Yankees 2020 preview: Too much talent for weird season to break Bombers

When the coronavirus shut down spring training on March 12 the Yankees were the favorites to win the AL East despite not having Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino for the scheduled March 26 start of the regular season. Now with a 60-game schedule beginning Thursday in Washington against the defending World …

When the coronavirus shut down spring training on March 12 the Yankees were the favorites to win the AL East despite not having Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino for the scheduled March 26 start of the regular season.

Now with a 60-game schedule beginning Thursday in Washington against the defending World Series champion Nationals, the Yankees remain the favorites to cop a second consecutive AL East title despite the possibility of being without some very important pieces.

Judge, Stanton and Hicks have recovered from their injuries and are expected to be in the starting lineup against right-hander Max Scherzer.

However, All-Star second baseman DJ LeMahieu and right-hander Luis Cessa only recently returned after testing positive for COVID-19 before undergoing the intake testing process at Yankee Stadium. And the Yankees announced July 11 that all-world closer Aroldis Chapman had tested positive after testing negative during the intake program.

On July 4, Masahiro Tanaka was struck on the head by a Stanton line drive that was clocked at 112 mph, and he will miss his first rotation turn. And Severino will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery.

Despite the uncertainty with some very important names, the Yankees are still considered the favorites in the AL East because of who they have healthy. Should those names mentioned above have to miss extended time, the gap between the Yankees and Rays, which isn’t very wide, would be narrowed.

Aaron Judge and Gerrit ColeN.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

Yankees essentials

Most important hitter: It’s not often a 23-year-old lands on top of this list with the Yankees, but Gleyber Torres is on the verge of becoming among the best hitters in baseball. While he might not match the 38 homers he hit last year when the ball was wound tightly, Torres showed improvement from his rookie season of 2018 by driving in 90 runs and batting .278. Having Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the lineup together, after Stanton played in only 18 regular-season games a year ago, should help Torres, who will hit somewhere in the middle of Aaron Boone’s lineup.

Most important pitcher: This is easy. From the moment Hal Steinbrenner green lit a nine-year contract worth a record $324 million for Gerrit Cole, the 29-year-old right-hander fit the description of staff ace. Nothing he did in the first spring training changed. Nor did anything surface in spring training 2.0 to shed doubt on Cole not being the leader of the staff. During the shutdown Cole continued to work out with the belief he had to be ready whenever the season started. Now, that is Thursday against the Nationals and Max Scherzer. From what Cole showed in intrasquad games he looked like the pitcher who went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA in 33 starts and struck out 326 in 212 ¹/₃ innings for the Astros last season.

If there is a period of time when Chapman won’t be available, then Adam Ottavino becomes important because he would likely be Aaron Boone’s choice to work the eighth with Zack Britton closing.

Will have a better year than expected: Luke Voit gets lost in the attention shuffle. However, his right-handed power is real and given a full-time job — something he hasn’t had yet with the Yankees — the first baseman could enjoy a breakout campaign. Limited to 118 games last season due to an abdominal strain and a sports hernia that led to surgery to repair bilateral core muscle injuries in late October, the 29-year-old hit 21 homers, drove in 62 runs and posted an .842 OPS.

Most likely to disappoint: This depends on what level of disappointment we are talking about and the reaction from fickle Yankee fans. In the past, Jacoby Ellsbury was the whipping boy for being disappointing after signing a lucrative contract. Any of the main players — Judge, Stanton, Torres and Gary Sanchez — are candidates if they have subpar seasons. However, what if Gio Urshela doesn’t have the career year he had in 2019, when he hit .314 with 21 homers and 74 RBIs? Would .250 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs qualify as a disappointment for a career .269 hitter with Gold Glove ability at third base?

And don’t count out Sanchez being viewed as disappointing because many believe he should be a better all-around player than he has been.

Key call-up: It is going to take an injury or two for the Yankees to promote somebody from the taxi squad that will work out to stay ready because there are no minor league games to play in. The favorite on the pitching side is right-hander Mike King, who has 58 starts in 77 minor league appearances but could offer help out of the bullpen if the Yankees don’t opt to have a five-man rotation for the time Masahiro Tanaka could miss due to his concussion. The 25-year-old King, who missed most of last year with an arm injury that didn’t require surgery, pitched in 11 minor league games last season and appeared in one big-league game (two innings of relief).

Among the position players, first baseman Mike Ford would be the logical choice if Luke Voit suffers an injury. Ford, 28, offers left-handed power, which is something the Yankees don’t have beyond the switch- hitting Hicks and lefty Brett Gardner. Ford hit a dozen homers and drove in 25 runs in 50 big-league games last year. Ford could be part of the 30-man roster, but when that gets reduced to 28 and then 26, there might not be room for him.

Thairo Estrada can play short, second, third and the outfield so he could be a choice for the big-league roster.

Biggest managerial decision: With 102 games missing from the schedule, Aaron Boone will have to learn quickly what his players are capable of doing in real tiny windows. How long does he stay with a slumping hitter considering there are just 60 regular-season games? Same goes for a pitcher — especially a back-end reliever who works in tight spots with the outcome on the line. Not running players into the ground is a big part of the Yankees’ organizational manual, so Boone will have to adhere to that even in a shortened season. If DJ LeMahieu isn’t ready at the beginning of the season, Boone will likely turn to utility man Tyler Wade to play a lot of second, which would remove Wade from playing short, third and in the outfield.

Don’t be surprised if: Miguel Andujar muscles his way into the lineup. Andujar was limited to 12 games last year following right shoulder surgery but says he is healed. Urshela is the starting third baseman based on his career year last season, but Boone has pointed out multiple times during spring training 2.0 that Andujar will see time at third. He has also been working in the outfield, and while that is a project that needs work, Andujar’s bat can be hard to leave on the bench at the start of the game. If Stanton progresses to the point where the Yankees are comfortable playing him in left field, that would open the DH spot for Andujar. Don’t forget Andujar hit .297 with 27 homers, 92 RBIs and posted an .855 OPS in his rookie season of 2018.

Sure to make fans grumble: No matter what Sanchez does, he has become the lightning rod for Yankees fans’ dismay. Whether it is because of his defense — which improved in 2019 — or his .211 batting average the past two seasons, he gets more heat than any other Yankee. Some want him out of The Bronx; others believe he should be turned into a first baseman or DH. And the first time Cole has a bad outing with Sanchez behind the plate the catcher is going to get the blame.

Will make the playoffs if: Cole pitches like he did a year ago for the Astros and Stanton is in the lineup on a regular basis.

Will miss the playoffs if: Injuries are the only thing that would result in the Yankees not being one of 10 teams in the postseason, and even that might not be enough to keep them out. Remember, they had Hicks for 59 games last year, Stanton for 18 games, Andujar for 12, Luis Severino for three and Dellin Betances for one and won the AL East.

Playing the field

First base: Luke Voit shed 10 pounds during the shutdown and has looked more fluid around the bag in workouts and intrasquad games, which can only help. However, Voit’s real value is the right-handed bat that provides power from a position that requires it. If the left-handed hitting Mike Ford doesn’t make the 30-man roster, DJ LeMahieu can fill in at first.

Second base: After playing first, second and third a year ago, the plan for LeMahieu this year was more second base. However, LeMahieu only recently reported to spring training 2.0 after testing positive for COVID-19. If LeMahieu isn’t ready for the first few games, look for Tyler Wade to play second.

DJ LeMahieuCharles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Shortstop: The Yankees allowed free agent Didi Gregorius to leave for Philadelphia and opened up the most important infield position for Gleyber Torres, who played there in 77 games (73 starts) last year while Gregorius was recovering from Tommy John surgery. Torres’ footwork at short looked awkward at times, and five errors in 10 spring training 1.0 games wasn’t a good look. Wade is the backup.

Third base: Gio Urshela’s career year at the plate parlayed with him providing Gold Glove defense was the biggest surprise of the Yankees’ 2109 season. Can Urshela match it? Based on what he did offensively with the Indians and Blue Jays, not likely. However, it is his job to lose, and with Miguel Andujar healthy, Urshela is going to have to hit to stay in the lineup. In addition to Andujar, Wade can play third.

Left field: With Aaron Hicks back from Tommy John surgery, Brett Gardner, 36, moves from center to left and not only is coming off a solid 2019 at the plate but remains an above-average outfielder. Andujar has worked in left and it’s likely Giancarlo Stanton will play some left later in the season.

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Center field: Hicks was limited to 59 games last year thanks to a back injury early and an elbow problem late. The shutdown allowed Hicks additional time to build strength in his throwing arm. The switch hitter provides left-handed power to a lineup that is loaded with right-handed hitters. Gardner will spell Hicks.

Right field: Aaron Judge is everything you want. He is athletic, with an above-average glove and a strong and accurate throwing arm. And, oh yeah, an elite bat. The problem the past two years for Judge is staying on the field due to injuries. He reported to spring training 2.0 ready to play and came down with a stiff neck that sidelined him for a few days.

Catcher: With 1,393 at-bats, Gary Sanchez is likely to be the type of hitter he is today for the remainder of his career: big right-handed power who hits .246 and strikes out more times (397) than he has gotten hits (343) in three-plus major league seasons. As for Sanchez’s defense, which has improved, the Yankees will live with it because power from behind the plate is very difficult to find. The Yankees allowed veteran Austin Romine to leave for the Tigers in free agency in part because voices inside the organization believe Kyle Higashioka is a better catcher than Romine despite having played in just 56 big-league games.

DH: At the beginning of the 60-game season, Stanton will handle the DH duties with the belief that not asking Stanton’s massive body to be worn down by playing left field will keep him healthy. It makes sense since Stanton played in only 18 games last year, his second season in The Bronx. While 2019 was a disaster, the Yankees would gladly accept the 2018 version of Stanton who hit 38 homers and drove in 100 runs.

Starting pitching: When you begin with Gerrit Cole and fill in the next two spots with veteran left-handers James Paxton and J.A. Happ and add Jordan Montgomery, who won nine games in 2018 as a rookie and missed most of last year due to Tommy John surgery, you are in good shape. Add Masahiro Tanaka eventually to the mix and that is a match for any five-man rotation. If Cole isn’t the best pitcher in baseball, he is close, and he fully understands why Hal Steinbrenner dropped a nine-year deal for a record $324 million contract on him: to win multiple World Series. In a season that could have too many flat moments due to empty parks and bad teams playing each other, the dozen or so games Cole starts will add an ocean of juice.

Bench: Wade adds speed and the ability to play three infield spots and two in the outfield. Higashioka is the backup catcher and Mike Tauchman can play all three outfield spots. With a 30-man roster for the first two weeks, Clint Frazier has a chance to make the team. Matt Duffy could force his way into a bench spot.

Bullpen: Even though Aroldis Chapman won’t be ready to start the season due to COVID-19, the Yankees have enough arms in the pen to make up for the absence. Zack Britton has 145 major league saves and a 90 mph-plus sinking fastball from the left side. With Adam Ottavino, Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle to work in front of Britton, the Yankees should be OK until Chapman returns. It would help if Jonathan Holder bounced back from a disappointing 2019 season.

Prediction: 38-22

The unknown about a 60-game season is deep on many levels. COVID-19 has changed the world and altered everything, baseball included. During spring training 2.0 Aaron Boone has said the team that mentally handles the new protocols will put itself in a position to succeed in an unknown atmosphere. Talent usually wins the day, but nothing about a season that starts July 23 is usual. Can players police their teammates and make sure they stay safe in the face of a pandemic? The Yankees have enough talent to edge out the Rays for the AL East title.

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