CLEARWATER, Fla. — Hal Steinbrenner got his wish after all.
Aaron Judge, too, for that matter. Good luck getting him to say it, though.
Judge, 24, indeed will be the Yankees’ starting rightfielder come Opening Day, Joe Girardi announced Thursday morning, officially ending what had been one of the team’s most contested and focused upon battles of spring training.
“That was a very tough call, a very good competition. In the end, we thought Judge won, and he’s our rightfielder,” Girardi said. “Our plan is to play him every day.”
For his part, the righthanded-hitting Judge seemed unimpressed with the accomplishment.
“Nothing really changes. Now the real work starts. I’m about trying to keep it,” the 6-7, 275-pound Judge, a favorite of Yankees fans because of his long-ball potential, said of the starting job. “To be honest, you’ve seen the guys we have in our minor-league system. Now I have to really stay on top of my game, which is preparing the right way and playing hard and competing . . . Now it starts for real. I’m looking forward to the next thing.”
After hitting a home run in his first career at-bat last Aug. 13, Judge struggled, producing a .179/.263/.345 slash line. But Girardi said a slow start to the regular season shouldn’t have Judge worrying about his job.
“He has room,” Girardi said. “He’s our rightfielder and we’re going to run him out there. It’s not going to be a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. This kid’s going to play.”
Several times during the offseason, managing general partner Steinbrenner enunciated his desire for Judge to be the club’s starter in right. Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman, however, said from the first day of spring training that it would be an open competition.
The pair repeatedly praised the switch-hitting Hicks throughout the Grapefruit League season, leading to speculation — which continued until the very end — that Judge might begin the season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Judge’s strikeout totals in his month-plus in the big leagues last season concerned some in the organization, as he struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats. He showed better plate discipline in spring training en route to a .344/.403/.557 slash line with three homers and seven RBIs.
“He had more consistent at-bats, there were less strikeouts, there was better contact, more consistent contact,” Girardi said. “He got better and better as spring training went on.”
Judge said it’s simply how his professional career has progressed. He struggles when he gets a taste of the next level, then adjusts.
“A lot of what people have to go off of is a month up in the big leagues,” Judge said. “For me, it’s always just about improving and making adjustments. Adjustments from getting used to pitchers, knowing what they’re going to do to me. For me, it’s just about being consistent and getting comfortable.”
Hicks, the better defender of the two, had a .264/.361/.528 slash line, three homers and seven RBIs in spring training. Hicks, 27, also will make the 25-man roster and will play some in right but also will see action in left and center.
“We’ll find spots for him to play, more than, hopefully, once a week,” Girardi said of Hicks. “That’s the idea.”
Hicks copped to being disappointed — “I worked really hard this offseason to become the rightfielder and it didn’t work out,” he said — but wasn’t critical of the decision. “He played very well,” Hicks said. “He did everything you’re supposed to do.”
The Yankees’ three young power hitters all had impressive exhibition seasons. Their slash lines (BA/OBP/SLG):
Greg Bird .429/.541/1.041
Gary Sanchez .347/.407/.735
Aaron Judge .344/.403/.557