the right position to go out there and win a championship.”
Judge said that he knows the path will not be an easy one, featuring formidable obstacles both within the East and the AL’s other two divisions.
“I wouldn't say our road is any easier,” Judge said. “We’ve still got to go through Houston; the Chicago White Sox have been doing something special the past couple of years with the people they've added. It’s going to be tough either way, but I'm excited about it. I like our team going into it, and I like our chances.”
Under most circumstances, it would not seem newsworthy that a team was planning to pair a starting catcher with its ace on Opening Day. Yet, Gary Sánchez did not catch Gerrit Cole after Aug. 31 last season, watching as Kyle Higashioka worked with the right-hander for four regular-season games and three more in the playoffs. Sánchez and Cole will be reunited on April 1 at Yankee Stadium.
“This is a new year, a new start for us,” Sánchez said through an interpreter. “Whatever happened in the past, you’ve got to leave that in the past. I’m a catcher, and that’s my responsibility in the game. I’m going to go out there and give everything I have. I don’t make the lineups, but when I see my name in there, I’m going to make sure I give everything I have.”
Sánchez said that he “felt very comfortable” catching Cole last season, when they worked to a 3.91 ERA over 46 innings. Cole and Higashioka posted a 1.00 ERA in 27 regular-season innings, then they teamed for a 2.95 ERA over 18 1/3 playoff frames against the Indians and Rays. Manager Aaron Boone acknowledges that Cole and Higashioka seem to work well together, but Boone wants the option of starting Sánchez, too.
“He’s getting really good reviews,” Cole said of Sánchez. “I pitched to him quite a bit earlier in camp. We haven't lined up lately. I'm not evaluating the players, but certainly I'm not hearing anything negative.”
Something to Tauch about
Mike Tauchman’s power was lacking last year, a result of the outfielder battling a nagging right shoulder injury that he said was aggravated early in the season. After seeing Tauchman manage only six extra-base hits in 111 plate appearances, Boone now believes that the 30-year-old is closer to the form he showed in 2019, when he belted 13 homers and posted an .865 OPS in 296 plate appearances.
“I feel like, physically, he's in a better position,” Boone said. “I think he was dealing with some nagging things that probably got him a little behind [last year]. I feel like he's a lot closer to that '19 player. I feel like he's shown that so far here in Spring Training, and that's what we're hoping to get.”
Tauchman is out of Minor League options, which complicates the Yankees’ upcoming decisions regarding non-roster invitees like Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich. Bruce can opt out of his Minor League deal on Thursday.
“There’s a good choice to be made there,” Boone said. “Tauchman is a pretty elite outfielder at three different spots. Jay Bruce has shown me he can play first base to go along with the corner. He's healthy and we know what his bat can be. Dietrich has position versatility, patience and power, and he’s left-handed. I feel like we have a difficult decision in front of us.”
Infielder/outfielder Miguel Andújar (nerve irritation in right hand/wrist) may not play in another Grapefruit League game this spring, Boone said. Andújar has been fielding grounders, but he is not throwing or swinging a bat.
Corey Kluber will make his third start of the spring on Tuesday as the Yankees visit the Tigers for a 1:05 p.m. ET exhibition in Lakeland, Fla. Kluber’s last outing came in a live batting-practice session; this will be his first game action since March 13. The game is being televised on MLB Network and is available on MLB.TV.