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Tuesday Vs. Sox, Yanks Give Glimpse Of Future Plans

September 20, 2018

Eventually, Aaron Judge was going to walk back into the Yankees lineup.

Eventually, the Yankees team that general manager Brian Cashman envisioned at the trade deadline was going to be available for use by manager Aaron Boone.

Eventually, the powers that be were going to have to decide what the 2018 team was going to look like down the stretch when things really mattered, and that was going to wind up being a pretty good indicator of what the Yankees are going to look like in 2019 and beyond.

On Tuesday against Boston — just in time, in fans’ minds — the Yankees got Judge back. They threw him back into the No. 2 spot in the lineup and into right field, and Plan A kind of fell in around him when it comes to what could be the lineup Boone will use when the Yankees play in the American League wild card game on Oct. 3.

Nothing that happened Tuesday disqualified the possibility the Yankees might need a Plan B, of course. It’s most telling, however, to examine Plan A now, because it has effects that might last long past the wild card game.

The starting pitcher

So, J.A. Happ, the lefty the Yankees acquired from the Blue Jays just before the deadline who has been as steady as the sunrise in the Bronx since, started the opener against the Red Sox and proceeded to throw six innings of one-run ball.

Understand a few facts here: Happ hadn’t pitched since Sept. 10 in Minnesota, and the Yankees had occasions when he’d have pitched on full rest before the Tuesday start. They had an off day last Thursday, then another Monday. In the five games the Yankees played in between Happ’s starts, they sent both Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn to the bump. The Yankees could have stayed on rotation given the off days, with Happ getting one of the weekend starts against Toronto on full rest.

The logical explanation: Pitching Happ on Tuesday lined him up perfectly to start the wild card game on full rest. Clearly, that’s the Yankees’ plan for the immediate term.

It also begs the question of whether the Yankees have even bigger plans for Happ down the road.

Happ will be a free agent at season’s end, and he’ll garner plenty of interest. But he’ll be 36, and if he comes at a reasonable rate and for the shorter term, and the Yankees don’t want to go all-in on the Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin, the Yankees would seem likely to try to bring him back. After all, the Yankees’ other wild card option, Masahiro Tanaka, has pitched to a 1.80 ERA over his last six starts and will be with the team next year. The thought they would hand a start that big to Happ and then wish him the best of luck if he loses seems unlikely.

The catching

conundrum

The Yankees want Gary Sanchez to catch the wild card game. Should go without saying.

The Yankees want Sanchez to be their catcher moving forward. That should go without saying.

Issue is, Sanchez has trouble catching the ball. Not balls in the dirt, necessarily. We’re talking strikes here. On Tuesday, the only run Happ allowed was helped along the bases when Sanchez couldn’t get more than a thumb on a fastball he threw down the middle of the plate that inexplicably got to the backstop.

Look, Sanchez is an easy target for fan frustrations this year. He’s hitting .187 and .184 since coming off the disabled list Sept. 1. His hustle has been rightly questioned. His defense is largely abysmal. If the Yankees are thinking about using backup Austin Romine as a Plan A option in the wild card game, they’d have used him Tuesday.

The Yankees have repeatedly said Sanchez is their catcher moving forward, which means they probably can’t turn their back on him now and keep him invested. Plus, for all the issues, he has quietly worked successfully with Happ. Over the last three starts, Happ allowed just two runs in 18 innings with Sanchez behind the plate.

The left fielder

Brett Gardner’s career as a Yankee might have ended Tuesday, for all intents and purposes.

The Yankees have to make a decision on their veteran left fielder in the offseason. They have a club option that will pay him $12.5 million to stay around one more year, or they can buy him out for $2 million.

On Tuesday, the Yankees faced a right-hander, Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi, and turned left field over to Andrew McCutchen, a right-handed hitter who has played just a couple games there in his career. McCutchen’s at-bats have generally been really good since the Yanks acquired him in late August from San Francisco, and by any statistical measure over their careers, he has been a much better player than Gardner. So, it makes more than a little sense from that perspective.

Gardner has a paltry .589 OPS in the second half this season, and the more concerning thing has to be that he hasn’t hit right-handers. His .703 OPS against them this season is more than .130 points lower than last season. For the sake of comparison, Jacoby Ellsbury’s OPS against righties the last two seasons he played — 2015 and 2016 — has never dipped below .744.

Speaking of Ellsbury, the Yankees say he’ll likely be back in 2019 with two years and $42 million left on his contract. So will Clint Frazier, who has been battling concussion issues ,but was having a monster season when he could play. The Yankees, in a big free agent market, might be looking for ways to save cash and open up roster spots. If he’s not in the plans now, it’s difficult to see how he would be next year as the Yankees continue to build around its core of young stars.

DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at dcollins@timesshamrock.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.

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