LAKELAND, Fla. -- Didi Gregorius still isn’t exactly sure how he became the Yankees’ cleanup hitter last year for a quarter of the season. What he does remember is walking into the visitors’ clubhouse before the July 28 game against the White Sox and staring at the lineup card posted on the wall.
Gregorius typically starts at the bottom and works his way up. On this day, it took a little longer to find his name.
“Nope,” Gregorius said, going line by line. “Nope. Nope.”
Eventually, he was surprised to find himself in the No. 4 slot, between Gary Sanchez and Chase Headley. Whatever the thinking was behind it, he turned out to be the ideal fit. Gregorius wound up crushing a career-high 25 home runs, the Yankees’ season record for a shortstop, in a lineup that included Aaron Judge (52 homers) in the No. 2 spot and Gary Sanchez (33 homers) often batting third.
The point is, some lineups succeed through unconventional means — sticking Gregorius at cleanup, for example, behind those burly sluggers. But other times, you don’t have to think too hard, and that’s where Aaron Boone is with the 2018 Yankees, who should have muscle to spare, as long as the power bats stay healthy.
For Tuesday’s game against the Tigers, Boone filled in the heart of his order with a grouping we anticipate seeing for the bulk of the season. Aside from Gregorius at the top, which was mostly done to get him extra at-bats without having Brett Gardner on the trip, Boone deployed Judge at his usual No. 2, followed by Greg Bird, Giancarlo Stanton and Sanchez.
Bird, who is capable of being a 40-homer threat himself, is the perfect lefthanded complement to hit between Judge and Stanton, even if Boone says he is open to batting those two “hairy monsters” — a Brian Cashman term — together with Sanchez and skip breaking them up with a lefty, depending on the matchups.
We’re still in the first week of March, so Boone doesn’t have to make any hard decisions yet. He can still noodle around with lineups, or “daydream” about them, as he did on the 45-minute bus trip Tuesday. Regardless of how these weapons are aligned, even using the Billy Martin method of picking names out of a cap, it’s virtually impossible for them not to inflict damage. Take Tuesday’s pregame chat with Boone, who was asked if Judge could be used as a leadoff hitter this season, given his ridiculous .422 on-base percentage, which was 70 points higher than the next closest Yankee (Headley’s .352) last year.
As long as Gardner and Aaron Hicks are upright — Jacoby Ellsbury already is sidelined — using Judge in that role doesn’t seem like the best strategy, particularly when he’s so comfortable and productive at No. 2. But stranger things have happened, as Gregorius illustrated a year ago, and Boone refused to shoot down the concept.
“I’d say it’s possible,” Boone said. “I’ve thought of it. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s likely. It’s something that I’ve at least considered and we’ve talked about.”
Spring training days are long. Boone probably has talked about everything by now. Can Stanton handle playing leftfield? Could Peeps Oreos really taste as good as they sound? Down here, with Opening Day still weeks away, any idea seems within the realm of possibility.
But looking at the Yankees’ top six spots, maybe even more, it won’t really matter where these guys end up, other than splitting up a few of the righthanders for protection against the more dominant bullpens. When Judge was asked about batting leadoff, he played along, despite his puzzled expression, saying it’s been a while, probably high school or Little League.
“Hitting first or last, my approach doesn’t change,” Judge said. “You can shuffle this lineup, put guys anywhere, and it’s going to be a good lineup.”
Boone got lucky that way. He was manager for less than a week before the Yankees traded for Stanton and almost certainly put an end to Gregorius’ cleanup career. While Boone said he’s not “married” to any lineup plan, there’s no need to overthink this, for him or the front office. Writing out the Yankees’ card should be the easiest part of his day.