ATLANTA — When it comes to the lineup, Joe Girardi hopes the kids are all right, especially with Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird slotting in as the 2-3 hitters when the season opens at Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Aaron Judge will hit eighth in the lineup Girardi unveiled earlier this week and used again on Friday night in the exhibition season finale at Atlanta’s new SunTrust Park.
While much of the focus will be on the youngsters, Girardi said the success — or failure — of the Yankees’ season could rest on the veterans in the lineup.
Girardi didn’t name names, but chances are he’s looking for bounce-back seasons from leadoff man Brett Gardner, No. 5 hitter Jacoby Ellsbury and No. 7 man Chase Headley.
“I’ve said all along, I think we’re going to be really good if our veterans do their jobs,” Girardi said. “There’s a lot of talk about these young kids, but I think our veterans have to do their jobs. If they do, I think we’re going to have a really good year.”
Girardi also could have thrown in top three starters Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda; Tanaka seems to be the only sure thing among them. But Friday’s discussion before the first game in SunTrust Park history was about the offense, which will be without starting shortstop Didi Gregorius for at least the first month of the season.
“Last year, we struggled scoring runs,” Girardi said. “I know spring training’s spring training, but we swung the bats a lot better than we have in past spring trainings. I think there’s a lot of potential in this lineup. Obviously, we’re missing Didi.”
The Yankees hit .274 in the Florida portion of spring training and went an MLB-best 24-8. In 2016, they hit .235 and went 14-16.
Yes, it means nothing when the season begins, but you’d prefer to have your players feeling good about themselves when the first real pitch is thrown.
Judge, who beat out Aaron Hicks for the rightfield job, feels good about himself. The 6-7, 275-pound slugger is hitting .333 with three home runs and seven RBIs.
Bird, who missed all of last season after shoulder surgery, went 2-for-2 with a home run on Friday night against the Braves and is hitting .451 with eight homers and 15 RBIs. Sanchez also went 2-for-2 and is hitting .373 with five homers and 16 RBIs.
Hence the optimism.
“I think the potential upside is really big because there’s power in all three of those guys,” Girardi said. “They can be really big run-producers. The things that you worry about are as teams start to adjust to them, how quickly do they adjust? If they go through a little bit of a tough period, what do they do? Now Judgie went through kind of a tough period [in 2016]. The other two had a lot of success their first two months. So how do they react? Those are the things you’ve got to pay attention to.”
The rest of the lineup has newcomer Matt Holliday batting cleanup, Starlin Castro sixth and Gregorius’ replacement, Ronald Torreyes, batting ninth.
Luis Severino won the fourth starter’s job earlier this week. The fifth spot still is up for grabs. Righthanders Luis Cessa and Chad Green and lefthander Jordan Montgomery will battle it out in the minors until the Yankees need a fifth starter on April 16.
Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances head up a deep bullpen. That’s not a concern. The starting rotation is.
Does Girardi think these Yankees can be a playoff team?
“I think we can,” he said. “I like the team that we’re going north with.”
Firsts last night at SunTrust Park
Pitch: Bartolo Colon to Brett Gardner
Hit: Gary Sanchez single off Colon in first
Strikeout: Michael Pineda strikes out Dansby Swanson in first
Double: Nick Markasis off Pineda in second
Home run: Greg Bird off Colon in third