Barring a surprise Manny Machado or Bryce Harper signing — either would qualify as a big surprise to me at this point — the 2019 Yankees are pretty much set on the position player side. They do have to figure out their bench, and the DH spot will be something of a revolving door, but the nine starters are in place. The Troy Tulowitzki signing addressed the middle infield opening and that was the last remaining position player question.
Here, for the sake of laying it all out, are the starting nine position players the Yankees will use on most days this coming season:
- Catcher: Gary Sanchez
- First Base: Luke Voit
- Second Base: Gleyber Torres
- Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki
- Third Base: Miguel Andujar
- Left Field: Brett Gardner
- Center Field: Aaron Hicks
- Right Field: Aaron Judge
- Designated Hitter: Giancarlo Stanton
That’s it, right? Right. I suspect Stanton will see more time in left field next year as Gardner’s playing time is scaled back — at the very least, Gardner should sit against lefties going forward — but that’s the starting nine most days. Pretty good squad, I’d say. FanGraphs projects that crew to average 5.03 runs per game in 2019, second most in baseball.
What we don’t know is how Aaron Boone will fill out his lineup card. Judge will probably hit second and Stanton will probably hit third or fourth. That’s about all we know for sure. And, frankly, I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer for the rest of the lineup because the Yankees have so many good hitters. Gardner and Tulowitzki are the clear weak links. Everyone else is pretty dangerous in the batter’s box.
The leadoff spot is a bigger question now than it has been at any point in the last four or five years because Gardner has declined. From 2013-18, it was plug Gardner into the leadoff spot and watch him grind away. Now, after a .236/.322/.368 (90 wRC+) line last season, and a .209/.288/.316 (66 wRC+) line in the second half, Gardner in the leadoff spot is no sure thing. Even against righties (95 wRC+).
Andrew McCutchen took over the leadoff spot late last year and he did the job very well. McCutchen’s gone now though. The Yankees have to again figure out the leadoff spot and there’s a chance they won’t get it right the first time, and will have to adjust on the fly. It happens. Lineups are ever-changing. I see four leadoff candidates on the roster.
The Safe Pick: Brett Gardner
Yup. Just put Gardner back in the leadoff spot and see what happens. Perhaps he’ll rebound following an offseason of rest and put up a solid season, or even just a solid first half. If nothing else, you know Gardner will grind out at-bats and see a lot of pitches. He saw 4.24 pitches per plate appearances last season, tied with McCutchen for the ninth most in baseball. Gardner still runs the bases really well too. He went 16-for-18 stealing bases with a 54% extra-base taken rate, far better than the 40% league average. Given the current roster, giving Gardner one last crack at the leadoff spot is an option.
The Obvious Pick: Aaron Hicks
Yeah, Hicks is probably most qualified to be the leadoff hitter this coming season. He gets on base (.366 OBP in 2018), he sees a ton of pitches (4.28 per plate appearances), he can run (11-for-13 in steals and 54% extra-base taken rate), he switch-hits, and he has power. Teams are all about power hitters atop the lineup these days. Francisco Lindor (38 homers), Matt Carpenter (36 homers), and Mookie Betts (32 homers) were all primary leadoff hitters last year. Charlie Blackmon set a new MLB record with 37 homers as a leadoff hitter in 2017.
The downside here is Hicks is the team’s best (only) left-handed threat at the plate and you know the Yankees want to split Judge and Stanton up. I wish they’d just bat them back-to-back but, clearly, the Yankees want to split them up with a lefty whenever possible. With Didi Gregorius sidelined, Hicks is the obvious candidate to hit third between Judge and Stanton. That’s where he hit in the postseason, remember. Are the Yankees willing to bat Judge and Stanton back-to-back, or squeeze another righty between them? If no, Hicks probably gets the nod as the third place hitter.
The Sexy Pick: Gleyber Torres
Now we’re talking. Torres put up a .271/.340/.480 (120 wRC+) batting line last season that is impressive for any player. It is especially impressive for a 21-year-old middle infielder thrust into a postseason race in New York. Torres had a lot of hype to live up to last season and he certainly did it. In year two as a big leaguer, Gleyber could take another step forward and become a legitimate top of the order threat. Would be cool.
This much we know: Torres got on base at a good rate last season (.340 OBP), he saw lots of pitches (4.03 per plate appearance), and he has some of that new school leadoff power. The one traditional leadoff skill Torres lacks is baserunning. He’s a crummy baserunner. If he gets on base and creates enough havoc from the leadoff spot though, you can overlook some bad baserunning. Gleyber’s skills suggest last year’s on-base ability and power is no fluke. He can do it again, and even improve on it with experience.
The YOLO Pick: Aaron Judge
Why the hell not? Boone flirted with batting Judge leadoff against lefties last season. He never went through with it but he did talk about it. At this time last season we didn’t know Torres and Andujar would do what they did and give the Yankees that extra lineup length. Judge’s power in the leadoff spot didn’t make much sense at the time. He was needed in a more traditional run-producing spot.
Now though? Now we know Torres and Andujar are threats with the bat, and that Hicks is for real. We know the Yankees have a deep offense with power up and down the lineup. True, they only had one 30-homer guy last season. They also had four 27-homer guys. Do you know how many teams in baseball history have had five players hit at least 27 homers in a season? The complete list:
- 2018 Yankees
- 1956 Redlegs (the Reds went by Redlegs from 1954-58)
That’s it. Two teams in baseball history have done it. And — and! — all five guys who hit 27 homers for the Yankees could do it again. Hicks and Stanton were the oldest 27-homer guys at 28. Maybe they don’t all hit 27+ homers again. Point is, the Yankees have a lot of power in their lineup, so much so that moving Judge to leadoff is a more viable option. Going into last year, they needed his power in the middle of the lineup. Not so much now.
We have two years of evidence telling us Judge is an elite on-base player. He did lose 30 OBP points from 2017-18, but we’re talking about going from a .422 OBP to a still excellent .392 OBP. Judge draws a ton of walks (career 16.7%) and every time you look up he’s in a 3-2 count. Those are the type of at-bats you want from a leadoff hitter. Add in the power and a league average extra-base taken rate, and you’ve got a guy who is an instant threat at the plate to begin every game.
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I suppose that, if he shows some life with the bat, Tulowitzki could become a leadoff option at some point. I can’t imagine going into the season with him atop the lineup though. The Yankees will want to see some leadoff worthy production before moving Tulowitzki up high in the lineup, and not just in Spring Training either. Spring Training lies, man. Tulowitzki will have to produce in the regular season before getting a chance at leadoff.
Signing Machado or Harper would change the leadoff equation considerably. Both would slot into the No. 3 lineup spot nicely between Judge and Stanton, freeing up Hicks for leadoff duty. Or, on the other hand, adding another middle of the order bat makes Judge at leadoff an even greater possibility. Anyway, this is begging for a poll, so let’s get to it.