TORONTO — Aaron Boone and Brian Cashman weren’t kidding.
With starting centerfielder Aaron Hicks going to the disabled list Friday, and with centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury already on the DL, the Yankees found themselves short at the position Saturday. Both the manager and the general manager said the 6-7, 282-pound Aaron Judge was a “possibility” to play there. And when the lineup came out late Saturday morning, there Judge was, batting second and starting in center.
“They need me to play center, I’ll play centerfield,” Judge said before Saturday’s game. “Mindset doesn’t change. Just another day.”
It turned out to be a somewhat quiet day, at least from Judge’s perspective. He had one ball hit to him, a routine fly ball off the bat of Yangervis Solarte in the first that presented no issues.
What about Brett Gardner? He has played centerfield plenty of times in the major leagues, of course, but he was given an expected day off Saturday. That didn’t last long, as he took over in leftfield in the first inning — with Judge remaining in center — after rookie leftfielder Billy McKinney ran into the wall and had to leave the game.
With the injury to McKinney and uncertainty about when Ellsbury will be back — he’s eligible to come off the DL on Thursday, but Cashman said there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready — Judge could get some more reps in center on days when Gardner doesn’t start. Cashman said Tyler Wade could be an option there, too.
It’s not completely uncharted territory for Judge, who was told late Friday night by Boone that he would be playing center Saturday. Judge played left and center at Fresno State and also started eight games there in the minors, most recently three times in 2016.
“You get a better read on the ball in centerfield than in the corners,” Judge said. “It’s the best view in the house.”
Boone said he had “no trepidation” about putting Judge there.
“I feel very comfortable,” Boone said. “He partly joked with me about every two weeks in the spring: ‘Hey, let’s get back to playing center.’ But the minute I posed it to Aaron, he’s like, ‘Whatever we need to do.’ He’s all in.”
One opposing team minor-league scout who has covered the Yankees’ system for much of the last decade doesn’t foresee any problems.
“It’s a good option for them because he’s athletic and a decent runner,” the scout said via text Saturday morning. “He should be fine with everything in front of him contact-wise. They can make up for any range issues with the positioning and we know he can catch everything he gets to. He’ll be fine.”
Hicks suffered a strained intercostal muscle in Thursday’s season opener, a 6-1 victory over the Blue Jays. Gardner shifted to center Friday but the Yankees didn’t want him playing four straight days on the Rogers Centre turf, the reason Judge became next in line in center.
Gardner, who came up as a centerfielder, said Judge’s athleticism, which he called “ridiculous,” gets somewhat overlooked because of the colossal home runs.
“I think he’s a really, really good outfielder, I really do,” said Gardner, who won a Gold Glove in left in 2016. “The way he’s able to get to balls, he obviously has a really, really strong arm. I think he plays a really solid rightfield. Haven’t seen him play any centerfield, but I know he’ll be fine out there.”
“I’m sure everybody’s looking forward to watching him run around out there,” he added. “I’m sure it will be a sight to see. He’s maybe the biggest guy on the field, but he’s one of the most athletic guys on the field too, so he’s fully capable of doing it. If he wasn’t, they wouldn’t be putting him out there.”