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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Injuries the one thing that can stop the Yankees

Giancarlo Stanton during Yankees spring training in Tampa

Giancarlo Stanton during Yankees spring training in Tampa on Feb. 20, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Yankees can do just about everything better than most teams.   

You know what they’re not particularly good at?

Staying healthy.

And for a 60-game season, to quote a former Yankees’ manager (now down on Broad Street), it’s not what you want.

There is plenty to worry about as Major League Baseball opens again for summer camp this week, 108 pages worth, going by the operations manual for this COVID-19 pandemic. But the Yankees, for whatever reason, also have been especially vulnerable to the injury bug during the past year, a clubhouse plague that apparently wasn’t fixed by an overhaul of the club’s medical department last winter.

Though 2019 now feels like a decade ago, it was just last season the Yankees sent 30 different players to the IL, a record for the sport, and lost a total of 3,162 days in the process -- by far the most in MLB. It’s also worth mentioning they won 103 games and ran away with the AL East before getting upended by the Astros in the ALCS.

We wouldn’t even bring that up if not for what happened in spring training, when the casualties continued to mount, under a cloud of questionable diagnostic procedures. The good news? As far as we know, all of the Yankees that were going to miss the original Opening Day are expected to be ready this time for July 23 against the Nationals in D.C.

That’s the assumption anyway. In Yankeeland, three weeks can feel like an eternity, and this team goes through stretches where it seems like a player goes down every other day. But with a 60-game season, the challenge will be to strike a balance between relying on some of these returning players and not riding them too much.

Aaron Judge is coming back from a fractured rib (and collapsed lung) that’s required almost 10 months to heal. Aaron Hicks is on the rebound from Tommy John surgery. Giancarlo Stanton, who played only 18 games last season due to a series of maladies, still could be somewhat limited by the calf strain suffered back in mid-March.

The shutdown greatly benefited James Paxton, who used the extra time to round into pitching shape after back surgery. And, in case you had forgotten, the Yankees also were dealing with Gary Sanchez’s mysterious lower back issues before the Grapefruit League closed. Presumably he’s OK by now, but the physical strain on a catcher is something to keep an eye on.

For manager Aaron Boone, having all these weapons back is a huge plus, obviously. It’s just a matter of calibrating how much he should use them -- or any member of the Yankees’ roster, given the run of bad luck they’ve been on health-wise. Judge and Stanton, despite their imposing figures, will probably need some protecting this year, even during a short season. That could be a tight spot for Boone, stuck between the pressure of this sprint-mentality and the players’ desire to be in the lineup.

“Just by math, obviously, the games mean more,” Boone said Wednesday. “So that's a reality. I still think [you need] patience, especially at the outset of the season. I feel you can get yourself in a lot of trouble if you're forcing the issue early on by pushing guys where they're not ready to go. I think an injury early on to one or several guys ends up being a quarter, half or even all of the season because you're rushing guys from the start.”

    Baseball players are wired differently. Long, drawn-out periods of preparation are considered necessary for the long, drawn-out season that follows. But not this year. Since spring training was unplugged on March 12, there has been no elite competition available for 3 1/2 months. Now, everyone is being rushed through three weeks of summer camp, in limited facilities, with physically-distanced workouts, for an ultra-intense season of 60 games in 66 days.

    That’s all without factoring in the extra mental strain caused by the COVID-19 protocols, and however that cuts into everyone’s personalized routines. Boone talked optimistically about the Yankees’ ability to roll with the new normal, and he has reason to believe they can. It’s a level-headed group of proven winners. But the health concerns that hang over the Yankees are real, too, until we see otherwise.      

 “The bottom line is we're going to try and make evaluations on an individual basis about where we think guys are physically,” Boone said. “And if we feel like they're ready after this three-week stretch to go and do their normal workload and play every day, so be it ... But an injury can wipe out a season in a hurry.”

    The Yankees showed amazing resiliency to overcome what they did last season. This year, they simply won’t have the time to repeat it.

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