When Brett Gardner looks around the Yankees clubhouse, he sees towering home run hitters in every direction. To one side, there’s 6-foot-6, 245-pound Giancarlo Stanton, with the physique of an NFL tight end. To the other, there’s 6-foot-7, 282-pound Aaron Judge, one of the most imposing specimens ever to play the outfield. At 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, Luke Voit would look right at home in a World’s Strongest Man competition. Even the team’s second baseman, DJ LeMahieu, scrapes the ceiling at 6-foot-4 -- a far cry from the days when 5-foot-10 Joe Gordon or 5-foot-9 Bobby Richardson manned the position at an All-Star level for the Yankees.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Gardner is right on par with your typical American male, but in that room, he hears plenty of quips about his non-giant stature -- and he dishes it right back in spades.
“I tell [Judge] all the time, if I was 6-7, 275 pounds, can you imagine how far I would hit the baseball?” Gardner says. “I might hit 80 home runs a year if I was as big as he is.”
All joking aside, the 2021 Yankees are loaded with power from top to bottom; anyone in the lineup is capable of going deep at any moment. As the team’s longest-tenured player, Gardner has hit more home runs as a Yankee (129) than any of them. But he’d love nothing more than to see his lead over Judge (119) and Gary Sánchez (115) on the franchise’s active leaderboard quickly evaporate.
This tight-knit team has its sights set on more than just homers, though. Every last player believes that this is the year the Yankees get back to the Fall Classic and bring another world championship to New York. Here’s a look at the road ahead for the World Series-or-bust Bronx Bombers.
The Yankees’ offense came thrashing out of the gate in 2020, smacking home runs in a franchise-record 12 consecutive games to start the season and helping the team tie a franchise record by winning its first 10 home games. If a similar season-opening surge were to happen in 2021, the Yanks could take early control of the division. Their first 15 games are all against AL East opponents, beginning with an Opening Day matinee against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees have had some memorable lid-lifters against Toronto: On Opening Day 2018, Giancarlo Stanton rocketed two balls into the seats at Rogers Centre, joining Roger Maris (1960) as the only players to go deep twice in their Yankees debut. After injury-marred regular seasons in 2019 and 2020, the 31-year-old Stanton once again looks like the player who won the National League MVP Award in 2017. If last postseason -- when he hit six homers in seven games -- was any indication, it could be a big year for the California native.
The season-opening series will be Toronto’s first time back at Yankee Stadium since last September, when the Bombers set a major league record for a three-game set by crushing 19 longballs. Kyle Higashioka made a bit of history that week, becoming the 24th player in Yankees history -- and just the third while catching -- to hit three homers in a game. But all eyes this season will be focused on the Yanks’ projected first-string catcher, Gary Sánchez. The 28-year-old backstop has shown plenty of pop since finishing runner-up in the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year voting, crushing 115 home runs over his first 421 career games entering 2021.
“Gary’s a guy that can go out there and win AL MVP,” teammate Aaron Judge said during spring training. “He’s that dynamic, and he’s that important of a player to this team.”
Perhaps Sánchez will put on another show when the Yankees visit Baltimore April 26–29: His own three–home run performance came while DH’ing there in April of 2019.
Veteran closer Aroldis Chapman incorporated a new pitch -- a split-finger fastball -- late last season, and even unleashed it in the postseason, when he struck out eight of the 17 batters he faced and allowed just two hits. From all accounts, the 33-year-old -- who began his 12th big-league season just 24 saves away from 300 -- would be wise to make it a permanent fixture in his arsenal: Simply playing around with the splitter while tossing in the outfield during warmups can be vexing for his throwing partners.
“It turns from a game of catch to a game of fetch, so it must be pretty good,” said Darren O’Day.
The Yankees signed O’Day, who enters his 14th season, in February, reuniting him with longtime bullpen mate Zack Britton. When the Yankees return to Oriole Park at Camden Yards in mid-May, the two relievers can peer down from the visitors’ bullpen into the Baltimore ’pen where they sat side-by-side from 2012 to 2018. While Britton recovered from arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip in his left (throwing) elbow to begin the 2021 season, the right-handed O’Day figured to play a prominent role in the late innings of games.
Shortly after acquiring O’Day, the Yankees signed another veteran free-agent reliever, left-hander Justin Wilson, who returns for a second tour of duty with the Yankees. After going 5-0 with a 3.10 ERA in 74 relief appearances in 2015, the Yankees traded Wilson to Detroit for Chad Green and Luis Cessa, both of whom have become trusted options out of the ’pen for manager Aaron Boone. Between the versatility and relative youth of Green, Cessa and Jonathan Loaisiga — all of whom were under 30 on Opening Day — and the experience of the veterans (Chapman, O’Day, Britton and Wilson have combined for more than 2,000 relief appearances), the Yankees entered 2021 with one of the most well-constructed bullpens in all of baseball.
One of the great rivalries in sports resumes as the Yankees bookend the month of June with two weekend series against the Red Sox. The Yankees went 9-1 against Boston in 2020, including a perfect 7-0 at Yankee Stadium, the first time that had happened in the feud’s long history, and the starting staff was a big reason why.
Yankees ace Gerrit Cole availed himself well in his first taste of the rivalry, tossing seven innings of one-run ball to improve to 4-0 in his first five starts of 2020. With the added adrenaline boost of finally getting to perform in front of Yankees fans, Cole figures to be even tougher on opponents in 2021.
He’ll be joined in the rotation by two new arrivals this season, Corey Kluber and former Pirates teammate Jameson Taillon. June has traditionally been a solid month for Taillon, who is 7-4 with a 3.10 ERA in 14 career starts, and he pitched well in his lone appearance at Fenway Park, tossing seven scoreless innings in a no-decision for the Pirates in April 2017.
Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, was looking forward to taking part in the rivalry, but also was intent on proving that he is once again healthy, and he couldn’t wait to take the mound with the Yankees’ deep lineup of hitters as his teammates rather than foes.
“You don’t really have a chance to breathe as a pitcher pitching against them,” he said. “I speak from experience: They’re all disciplined hitters; they’re not going up there just free-swinging. They all can do damage, but they all have a plan.”
Left-hander Jordan Montgomery, whose health woes appeared to be fully in the rearview mirror, seemed to have the No. 4 starter spot locked up heading into the season. Meanwhile, a heated battle for the fifth spot left the Yankees with several enticing options in Deivi García, Domingo Germán and Michael King.
The last time the MLB All-Star Game was held in Atlanta, things worked out pretty well for the Yankees. Derek Jeter was named MVP of the 2000 Midsummer Classic, and three months later he became the first player in history to take home World Series MVP honors in the same season.
Jeter, the Yankees’ first-round pick in 1992, will officially be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 25. And for the first time since its 1965 inception, the MLB Draft will be held outside of June, taking place July 11–13 in Atlanta to coincide with the 91st MLB All-Star Game, which will be played at Truist Park on July 13. Will the Yankees unearth a future Hall of Famer when they select 20th?
They’d certainly love to find another gem such as outfielder Brett Gardner, a third-round pick out of the College of Charleston in 2005 who is now in his 14th season in pinstripes. The lone holdover from the Yankees’ 2009 world championship team, Gardner began the season 17th among Yankees position players in career WAR according to Baseball-Reference, ahead of such stalwarts as Jorge Posada, Don Mattingly and Phil Rizzuto -- all of whom had their numbers retired by the team.
In fact, there have been several Yankees draft picks outside of the first round in recent years who could contribute in 2021. Speedy utilityman Tyler Wade (2013, fourth round) as well as relievers Nick Nelson (2016, fourth round) and Brooks Kriske (2016, sixth round) all began the season on the Yankees’ 40-man roster.
First baseman Mike Ford, who signed with the Yankees as an amateur free agent after going undrafted out of Princeton in 2013, will vie for at-bats, as will infielder Thairo Estrada and infielder/outfielder Miguel Andújar, who have all, at times, showed they can produce at the plate.
If you build it, they will come -- and the Yankees are on their way. Originally scheduled for last August but postponed due to the pandemic, the inaugural MLB at Field of Dreams game -- in which the White Sox will play host to the Yankees at the Dyersville, Iowa, site where the 1989 movie was filmed -- will take place on Aug. 12. Although the Hawkeye State has a long and rich baseball history, it will mark the first major league game ever held there.
There are no Iowans on the current Yankees’ roster, but locals may find themselves cheering for DJ LeMahieu, the perennial MVP candidate whose dad, Tom, played college ball in Sioux Center. LeMahieu -- who played for the Iowa Cubs while coming up through the minors -- and White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson have finished 1-2 in the AL batting race each of the last two years, with LeMahieu claiming the crown in 2020. It will be fascinating to see where they are on the leaderboard come August when they clash near the cornfields.
If it’s defense the fans desire, the three-time Gold Glove–winning LeMahieu certainly sparkles at second, but Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela is often the star of the show. The 29-year-old Colombia native has come on strong with the bat, raising his career average by nearly 50 points and leading the team in doubles over his first two seasons in New York, but his wizardry at the hot corner routinely leaves mouths agape.
Urshela’s partner on the left side of the infield is another showstopper. Gleyber Torres, still just 24 years old, entered his fourth season in the bigs a bona fide star, a two-time All-Star who hit a team-high 38 home runs in 2019. With Luke Voit, the major league home run leader in 2020, rounding out the quartet, the 2021 Yankees have their own Infield of Dreams.
The Yankees close out the regular season with a three-game set at home against Tampa Bay, which won the AL East by seven games over the Yanks in 2020, then outlasted the Bombers in an ALDS held entirely at San Diego’s Petco Park due to the pandemic — the first time these two division foes clashed in the postseason. Could it have marked the start of a new October rivalry? Or, at the very least, will the season-closing series between them at Yankee Stadium Oct. 1–3 have playoff implications?
The Yankees’ powerful offense will have much to say about that. The presumed starting outfield unit of switch-hitter Aaron Hicks, left fielder Clint Frazier and right fielder Aaron Judge combines speed and strength. A healthy Judge and Stanton could be on par with some of the most fearsome duos in Yankees history. And with a lineup as deep and talented as the Yankees’ is, there’s always a dangerous bat waiting on deck.
If the Yankees can clinch a postseason berth, manager Aaron Boone would join Mike Matheny and Dave Roberts as the only skippers in baseball history to reach the postseason in each of their first four seasons. But the Yanks aren’t looking to just make it to October; they want to be the last ones standing. And with bubble sites and fan-less stadiums hopefully a thing of the past, Boone and his charges would love nothing more than to bring a 28th World Series championship to the Bronx with the Yankees’ legion of fans cheering them on every step of the way.