Yankees Magazine: Executive action

Even in the height of winter, baseball was foremost on Joe Girardi's mind

February 29th, 2016
Girardi is entering his ninth season as the Yankees' manager.New York Yankees

On a cold January afternoon, while the East Coast was bracing for the arrival of a snowstorm that would come within a snowflake of breaking New York City's accumulation record, Joe Girardi was doing sets of dead lifts in the weight room at Yankee Stadium. Spring Training was three-and-a-half weeks away, and the Yankees' manager was keeping busy as usual.

Using a 50-pound hex bar, he plated an additional 270 pounds and banged out three sets of five reps. Girardi, who turned 51 in October, is entering his ninth season as Yankees manager, and in between sets, he spoke to Yankees Magazine executive editor Ken Derry about the upcoming season.

Mike Harkey is back as your bullpen coach. You have a long history with him. How will his return influence the bullpen and the coaching staff itself?

He's familiar with everyone, which I think is really important. He knows most of the players. There are a few guys that we've added -- Andrew Miller, some of the younger guys -- he knows who they are, but they weren't up at the time. He's familiar with the coaching staff. He's familiar with the expectations, so he'll bring stability. He's a guy that understands me, understands what I want. We've been talking a long time, since we were in the Minor Leagues in 1988, so we're very familiar with each other. It's a smooth transition.

What kind of unseen or intangible attributes do certain coaches bring to the table that help you get through the season?

It's important that we enjoy what we do. We take to heart the wins and losses, but you have to enjoy what we do as a staff individually. And a lot of these guys have a real sense of humor and have a way of loudening up the coaches' room, if you can believe that. Hark is a guy who really brings that. Tomper [Rob Thomson] is a guy who knows how to needle people and get people going. Tony [Peña] is a guy that's loud, likes to have fun, is laughing all the time and brings the energy out in the players. Those are the little things that you don't see that coaches are able to do.

When leadership is having fun, how does that permeate through the clubhouse?

It's important that your players are relaxed and loose. Focused, but relaxed and loose. And I think you see that in our coaching staff. You have to be able to turn the page in this game because you play every day. You can't hold onto a loss longer than you should. You can't ride the height of a win longer than you should. We learn from it, take what we can and use it later in the season, but we gotta get prepared for the next day. I think [the coaches'] attitudes and their ability to, in a sense, dish out their attitudes is helpful.

As far as the roster, General Manager Brian Cashman said the 25th spot will be used as a revolving door. What type of flexibility does this give you?

Video: Girardi looks ahead to 2016 as Spring Training begins

It gives me a lot of flexibility. It only works because we have players who have the ability to make it work. For example, you might call up a second baseman because a guy needs a day off. You can play him a couple days in a row. Or you can call up a catcher if a guy's nicked up. You might need a 13th pitcher because your bullpen is taxed, or maybe you're going to a six-man rotation. Whether it was a Slade [Heathcott], a Mason [Williams], a [Rob] Refsnyder or a number of pitchers -- a [Branden] Pinder, a [Jacob] Lindgren, a [James] Pazos -- a Gary Sanchez, an Austin Romine, all our young players have shown the ability to perform at this level. We have guys that can play a number of different positions at a high level. Let's just say you want to give a [Mark Teixeira] two days off in a row, you gotta make sure you have a backup. I think it's going to be a little different, but I really think it's going to work.

In September, you voiced some criticism about the expanded rosters. Have you heard anything from Major League Baseball about implementing changes?

It seems to be talked about every year during September, and then there hasn't been a lot to take place to change it. I think the frustration on the manager's part is that you manage one way for five months out of the year, and then -- at the most important time -- it's hard to manage. A team has five left-handers in the bullpen and can keep switching them out, and you can't get the match-ups that you're able to during the first five months of the season. I don't think managers are completely against calling people up, but having so many people on the roster, so many different match-up problems because of all the people they have. I think managers want to get away from that.

As far as the offense, what kind of power production do you expect this year?

Well, you expect the guys in the middle of the order to hit their home runs. You look at the other guys with [Jacoby] Ellsbury and Gardy [Brett Gardner], who've been our table setters, and you look at the progress that Didi [Gregorius] made, and you look at [Starlin] Castro and the success he's had in a relatively short time. This is a guy who has almost 1,000 hits at 25 years old. That's incredible. So, I think our offense is pretty well-rounded. You have some switch-hitters; we're not so left-handed dominant as we've been. We traded for [Aaron] Hicks, who gives us a ton of flexibility in the outfield and is gonna play a number of different positions. I expect him to play a lot. Right-handed, he's extremely dangerous. Left-handed, I think his swing has come a long way. He was a player that you were nervous when he came to the plate that he was going to do something big. I think our flexibility with our roster and our offense is better this year.

Is there any way to anticipate or strategize how you might score the most runs and try to stack the lineup that way?

You look at how to set up your lineup to make it more difficult for a manager to get through. That's first and foremost. You see how guys are doing physically. I think Hicks allows us to give our outfielders days off. And I think the biggest thing is keeping these guys healthy and strong. That's the big thing, keeping them rested. And I think with the rotation that we're going to use with the 25th man and the players that we've added, our club is deeper. The depth of our bench is strong, and the way we're able to rotate it should really help our guys.

You mentioned a strong list of prospects. How do you anticipate working them into the lineup? Is this where that last roster spot is best utilized?

They'll be used that way, and they'll be used when guys get hurt, as we saw. Slade came up; he got hurt. Mason came up; he got hurt. That's not what we were expecting, but we had depth. And these kids played very well. Look at Refsnyder. He came up and played his first game in Boston. Then he played down the stretch in September for us. He played in the playoff game.

Look at Greg Bird. He had a fabulous season in a short period of time. He did his best impersonation of Mark Teixeira.

Look at Sevy [Luis Severino]. He established himself in the rotation, and obviously you have to earn it every year, but he did a tremendous job.

We're starting to see our draft picks and the people we've signed really pay dividends for us. That is the strength and health of any ballclub because people are going to get hurt. Seems like the hardest guys to keep healthy are your starting pitchers. People are going to go down, and we need that depth.

How do you manage expectations with competitive guys? You've indicated that Aroldis Chapman will close when he returns from his suspension, but I'm sure Miller wants the ninth inning, and I'm sure Dellin Betances wouldn't pass up the opportunity, either.

Communication is key. You talk to guys and see how they're feeling and what their thought process is. This is where the character of players really matters. Are they in it for themselves, or are they in it for the team? What we've seen in the few years we've had Dellin here and the short time we've had Miller, these guys are willing to do whatever it takes to win. Having that type of character makes it much easier on an organization and on me to manage their expectations.

Everyone wants to be the closer. But we have Aroldis, and he's going to be our closer. And then we go from there. And what it really does is it gives me a ton of flexibility. It should be a six-inning game for us.

I have a figure here: There are only five men who have managed more games for the Yankees than you, and four of them are in the Hall of Fame. Have you thought about your place in the franchise's history?

No. I try to consider myself a young man still. I want to continue to manage. I think [University of Alabama football coach] Nick Saban said it great. The one thing that I've known for so many years is putting on a uniform and being a part of a team. When you're on a team, your thought process is: "What do we need to do to win the next game?" I don't really worry about what my legacy is going to be. My concern is how I'm doing as a husband and a father and a manager. I don't really worry about the other things because, to me, it's a waste of time. If I'm focused on that, I'm not focusing on doing the other three things.