We’re just about a week into summer camp of this most bizarre of baseball seasons. The safety and logistics of playing a professional sports season in the thick of an ongoing and accelerating global pandemic seemed improbable, yet here we are, watching our team scrimmaging in an eerily empty home stadium, the crack of the bat and pop of the mitt echoing around the vacant seats.
Considering how widespread the virus has been in America, it was always a matter of when not if regarding its appearance in MLB. At least seven members of the Phillies organization tested positive within a week of the season’s reopening. All-Stars including Charlie Blackmon, Freddie Freeman, and Aaron Nola all received positive tests. The Yankees were no more immune to this indiscriminate pandemic than any other team.
Both DJ LeMahieu and Luis Cessa tested positive for COVID-19 during intake, and were placed on the COVID-19 injured list. Then on Saturday, Aaron Boone confirmed Aroldis Chapman also tested positive. Regardless of the severity of their cases, the COVID-19 protocol agreed upon by MLB and MLBPA mandates a minimum 14-day quarantine period for players who test positive. These players must receive two negative tests at least 24 hours apart, and exhibit zero symptoms for 72 hours, in order to be eligible for activation off the COVID-19 IL.
Thankfully, DJ is asymptomatic and Cessa and Chapman are displaying mild symptoms. We hope that both have smooth recoveries, and avoid any of the longer-term complications of the disease that have been reported in some cases. On the baseball side, the earliest the Yankees could get their 2019 team-MVP back is right around Opening Day 2.0, assuming he passes all the protocols. Barring those two consecutive negative tests, the Yankees really have no idea when he will make his return and whether he will be game-ready, so they need a contingency plan in place in the interim.
The Yankees have a handful of capable infielders with major league experience at their disposal, though none offer LeMahieu’s offensive prowess and defensive wizardry. At first glance, it appears the Yankees may have to settle with a near-replacement-level stopgap until their leadoff hitter has a clean bill of health.
There are many combinations of Yankees depth infielders that place players at all four positions around the diamond. Most of these iterations keep Luke Voit at first and Gio Urshela at third. Urshela has only 85 innings of shortstop under his belt at the major league level, so shifting him and bringing in Miguel Andujar at the hot corner is not really a tenable option.
The seemingly obvious answer has Gleyber Torres slide back to second while Tyler Wade takes over as the starting shortstop. But what if I told you the Yankees’ conundrum is solving itself?
Only a few years ago, Thairo Estrada looked to be on the fast-track toward being the Yankees’ super utility bench player. He received his promotion to the 40-man at the end of 2017 before hip and back injuries derailed his 2018 season. Thairo has always been known as a smooth operator in the infield, and he can pick it just as well at the keystone as at short.
He maintained Quad-A production at the plate in the minors, and put up middling numbers in limited action in the majors last season. However, through a week of summer camp, he appears to have found his power stroke and is easily the most impressive performer in the nascent season reboot. He ripped his first home run of the summer off Tommy Kahnle and followed it up with a second three days later off Tyler Lyons. Both were no-doubters to right field.
This is the kind of pop Yankees fans have been clamoring for out of Tyler Wade for the last three years, to no avail. While Wade may have the edge on the base paths, the upside offered by Estrada’s bat far outweighs any value contributed by Wade’s speed. Wade still carries a threat as a late inning pinch-runner off the bench, but the Yankees would feel far more comfortable giving Estrada consistent at-bats as LeMahieu’s replacement in the starting lineup.
It is troubling that COVID-19 is already popping up in MLB, and we can only wish DJ, Cessa, Chapman, and the rest of those who have tested positive the speediest of recoveries. LeMahieu’s indeterminate stint on the COVID-19 IL creates a substantial hole in the Yankees infield and lineup. Thairo Estrada is proving he is just the man to plug that leak and keep the ship afloat.