If the Yankees don’t necessarily feel the heat, as they prepare to launch their 2021 campaign in the tropics of Tampa this week, they clearly are aware of it.
Exhibit A: Eric Cressey, the director of player health and performance, spoke recently with YES Network’s Meredith Marakovits and when asked about the team’s injury problems of the last couple of years, offered this:
“To some degree, you manage not just to the players and injuries, but you also manage to the circumstances that your organization has. Our front office does a really, really good job with that, even though the folks on Twitter might not always see it.”
Let’s move past Cressey’s notion that the Yankees put so many guys on the injured list as a byproduct of their roster depth (we’ll tackle that shortly) and focus on those Twitter folks. Their frustration tilts more specifically than, “We haven’t made a World Series since 2009!” It centers on the availability of what, on paper, constitutes a championship-caliber roster.
It creates a spring-training mandate for this team, which brought back some notably brittle players and imported a couple more: With their Baby Bombers window tightening, if not closing, the Yankees must maximize that roster depth, starting at the top.
They need to break this camp with enough of their best weapons unbroken. The onus falls on Cressey, the high-profile conditioning guru who will start his second season (and first full one, everyone hopes) at this gig.
Aaron Judge, the face of the Baby Bombers, can be a free agent after 2022. Talk of a mega-extension for the slugger has ceased due to his multiple injuries — the 28-year-old has played in just 63 percent of the Yankees’ regular-season games (242 of 384) from 2018-20. Judge’s fellow behemoth Giancarlo Stanton, his mega-extension guaranteeing him another $218 million ($188 million from the Yankees) through 2027, has checked in for 18 percent of the Yankees’ regular-season contests (41 of 222) over the prior two seasons. Cressey told YES that the pair had cut back on weight-room time this offseason and increased their attention on being “baseball players.”
To match those considerable position-player concerns on the pitching side, welcome aboard free-agent signing Corey Kluber, who totaled 36 ²/₃ innings the past two seasons, and trade acquisition Jameson Taillon, who topped Kluber by two outs with 37 ¹/₃ innings in the same period. Cressey trained Kluber as a free agent and vouched for him to the Yankees, and he described to Marakovits how the right-hander’s recent ability to command a glove-side fastball as well as a sharp cut fastball gave him optimism that the two-time Cy Young Award winner was ready to rock. Taillon, meanwhile, will be just more than 18 months removed from his second Tommy John surgery when the Yankees hold their first pitchers and catchers workout.
It’s a lot of information and developments to digest for a team that has seen injuries largely define their past two seasons. Their roster depth and arbitrage abilities allowed them to post considerable success anyway. Yet like most clubs, they’ll do their best with their best on the field. If they can afford to give these top-shelf guys a 10-day breather at some point, as Cressey indicated in his first quote here, that’s acceptable. What’s unacceptable is these guys sitting out huge chunks of the schedule, as has become the norm.
The Yankees ranked 17th last year with 349 injured-list days — a significant improvement from 2019 when they set an industry record with 2,433. Don’t forget, though, that when the pandemic broke up spring training, they already had lost James Paxton (back) and Luis Severino (Tommy John surgery) as well as Judge (fractured rib) and Stanton (strained right calf); the shutdown afforded time for Judge, Paxton, and Stanton to recover (only for all of them to eventually go down again).
Pay even less attention than usual to the Yankees’ wins and losses in this Grapefruit League. Focus wholly on who plays in those wins and losses. On who’s ready for Opening Day and beyond.
The heat is on these Yankees. They can start to lower the temperature by starting the regular season intact. It’s a simple enough goal for the spring, right?