When spring training restarts toward the end of next week, the Yankees will be better off than they were in mid-March, when all big-league camps were shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At least from a physical standpoint.
On March 13, the day Major League Baseball officially shut down spring training, the Yankees had a handful of players who had zero chance of being ready for Opening Day on March 26.
Aaron Judge was among those in that group, which also included Aaron Hicks, James Paxton and Giancarlo Stanton.
Indications are three of the four – Hicks, Paxton and Stanton – almost certainly will be ready to go for Opening Day II, slated for July 23 or 24. And there’s a chance Judge, around whom there has mostly been mystery during his rehab, could be as well.
Judge, relegated primarily to conditioning during the spring because of a right rib fracture and collapsed lung, recently began hitting baseballs off of a tee in the cage during his workouts at Steinbrenner Field, according to club insiders.
“Didn’t seem to be holding anything back,” one observer said.
Though hitting off a tee is hardly full batting practice, and definitely not a guarantee the rightfielder will be greenlighted for full activity during Spring Training II and then the regular season, it nonetheless marks a step forward for Judge.
Because by all accounts, the 28-year-old hadn’t swung a bat with any degree of intensity since early February, when he was shut down because of lingering pain in his shoulder and chest.
“That’s the silver lining in all of this, having the ability to not feel rushed trying to get back for a certain date,” Judge said March 20 after a workout at Steinbrenner Field. “We don’t really have a date right now. I’m just trying to let it heal. Not trying to rush it.”
Since March, the Yankees have avoided publicly giving specific information of any kind regarding Judge, choosing instead mostly vague generalities when providing updates.
For instance, on March 25 Aaron Boone said the right rib fracture was “still in the healing phase” and nearly a month later, on April 23 during a YES Network appearance, the manager said: “He’s using this time to continue to heal. Obviously, it’s been very productive having the chance to have this time to allow the rib to heal. And that is happening.”
Judge taking swings off a tee would seem to be tangible evidence of that healing.
Brian Cashman did not return a text message Thursday, though in May he expressed optimism about Judge.
“Once we resume play, we're excited and believe that he's going to rejoin us at full capacity,” Cashman said May 14 from his Connecticut home during a charity video call to benefit Family Centers. “Fortunately for him, he's been able to take advantage of this COVID experience [hiatus], but he wants to play as much as anybody and we look forward to getting him back in the lineup."
Neither Judge nor any of the other Yankees who have been working out at Steinbrenner Field recently – a group of approximately 15 that as of late last week also included DJ LeMahieu, Tyler Wade, J.A. Happ, Gleyber Torres and Hicks – were at the facility this week.
After four members of the organization tested positive for COVID-19 – none was believed to be players – Steinbrenner Field was closed last Friday and is expected to remain closed, as is the nearby minor league complex, until at least Monday.
Hicks, who had offseason Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, recently posted video of himself taking batting practice on the main field at Steinbrenner Field and has said he fully expects to be ready for the season.
The organization believes the same of Paxton, who had back surgery in early February, and Stanton, who suffered a Grade 1 calf strain Feb. 25.