Matt Holliday is 37, but the seven-time All-Star will be expected to play a primary role in the Yankees’ youth movement. The team’s new designated hitter is all in on the plan.
Holliday said he took notice last season as the Yankees got younger with Gary Sanchez, Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge. Greg Bird is expected to rejoin the lineup this season after recuperating from shoulder surgery.
“I think the way they played last year after all the trades, the young players really stepped up,’’ Holliday said Thursday at Yankee Stadium. It was his first in-person interview with the media since December, when he signed a one-year, $13-million contract.
The Yankees topped the list of teams Holliday was interested in when he hit free agency. In his 13 major-league seasons, he has batted .303 with a .382 on-base percentage, a .515 slugging percentage and 295 home runs.
“There’s five or six teams that I spoke to my agent about that could possibly be a fit, and they were one of them,’’ he said of the Yankees, “so I was hoping they’d have interest, and they did.’’
Holliday doesn’t see the Yankees as being in rebuilding mode, saying, “I don’t think anybody comes into a season not expecting to have a lot of success. Obviously in this organization, the expectation is to win a championship. That’s how I prepare every day personally, and I expect everybody else will do the same.’’
Holliday’s ability to mentor young players attracted general manager Brian Cashman. “We wanted a veteran leader who could both impact us in the lineup and in that clubhouse,’’ Cashman said. “There’s some big shoes to continue to fill from leadership voids. We had Carlos Beltran here. We had obviously Alex Rodriguez here, we had Mark Teixeira here . . . It’s very important when you transition into a younger player that you have some real prime leadership examples to show them the way, and I think we picked a good one in Matt Holliday.’’
Holliday was having a nice season with the Cardinals last year until he broke his right thumb on Aug. 11 when he was hit by a 94-mph fastball thrown by Cubs reliever Mike Montgomery. Holliday had 19 home run and 60 RBIs at the time but did not play again until the last weekend of the season, when he went 2-for-2 with a home run.
Asked how much he has left as he joins his fourth big-league team, Holliday laughed and said “I think I have a lot left. I feel really good. I was feeling really good and healthy last year, I just had some bad luck unfortunately being hit in the thumb and breaking my finger, so I think a lot [left]. I have to go out and play well, which I plan on doing.’’
Holliday could see some action at first base or perhaps even in the outfield, but Cashman envisions him primarily as a DH. “He’s going to have a nice spot in the middle of our lineup,’’ he said. “I think as long as he stays healthy, he’s going to impact us offensively.”
Holliday does not expect any problems transitioning to DH. “The good thing with a lot of interleague play is I’ve gotten the chance to do it some,’’ he said. “Obviously, not to the extent I could potentially be doing it this year, [but] I do have a little bit of experience.’’
Holliday is being reunited with hitting coach Alan Cockrell, who worked with him when he started his career in the Rockies’ organization. “He actually looks a lot the same like he did when he was a kid,’’ Cockrell said. “I had him two or three years in the big leagues [and] he is trying to get back to doing some of the things that he did at that stage in his career. He looks great.’’
Holliday, who hopes to hit the ball in the air more this season, might bat behind Sanchez, which could give the young catcher some protection in the lineup. Holliday saw all of the highlights of his thunderous arrival last season. Sanchez hit 20 home runs in 197 at-bats after joining the team to stay in early August.
“Crazy, it was fun to watch,’’ Holliday said. “Great swing, really impressive. It’ll be fun. I’m anxious to see him, talk to him and watch him perform. He’s obviously a very exciting young player.’’
*average number of games per season