SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Andujar’s Role, Early Spring Training Impressions, And Aaron Hicks’
By Andy Singer
For all of the optimism Spring Training brings, yesterday was pretty brutal. Sure, it’s just Spring Training, but a 15-0 loss is ugly no matter how you slice it. On the bright side, despite the fact that Deivi Garcia gave up two solo shots in two innings of work, he was electric otherwise even without using his typical arsenal of pitches. Garcia got the Phillies to whiff 9 times on 18 swings, which is stunningly good. The fastball, in particular, looked sharp as did the slider. Bottom-line stats aside, it was an impressive first look for Garcia as the competition for the 5th starter spot gets underway. If I were to handicap it, I’d say Garcia made a good enough opening statement to take the lead.
As always, thanks for the great questions, and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll talk about Andujar’s role, I’ll give you my early Spring Training impressions of a couple of Yankee players, and debate Aaron Hicks’ spot in the batting order. Let’s get at it:
Steve asks: What will Miguel Andujar’s role with the team be? Gio’s at third, there’s no room anywhere else really, and he hasn’t played much since he hurt his shoulder. Is he trade bait?
Miguel Andujar is one of the great mysteries of the current Yankee 40-man roster. I really want to believe that his 2018 season is a pretty good indication of what Andujar’s bat can do with enough playing time. As Steve rightly notes though, Andujar has hardly played in meaningful games since the end of the 2018 season. At his best, Andujar hardly walked (4.1% in 2018), but he also hardly struck out by modern standards (16% in 2018) and he made a ton of contact on balls thrown in the strike zone (88.9% in 2018, compared to 82.2% average in MLB). Andujar has enough raw power and just enough natural loft in his swing to stroke doubles and homers in bunches, so the raw tools are there for Andujar to be an effective everyday bat for a big league team.
Unfortunately, the shoulder injury cost Andujar a ton of time, and when we saw him in the Majors in 2020, we saw the hard downside of what can happen to a player with Andujar’s profile at the plate when hard contact goes away. Combined with atrocious defense, the 2020 version of Miguel Andujar isn’t a big league ballplayer.
All of that being said, as much as it may seem like Andujar is prime trade bait, the Yankees would be selling way low on Andujar right now, as a talented, but seemingly position-less player with a scary shoulder injury and underperformance in his recent past. If Andujar were a left-handed bat, I’d say give him the last bench spot and let him get at-bats twice per week early in the year. Realistically though, I think Andujar needs to go to AAA, get some game experience in both the outfield and at the infield corners, and force his way back up to the Majors with his bat. That’s where Andujar’s story in 2021 will realistically start.
Where it goes from there depends on his play at AAA. If Andujar plays great down at AAA with improved defense somewhere, the Yankees can probably use him in the Majors in 2021. If someone gets hurt at the MLB level in either the outfield or in the corners, Andujar may get a shot. If Andujar plays badly, all bets are off. However, if he shows that 2018 was closer to the real Andujar, his place on either the Yankees’ roster or as trade bait becomes more realistic.
Larry asks: I know it hasn’t been a long time yet, but can you give me one player up and one player down in Yankee spring training?
The up is pretty easy right now, though many Yankee fans don’t want to hear it: Gary Sanchez. Coming into camp, I wanted to see Gary leaner with improved mechanics both at the plate and behind it. Well, he’s hit the trifecta. I know that Spring Training is fraught with “best shape of his life” stories, but Gary is in really good shape (not that he wasn’t previously, but he’s much leaner), but that’s not where it ends. Sometimes, being in better physical condition doesn’t actually translate to the things you do on a baseball field, but in Sanchez’s case, we are already seeing his leaner physique pay dividends. He looks more comfortable in the one leg down catching stance, and tellingly, he was able to block 3 balls in the dirt from Gerrit Cole in his first spring start. At least one of those would have gotten by Sanchez in 2020, so that was great to see. Additionally, Sanchez’s timing looks solid at the plate, and he’s staying on his back foot longer, which is allowing him to time fastballs and drive the ball. Sure, he’s got two homers to show for it thus far, but the process looks right to me regardless of the results, so I think that bodes well for the regular season.
If I had to pick one player that was trending down, I’d have to say Clarke Schmidt, as unfair as that may seem. Schmidt had a real chance to announce his arrival this Spring, and grab a spot on the Yankee pitching staff right out of the gate this year. While Schmidt seemingly dodged a bullet with the strain to the forearm, it will put him behind other pitchers which seals his trip to AAA to begin the year. While that may be for the best for Schmidt’s long-term development, I’m sure Schmidt was hoping for more to begin the year.
Jimmy asks: Aaron Boone has said that he sees Aaron Hicks as a 3-hole hitter this year. Does that make any sense?
I know that seeing Aaron Hicks in the 3 spot of the lineup upsets a lot of Yankee fans. When I listed my ideal Yankee batting order in a mailbag a few weeks back, I set Hicks atop the order. Hicks has an uncanny ability to get on base with solid ability as a baserunner, so I like seeing him in the 1-hole. That being said, the Yankees do have DJ LeMahieu, so I understand Boone’s desire to put him in that spot as well. After that, the Yankees have a group of middle-of-the-order sluggers who are all great, but they do strike out at an above-average rate. Putting Hicks between, say, Judge and Stanton (or Voit…or Sanchez) ensures that more often than not, someone will be on base for the big boppers. I see the logic, despite the fact that I’d rather see LeMahieu fulfill that role.
Realistically, optimal vs. non-optimal lineups are generally worth less than a win per season, unless the lineup is really that bad. In a lineup full of good hitters like the 2021 Yankees project to have, it’s hard to write a truly bad lineup.