By Sweeny Murti
» More Columns
When was the last time the Yankees had a better defensive outfield than the one they have now?
Brett Gardner in left, Aaron Hicks in center, Aaron Judge in right.
Even with the injured Jacoby Ellsbury in center, the Bombers’ outfielders have terrific range and the ability to save runs. Hicks has a much, much stronger arm than Ellsbury, so this current alignment is impressive.
Some I spoke to informally around the league believe this trio is on par with the Red Sox’s outfield, which features Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley, Jr., and Mookie Betts.
But how do they rank among Yankees outfields? I’m thinking this is better than any combination they’ve had in the last 25 years, and maybe longer.
And in today’s game, it could turn out to be one of this team’s greatest strengths, maybe even more important than the healthy back end of their bullpen.
“Exit velo” and “launch angle” are new buzzwords that have hitters thinking the same basic idea –hit the ball in the air. So with hitters trying to hit more fly balls and fewer ground balls, it benefits the Yankees to have plus defenders in left and center and the underrated defense of Judge in right.
(NOTE: Hicks robbed the Angels’ Luis Valbuena of a potential first-inning grand slam during Wednesday’s late-night loss.)
Gardner told me last week he thinks Judge, who has displayed good speed and range as well as a rifle arm, will win a Gold Glove one day. And his defense will become even more of a weapon when he starts bringing home runs back over the fence with regularity the way Dave Winfield did during his Hall of Fame career.
Didi Gregorius is the only plus defensive player in the Yankees’ infield. But again, with hitters focused more on hitting the ball in the air, infield defense might be considered less important than outfield defense.
Power in the lineup, power at the back end of the bullpen — those could be considered the Yanks’ two biggest strengths. I’m beginning to think outfield defense belongs right there with them.
— I posted this video on Twitter on Monday night, featuring injured Yankees prospect James Kaprielian’s amazing reaction to Judge’s go-ahead blast in the eighth inning, his 22nd home run of the season.
It turns out Kaprielian, who was sitting in the suite owned by his agent Scott Boras, called Judge’s shot right before that 2-0 pitch from Bud Norris. So that’s the reason for that priceless reaction.
— I wrote a couple weeks about the need to pump the brakes on wanting to bring up top prospect Gleyber Torres right away to take over for Chase Headley at third base. My two main points were: it’s still early in the season and Torres is still pretty inexperienced at third base.
Not to say bringing him up isn’t something that can’t happen later in the year. Torres has to do two things: keep hitting and keep showing he can play third base.
There were plenty of voices in the organization that wanted Torres to start at shortstop while Gregorius was on the disabled list in April. It was asking a lot for him to make that jump from A-ball, but with some playing time under his belt anything is possible as long as Torres plays well enough at Triple-A to push the envelope.
The 2003 Yankees were 25 games over .500 and in first place at the trade deadline when they upgraded third base, Aaron Boone over Robin Ventura. That move didn’t do much initially as Boone struggled in August and September. But he obviously changed that in October with his pennant-winning home run against Boston.
In a more comparable situation perhaps, the 1993 Phillies were 26 games over .500 and in first place in early July when they upgraded shortstop by bringing up an unproven rookie. They brought up 23-year-old Kevin Stocker a week before the All-Star break to take over for struggling veteran Juan Bell. Stocker ended up hitting .324 and played steady in the field to help Philadelphia to the NL pennant.
Headley still has another year on his contract, but if the Yankees want to consider their options it’s worth remembering that they are paying millions to both Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann this year.
Of course, Headley has started to hit well again. And that’s good, too.
— Tommy Layne is now at Scranton, but it’s unlikely the Yankees bring him back to fill a meaningful role this season. The Yankees have only one lefty, Chasen Shreve, in their bullpen now.
An interesting name to keep in mind closer to the trade deadline is San Diego’s Brad Hand. A starter and reliever with the Marlins from 2011-2015, Hand has been exclusively used as a reliever since the Padres picked him up off waivers in 2016. His lefty splits were better a year ago than they are this year, but he is still the kind of guy that will be in demand as the Padres keep sinking in the NL West.
— Congratulations to Clay Bellinger, a utility man and Don Zimmer favorite with the Yankees from 1999-2001. Clay’s older son, Cody Bellinger, is hitting home runs at a Judge-like pace for the Dodgers, while his younger son, Cole, was just taken by the Padres in the 15th round of this week’s MLB Draft.
Please follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN