If not for the terrifying spectacle of Masahiro Tanaka felled by a headshot, the same-day revelation that DJ LeMahieu had tested positive for COVID-19 would have swallowed up the Yankees’ first official workout of summer camp.
LeMahieu was the team’s MVP and finished fourth overall in the American League last season, but manager Aaron Boone delivered the news rather matter-of-factly, other than fortunately noting he was asymptomatic. With so much still unknown about the coronavirus, it’s impossible to affix timetables in these cases, or even venture to guess at the long-term effects of this illness.
The only thing the Yankees can be certain of is that LeMahieu isn’t a player for them right now, an unexpected wrinkle that has forced them to juggle a few other options for the middle infield and likely pencil in super-sub Tyler Wade as his (mostly) full-time replacement at second base. The Yankees do love their flexibility, however. For Thursday night’s intrasquad game, Wade slid over to shortstop with Thairo Estrada at second, so Boone has a variety of looks at his disposal.
The issue is that none of them currently includes LeMahieu, the Yankees’ most consistently great performer from a year ago, and that’s not something Boone wants to get too comfortable with. The manager doesn’t sound too concerned yet, with Opening Day two weeks away, but it’s fair to say LeMahieu has to be categorized as a question mark for the moment.
“As far as DJ, probably as much as any player, I’m going to feel good about where he's at,” Boone said Thursday. “And I know how much he takes care of himself and is ready to go. If anyone could handle being out at the start of the camp and you had to pick, it might be DJ, because he he worked tirelessly through the whole quarantine down in Tampa.
“He was able to get reps. He was ready to go. And the good thing is he doesn't feel sick, so it's not something that's wiped him out. So I do feel good about the player being able to pick up in pretty short order once it is time for him to come back.”
So when can the Yankees green-light LeMahieu’s return? According to Major League Baseball’s 108-page pandemic operations manual, a player must test negative twice at least 24 hours apart, show no symptoms for 72 hours and also be approved by the team’s medical staff. Based on what we’ve witnessed during this pandemic, that can be an inexact science, as no one seems to be precisely sure how long it takes for COVID-19 to disappear because the process often varies depending on the individual.For the Yankees, that means pairing Gleyber Torres as much as possible with backups like Wade and Estrada, just to polish up the relationships during this cram session for a 60-game season. All three are pretty familiar with each other already, but this virus-disrupted year has knocked everyone off his routines, so it’s not as if these players can just pick up where they left off. They now have to perform while dealing with numerous restrictions that follow then from home to the clubhouse to the infield dirt.
“I’m preparing every day like I'm going to play every day, whether it's short, second or wherever it's going to be,” said Wade, who appeared in a career-high 43 games last season. “Unfortunately DJ is not here, so there is a vacancy, But I'm getting my reps over all over the infield, all over the outfield. Wherever they need me. Right now, I'm preparing to play every day.”
Sticking Wade or Estrada at second base will adequately plug the position hole. But there obviously is a huge void left by LeMahieu, who batted .327 in 145 games and sparked the offense (109 runs, 102 RBIs) in his first Bronx season. Complicating matters is that Torres is taking over the full-time shortstop gig after the Yankees bid adieu to Didi Gregorius, one of the team’s stabilizing influences during his tenure here.
Torres was developed as a shortstop and has made 88 starts at the position for the Yankees in two years, including 73 last season as Gregorious rehabbed from Tommy John surgery. But Torres looked a little rusty there in spring training -- committing five errors in 10 games. And if LeMahieu’s steadying hand is missing, that could take some further adjustment, both now for Torres’ current partners and when DJ returns.
“He made a few errors -- we saw it,” said bench coach Carlos Mendoza, who works with the infielders. “But we didn't want to make too much out of it. We were happy with the work he was putting in and the way he was going about it. The biggest thing was just staying aggressive and staying positive with him.”
The Yankees are confident they have the depth to cover for just about any contingency and that could be tested again by LeMahieu’s uncertain status. These days, the toughest part is dealing with everything we don’t know.