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Yankees position analysis: Aaron Judge a cornerstone in right if he can stay healthy

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees can't come up with a ball hit in the fifth inning for a single by Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

During this pandemic-induced baseball hiatus, we examine the Yankees as an organization, position by position. Today, rightfield.

The starter: It’s Aaron Judge, of course, but the answer isn’t that simple. A right rib fracture and punctured lung — injuries the Yankees and Judge trace to a diving attempt to make a catch against the Angels last September — kept him out of spring training, and there’s not enough evidence yet to suggest that he will be cleared to play when and if the 2020 season gets underway.

Details on the progress of his rehab, which has taken place in Tampa since the sport was shut down March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, have been vague. Manager Aaron Boone used the word “healing” to describe the fracture March 25 and, in his latest update on May 6 on MLB Network Radio, said: “This time down has allowed that rib, that bone, to hopefully continue to heal.” Those comments have only added to the mystery surrounding exactly how much healing has occurred.

When healthy, Judge is one of the most potent players in the game. That began with his breakout 2017 season, when he overwhelmingly was voted American League Rookie of the Year after hitting .284 with 52 homers, 114 RBIs and a 1.049 OPS in 155 games, But a series of frustrating injuries limited him to 112 games in 2018 and 102 games last season.

The other options: A total of seven players saw some time in rightfield last season, with Judge’s 92 games leading the way. Cameron Maybin, no longer with the Yankees, was tied with Clint Frazier for the next-most games in right (36). The latter’s adventures there, particularly in a Sunday night game against the Red Sox at the Stadium, helped torpedo what had started out as a potential breakout season for the righthanded hitter, whose bat has drawn praise throughout his professional career. In 69 big-league games last season, Frazier, 25, hit .267 with a more-than-respectable .806 OPS, 12 homers and 14 doubles. That includes an 18-game stretch from April 2-22 in which he hit .324 with a .975 OPS, six homers and 17 RBIs.

The lefty-swinging Mike Tauchman, acquired late in spring training in 2019 in a deal that was hardly noticed at the time, likely will get most of his time in left but has shown the ability to play all three outfield spots.

The future: The Yankees hope it will be Judge for years to come. Though a late bloomer, at least relative to other young stars in the sport, Judge is only 28 (his birthday is April 26), and he isn’t slated to become a free agent until 2023. Even with the injury issues the last couple of seasons, he is a cornerstone player, one immensely popular with Yankees fans and baseball fans in general (commissioner Rob Manfred in 2017 called Judge “the kind of player that can become the face of the game.”) The Yankees will try to extend Judge before he’s eligible to become a free agent, though that’s not a sure thing.

The organization’s top corner outfield prospects are a long ways from the big leagues. Among them: Anthony Garcia, 19, who hasn’t played above rookie league ball, and Kevin Alcantara, 17, who played exclusively in center in the rookie GCL last season but is projected as a corner outfielder by some rival scouts.

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