Yankees’ Aaron Judge-center field experiment could backfire

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Well, the Yankees trying to solve their center-field crisis with Aaron Judge did not hold a space on my 2021 bingo card.

In my defense, that’s because Judge ranks second on the team in games (12) and plate appearances (52) as the team’s designated hitter — not an indictment of Judge’s defensive skills, but rather a reflection of the Yankees’ concerns about his durability.

So now they’re going to ask a guy who missed 29 games (of 60) last year with a strained right calf, who has clocked a pair of multi-game breaks already this season with vaguely described “lower-body” issues, to roam the middle of the outfield?

That seems like quite the risk for an offensively struggling team to pull with its most important offensive player, no matter the size of the crisis.

“It’s something that I considered,” manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday, of the injury history, before Judge made his 2021 center-field debut against the Rays at Yankee Stadium. “But then again there’s days where he’s really moving around a ton in right field.”

After explaining that the Yankees had attempted to preserve Judge’s bullets with all of the reps at DH, the manager continued: “So I feel like we’re in a good spot with him going out there, and obviously, once we get through this weekend, we’re going into a stretch where we do have a few [three] off-days in about an eight-day period. So it is something that I pay attention to and I’m monitoring. But I’m excited to see him go out there tonight.”

Boone didn’t commit to any revised center-field schedule, saying, “We’ll see how it goes.”

New York Yankees Aaron Judge is in center field
Aaron Judge might not be the Yankees’ best option in center field.
Corey Sipkin

The skipper can’t stick with the status quo. Brett Gardner, at 37, has struggled mightily with the bat. Aaron Hicks, injury-prone as ever, will miss the rest of the season recovering and rehabilitating from left wrist surgery. Mike Tauchman is a Giant (courtesy of a trade that landed the Yankees reliever Wandy Peralta) and still is not hitting much out West. Ryan LaMarre and Greg Allen are injured.

Nevertheless, would it be worth giving Tyler Wade, who started Sunday’s game in center field, some more action there? How about Tuesday night’s offensive hero, Clint Frazier, who started one 2018 game in center field, as did Judge? If Judge can match anyone “athletically and fundamentally,” to use Boone’s adverbs, both his frequent-flyer miles on the injured list and his value to the team relative to Wade or Frazier make him a less safe play in center.

Judge played 11 minor league games in center, eight of them starts, and his one 2018 start came in Boone’s third game as manager, on March 31 of that year against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, in a contest that featured almost as many 2021 Mets (Dellin Betances, Brandon Drury, Billy McKinney and Kevin Pillar) as 2021 Yankees (Gary Sanchez plus Gardner, Judge, Stanton and Wade). He handled one fly ball without issue. At the time, however, Judge owned just one big league deactivation on his record, courtesy of a 2016 right oblique strain. He was fresh off a 2017 season in which he posted 155 games. His profile, quite simply, differed.

“He very much wants to do it and is game to do it,” Boone said. “Obviously understanding we’re in some unique circumstances right now where it’s needed and Aaron’s excited to step up to the challenge.”

It’s good to have players buy in (and bad not to have it, as we all witnessed last October with the disastrous Deivi Garcia and J.A. Happ idea in the American League Division Series), yet then it falls upon management to make wise decisions — to maximize assets and ensure the benefits of choices outweigh the costs.

“There’s no job or no task that’s too big for Aaron,” Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ best pitcher, said of their best player. “I probably assume he’ll come through with this with the Superman cape that he tends to wear every time he plays.”

While he is a super performer, will so much outfield action wind up as Judge’s kryptonite? Great Scott, will the Yankees have some answering to do if this experiment goes awry.

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