LOS ANGELES — Jake Bauers thought his big-league career was over.
And he wasn’t all that far into it.
The first baseman-outfielder, a seventh-round pick of the Padres in 2013 out of Marina High School (Huntington Beach, California) who debuted in the majors in 2018 with the Mariners, reached a crossroads at the age of 26 in early June 2022 while with Triple-A Louisville, a Reds affiliate.
It was Bauers’ third organization in four years (he had stints in the big leagues with Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Seattle from 2018-21 without distinction).
In a deal on June 3, 2022, that was barely noticed, the Yankees, desperately trying to add outfield depth — preferably a lefty-swinging outfielder — acquired Bauers from Cincinnati for cash considerations.
He was at the nadir of his professional career, having hit .135 with three homers and a .547 OPS in 29 games with Louisville.
“I didn’t know if I would ever be back in the big leagues,” he said.
It didn’t happen last season. Bauers hit .226 with five homers and a .757 OPS in 32 games with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But that slight uptick in production turned out to be the start of something.
Dating to his high school days, Bauers had always shown a fair degree of explosiveness in his bat. The Yankees felt that with some tweaks, they could unlock it again.
When he reported to Scranton, the significant change hitting coach Trevor Amicone wanted from Bauers was a change in his swing path, “getting my bat path flatter through the zone.”
Baseball players, the ultimate creatures of habit and routine, often are reluctant to make big changes to their approach.
Bauers did not push back. The reason was obvious.
“I had nothing to lose,” he said. “I was hitting a buck-30 in Triple-A, feeling like I might have been at the end of my career . . . When I got traded over and they said, ‘Hey, this is what we do here,’ I said, ‘Whatever you guys want me to do is what I’m going to do.’ So all credit goes to them.”
Bauers, a non-roster invitee to spring training, enjoyed a standout Grapefruit League season. Though he didn’t homer, he consistently made solid contact, hitting .407 with an .877 OPS in 13 games.
With too many outfielders in front of him, he never garnered serious consideration for a roster spot out of camp, but he put himself on the club’s radar for when the inevitable attrition of the 162-game regular season started to take hold.
When the Yankees needed to bring up an outfielder April 28 for their taxi squad — they were deciding whether to put Aaron Judge on the injured list, which they eventually did — Bauers’ performance to that point of the Triple-A season made him the obvious choice. At the time of his promotion, he was hitting .319 with nine homers and a 1.271 OPS in 21 games with Scranton.
“He’s got big-time pop,” Aaron Boone said after watching Bauers hit a pair of two-run homers Saturday in a 6-3 victory over the Dodgers, which gave him five homers and an .890 OPS in 26 games. “You see him hit balls to straightaway leftfield, all over the park, deep, where the big guys hit them. And he does a pretty good job of controlling the strike zone, too. I think he’s just a talented guy.”
Bauers singled and scored the first run of the game in the seventh Sunday night before J.D. Martinez hit a tying two-out homer off Domingo German in the bottom of the inning.
Among the worst secrets in the game is the Yankees’ continued pursuit of a lefty-hitting outfielder, which at the moment remains a trade deadline priority. But if Bauers continues on this path . . . well, he won’t let himself project that far ahead. His time in the game has taught him that.
“I’m still in a mode where I’m just taking every day day by day,” he said. “I’m grateful every day I get to walk into this building. As long as they let me in, I’ll give them everything I’ve got.”