The smoky haze shrouding Yankee Stadium the past two days was a fitting metaphor for the cloud of uncertainty hanging over Aaron Judge.
While the Yankees officially put him on the IL Wednesday with what the team described as a right great (big) toe sprain, manager Aaron Boone once again declined to provide any sort of timeline for the reigning MVP’s return -- not exactly a minor detail. The closest Boone got to actually doing so was after the previous night’s loss to the White Sox, when he first mentioned “weeks” as part of the evaluation process then abruptly switched to “days.”
As you would expect, Boone was much closer to the truth the first time, and given the nature of Judge’s injury, it’s probably more accurate to call it a month and be pleasantly surprised if he’s back before then. Judge did not appear in the clubhouse before Wednesday’s game was postponed -- due to the stubborn smoke harassing New York -- so he’s yet to provide a firsthand estimate of his return date.
But here’s what we do know: obviously the Yankees are a very different team without the game’s most dangerous slugger, not to mention his Gold Glove caliber defense. Making up for his absence is not possible, and that Judge-ian hole in the lineup couldn’t be patched with three Yankees, never mind a single fill-in.
“You can’t replace that guy,” Josh Donaldson said. “From a leadership standpoint, from a playing standpoint. We’re just really going to have to come together as a team, grind out at-bats, play good defense, pitch well and hopefully keep winning ballgames until he comes back.”
This is the conundrum when you have to invest $360 million in a player like Judge -- who, by the way, is probably underpaid at that number, once you factor in his particular value to the Yankees, both on and off the field. There’s Judge, and then everyone else in pinstripes. Remove him, and it’s like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger.
The Yankees aren’t exactly strangers to the concept given Judge’s injury history and this is already his second stay on the IL, the first running from April 28 to May 8 due to a hip strain. Not only did they go 4-6 during that stretch, but their offensive production plummeted to the bottom third in nearly every category, with a .669 OPS (23rd), .228 batting average (23rd) and 35 runs scored (24th).
It took a few games for Judge to get back up to speed again, but from his May 9 return to demolishing that fence Sunday night at Dodger Stadium, he was every bit his MVP self, hitting .325 (27-for-83) with 13 homers, 26 RBIs and a 1.313 OPS over those 23 games. The Yankees, not coincidentally, went 17-8 over that period.
Those are some daunting numbers. But the Yankees are in considerably better shape than the last time Judge wound up on the shelf, primarily because they now have Giancarlo Stanton and Donaldson. As long as Stanton stays healthy himself -- a very big if -- he should help supply some of the missing intimidation factor. And even with Stanton’s own spotty medical record, Boone has talked about getting him back in the outfield, which would spare the Yankees relying a bit too much on their Grapefruit League alignments.
As for Donaldson, he’s not looking like an injury-prone 37-year-old at the moment, with three homers in his first three games back (along with some superb defense at third). Earlier in their careers, both Donaldson and Stanton -- former MVPs -- were counted on to carry teams. The Yankees could use a little more of that with Judge out, combined with some scrappiness and speed from their role players further down in the lineup. They’ve gotten lucky with Jake Bauers, and maybe Billy McKinney -- called up Wednesday for Judge’s vacancy -- can surf some of the momentum from his .899 OPS down at Triple-A Scranton.
“I guess technically you have less margin for error when you take the best player in the sport out of your lineup,” Boone said Wednesday. “But that said, we’re also getting some key guys back in our lineup -- a lineup that frankly the last few weeks has done a really good job of scoring runs in different ways.
“We’ve had other guys step up. We’ll mix and match maybe a little bit more and be a little more matchup-dependent ... I think we’ve done a great job of managing here the first two months where we’ve faced our share of adversity.”
But there are degrees of adversity. Looking at potentially a month (or more) without Judge is a scary concept. And when he does get back, the four-time All-Star could need some additional time to be Judge again. Staying afloat in the ultra-competitive AL East during the captain’s prolonged absence is going to be this group’s biggest test to date, and as Boone alluded to, there’s no room for failure.
Fall too far behind without Judge, and even he may not be able to save the Yankees upon his return.