Yankees summer camp is here. Baseball is back in spite of months of stalled negotiations and the quickening COVID-19 pandemic. Returning is the joy of seeing our favorite players take to the field as preparations for the season resume. With this return also comes greater access to the people driving the Yankees success.
Last week, Meredith Marakovits spoke with Brian Cashman as well as Aaron Boone to gauge their reactions to baseball’s return, as well as take the temperature of their expectations and objectives for the upcoming season. In addition, pitching coach Matt Blake attended a virtual news conference to shed a light on the plans to get the pitching staff ready come July 23rd. While most of the conversation rehashed much of what has been said over the preceding months, there were a few new insights provided by the three decision makers.
The first and most obvious topic of discussion was how the team will contend with the limitations enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cashman acknowledged the difficulties that they and every other major league team will struggle with in the coming season as MLB tries to play baseball in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. He noted that the Yankees had positive tests at every level of the organization including the “minor league player pool, major league player pool, support staff, and front office.”
The Yankees general manager did not hide his concern for new injuries with this second ramping-up period, which he feels puts “stress on the body and... exposes those who are not ready”. He noted that the most similar situation to this was the strike-shortened season, when the Yankees experienced “high levels of injuries getting out of the gate.”
Despite many players staying in shape in quarantine, one cannot substitute for game reps during a normal six-week ramp-up. Therefore, he felt it imperative to try to simulate as many game scenarios as possible over the next three weeks. Aaron Boone echoed these sentiments, saying “we’re gonna put a lot of value on live reps.”
As to the adjustments that players will have to make playing this unprecedented format of baseball, both Cashman and Boone recognized the initial hurdles for baseball players, the ultimate creatures of habits. In order “to allow players to have a free safe social distancing zone,” Cashman said the Yankees will “utilize the visiting clubhouse, auxiliary clubhouse, home clubhouse, and concourse.” Additionally, Boone noted the struggles in disrupting behaviors (like spitting) which have become ingrained rituals:
“Our first and biggest message is adjusting to... things that at first may seem a nuisance and are gonna get tedious and annoying. Our guys are built and equipped to handle this, [and the] expectation is that we need to handle it.”
Despite these early roadblocks, both maintained that the goal for this season has not changed. When talking about the construction of the 60-man player pool, Cashman stressed that the Yankees are “in this thing to win it, [and] didn’t approach it from a development standpoint.”
Rather than include recent draftees or guys like Jasson Dominguez, Cashman offered this approach:
“[We’re] best served by hoarding as many players who are ready to contribute at the major league level because of the anticipation of injuries... and exposure to COVID. It’s people who can hit that win column rather than developing talent to harness for the future. Ultimately the eye is on the prize.”
Boone offered the same expectations. “Guys are really excited to get back to playing and trying to chase down that championship,” said the skipper. “That’s what we’re showing up to do, that’s gonna be our focus... our guys will have that singular mindset.”
And Boone feels confident that they have the tools necessary to pursue this ultimate goal. He made note of the Yankees’ depth of position players, asserting that “when healthy... we have 14 or 15 guys that are starting-type players.” Boone also specifically praised Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt. “Obviously they’ve impressed,” he said. “Both guys came into camp and performed really well, and validated a lot of those reasons why we’re excited.”
Finally, both Cashman and Boone offered optimistic outlooks for the progression back from injury for Aaron Judge. Cashman detailed how Judge has been working in a throwing program and swinging the bat against a machine. He expected that Judge will be “dropped in the deep end of the pool against live pitching,” in the next three weeks, with the prospect of him being “ready for opening day a very real possibility.”
Boone sounded even more hopeful, applauding Judge for using the time off wisely and not aggravating the injury. “By our latest imaging, it looks like it has healed as we hoped,” Boone said of Judge’s rib. “Now the biggest challenge is how does he handle and bounce back day in and day out.”
The most interesting insights belonged to Matt Blake, who offered a very detailed look at all of the considerations going into preparing the pitching staff. He first acknowledged the biggest challenges he’s faced thus far, including how to “get guys into a routine with all the other measures going on around the park.” He stressed how critical it was to keep inventory of guys as they conducted independent training away from team so that they don’t ask things of guys that they hadn’t been doing leading up to the season’s resume.
Blake broke down the different stages in ramping up for the season, as well as what the initial stages of regular season could look like from a pitching perspective. He admitted that the pitching department was “still in the discovery phase,” with a relatively small sample size of data. However, he also highlighted the advantage of guys rolling out the tech during the hiatus, including Rapsodo, radar, and remote video, all of which give Blake a baseline to build upon now that training has resumed.
Blake even provided some specifics of his philosophy on preparing the staff:
“Idle guys in three innings, 50-60 pitches during shutdown. One inning to three innings in this first window. And then hopefully... four to six innings coming out of this assuming guys build ten pitches each time around in their five-day cycle. Air on the side of caution”
When the regular season finally rolls around, Blake anticipates carrying anywhere from 15-18 pitchers into 30-man roster period with the “initial thought is come in with a five-man with five healthy starters.” That being said, he did not rule out openers and bullpen days, as their advantage of a strong group of relievers in a condensed environment affords them the luxury of pacing the starters to limit pitch count and mileage early on.
Blake acknowledged a shift in mentality during a sprint season, and the resulting increased importance of each game. “The depth of staff... upper-level [minor league] depth gives outs and flexibility to make adjustments as needed,” he said. There are “no dog days to let the team or guys work through a jam, enough arms to have a quick trigger.”
This is, of course, before Tanaka’s heart-wrenching injury and the disheartening news about DJ LeMahieu and Luis Cessa’s positive COVID-19 tests, all of which show just how fragile the situation is for the Yankees and the rest of MLB. Yankees fans know better than most that the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley. They can only hope that this news was a fluke and not a portent of things to come.