As of late February, Aaron Judge had zero chance of being in the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup March 26.
The same went for Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton and James Paxton.
General manager Brian Cashman said Tuesday he’s “optimistic” the quartet will be cleared for the Yankees' season opener, unofficially scheduled for July 23 in Washington against the Nationals.
But Cashman prudently – given the club is coming off a year in which it put a record 30 players on the injured list – gave himself an out as well.
“All of them to various degrees are now going to be evaluated – are they healthy?” Cashman said during a conference call discussing the club’s spring training plans at Yankee Stadium and the 60-game regular season after that. “I think they're physically good. It just comes down to: are they prepared for the [day-to-day] pounding from game one? I'm not saying the answer to that is no. But I always like to give myself a little bit of latitude and wiggle room by protecting ourselves because it’s better to underpromise and overperform, especially in this unique environment that we find ourselves in.”
A unique environment, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, that has the Yankees, and all big-league teams, starting spring training later this week at their home ballparks.
As was required by late Sunday afternoon, Cashman submitted a list of 58 players for the Yankees 'player pool for the season (the pool can be a maximum of 60 players) to Major League Baseball. Many of those players, starting on Wednesday, will begin showing up at the Stadium to undergo COVID-19 testing.
Among the players in the pool are Judge, Hicks, Stanton and Paxton, and Cashman had good news regarding each of them.
That had been the case for weeks regarding Hicks, Stanton and Paxton, but the Yankees had contributed to an aura of mystery surrounding Judge, who was diagnosed with a fractured right rib (and collapsed lung) in early March, injuries he and the team traced to last September, by giving the vaguest of updates.
Then last week Newsday reported that Judge had recently begun hitting balls off a tee – the first time the rightfielder swung a bat with any degree of intensity – an indication at last of tangible progress.
Hicks, who underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, looks to be in the clear, as do Stanton, sidelined Feb. 25 with a Grade 1 right calf strain, and Paxton, who had lower back surgery in early February.
“All of them I'm optimistic would be ready to go when the bell rings [Opening Day], but I also don't want to put them in a position where I'm stating with certainty in advance before they’ve even been reintroduced to our [medical] personnel to make promises I can't keep, either,” Cashman said. “I think health-wise, we're in a good position where these things either are resolved or resolving to the point where it's just really more of a conditioning matter than an injury matter.”
The challenges the Yankees, and the other 29 teams face in trying to put on a season, even one as truncated as this, are myriad. Not the least of which, obviously, is doing so in the middle of a pandemic that shows few signs of dissipating.
Cashman said he has not yet heard from any players or staff members opting out of the season, which has been the case already with some teams, but added: “clearly it's understandable if anybody [wants to].”
MLB and the Players Association came up with a 100-plus page operations manual to conduct the 2020 season in as safe conditions as possible. Everyone involved understands the Herculean task ahead and that, ultimately, the virus will make the final determination on a season. Still, the attempt is worthwhile.
“The effort is to get back to something as close to where you had been prior, as soon as you possibly can, and do so with safety implementations, and we're going to try that,” Cashman said. “I can't predict how it's going to play out, but we look forward to trying.”
Yanks to meet Mets in camp? During his wide-ranging conference call, Cashman said that he has had preliminary discussions with the Mets about playing them in the three spring training games each team is allowed.