HOUSTON — In a somber New York Yankees clubhouse following a recent loss, one player nodded his head vigorously in a far corner, muttering affirmations audible only to those standing nearby.
It was Tyler Wade, a 24-year-old infielder who just a day prior had been called up to fill the shoes of one of the latest fallen Yankees.
“Time to f—ing go,” Wade said of the opportunity that comes with having a combined 825 career home runs languishing on his team’s injured list.
For Wade and the rest of the group accompanying him on earlier-than-anticipated trips from Triple-A to the bigs, the job is to hold down the fort for a league-high 11 players — several of them key stars — who are on the IL.
Just how much firepower is missing? Consider the following:
The Yankees’ injured list includes a combined 22 All-Star Game appearances, five Silver Slugger awards, three Gold Glove awards, three Rookie of the Year runner-ups, a Cy Young winner and an MVP. At least the Cy Young winner, CC Sabathia, should be returning this weekend. However, the team’s ace, Luis Severino, might be several weeks away from getting back to action after being sent to New York on Monday for another MRI on his injured right shoulder.
Oh, and there’s this: With Didi Gregorius (elbow/Tommy John surgery), Aaron Hicks (lower back tightness), Giancarlo Stanton (left biceps strain) and Miguel Andujar (small labrum tear) all shelved right now, the Bronx Bombers are missing virtually half of their 2018 offense.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, those four players alone combined for 45 percent of the Yankees’ home runs and extra-base hits last season, and 43 percent of their hits, runs and RBIs.
Their absence puts the heat on those still plugging away.
In the days before his ninth-inning home run gave the Yankees some insurance in a much-needed win at Baltimore last Thursday, first baseman Luke Voit had been scuffling. He went 0-for-9 with four strikeouts in the three previous games against the Tigers. The first of those three games came just hours after Andujar and Stanton were placed on the IL.
“I was putting too much pressure [on myself], and you know, obviously with all the injuries and stuff, there’s more pressure on us,” Voit said to reporters. “I was trying to do too much instead of being myself.
“I just had to smile and have fun and play a little kid’s game like you guys fell in love with last year.”
Power was the name of the Yankees’ game last season, with a feast-or-famine offensive approach. In addition to setting the single-season major league team record with 267 home runs, they also whiffed 1,493 times — the third-most strikeouts in the American League.
With comparatively less pop in their lineup (a lineup that, to be fair, does still feature the power bats of Voit, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Gleyber Torres), the Yankees might have to tweak their offensive style a bit. Then again, maybe not. Judge, Sanchez, Torres and outfielder Clint Frazier all posted multihomer games during the Yankees’ weekend sweep at Baltimore. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the most individual multihomer performances the team has had in a series in franchise history.
Still, that was against the Orioles. The Yankees know they have a stack of sluggers stuck on the shelf.
“There’s definitely, obviously, some guys in our lineup that bring the speed element. [Who] can put the ball in play, and even guys that can use the bunt game to their advantage,” manager Aaron Boone said. “That comes in play probably a little more than traditionally when we have all our guys, certainly.
“But I don’t know if anything gets flipped approach-wise. You kind of look at, ‘What’s the skill set of guys?’ And you try to take advantage of that.”
Along with Wade, there have been other lesser-known additions to the active roster since the Yankees broke spring training camp.
There’s Mike Tauchman, an outfielder the Yankees traded for on the second-to-last day of Grapefruit League play. A 10th-round pick of the Rockies in 2013, Tauchman hit just .153 in 52 major league games with Colorado before the trade. Valued for his defensive versatility, Tauchman was added to play all three outfield positions if necessary. So far, he’s appeared both in left and in center this season.
Although it isn’t his primary characteristic, the Yankees also believe Tauchman could supply some power. In 112 games at Triple-A last year, he hit 20 home runs.
Gio Urshela is the newest add, joining the club Saturday after Troy Tulowitzki went down with a calf strain. The Colombian-born infielder has played big league ball since 2015, previously spending time with Cleveland and Toronto. Last August, the Yankees acquired Urshela in a trade with the Blue Jays for cash considerations.
Slowed by an Achilles injury, Urshela was eased into games in spring training, where he showed dependable defense at third base. He also performed at the plate, batting .321 with two homers, three RBIs and a 1.023 OPS.
“He’s a guy, with our roster situation right now, [who] is going to play a lot,” Boone said. “He’s going to play a lot of third base for us.”
No one is expecting these young backups to do everything the regulars could have. The speedier but less powerful Wade isn’t going to post a 27-homer, 92-RBI season like Andujar, the injured third baseman he officially replaced on the roster. Similarly, Frazier, 24, isn’t expected to club the many mammoth blasts that have become Stanton’s signature. Though if he keeps homering — like he did three times in Baltimore — it could go a long way.
“Even with guys down, we’re capable,” Boone said. “The guys that have been called on early here that you didn’t necessarily expect early are capable. So nothing changes as far as our expectations. It’s next man up to a degree.”
Domingo German, 26, has been a solid next pitcher up. He has made two stellar starts in relief of the injured Sabathia and Severino this season. Through those two starts, German has given up just two earned runs. They both came in his latest outing, a six-inning gem in which he took a no-hitter into his final inning of work.
Tuesday’s starter, Jonathan Loaisiga, walked four in his first outing of the season, but he also allowed just one hit. The two young right-handers, both of whom have been shuttled back and forth from the minor leagues the past two seasons, are viewed as the top replacements in the rotation until the Yankees’ two injured arms return.
“I got to step up. That’s why I was brought here, was for injuries,” Wade said. “I’ve got to step up in big situations and help this team out when we’re down.”
Added right fielder Judge: “That’s all there is to it.”
This could be a big year for Frazier and Wade. Arguably Judge’s closest friend in the organization, Wade has been an up-and-down utility player in his time in pinstripes. He had appeared in only 66 major league games before this season. Contact and speed have long been staples of his game, but this offseason he put an emphasis on using his legs more in his swing.
After hitting seven doubles and posting a .308 average and an .845 OPS in the spring, many fans were disappointed when Wade was assigned to Triple-A at the end of spring training in favor of Tauchman. Even Wade said he was caught off guard by the decision, believing he did everything he could to be the last man on the roster.
Frazier came into this season with heightened expectations, too. A year ago this time, he was just fighting through symptoms of a vestibular concussion he suffered when he crashed into a wall early that spring training.
After a year of bouncing between the Yankees’ training facility in Florida, various doctor’s offices, Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and the big club, Frazier hopes for better results in 2019.
One concussion specialist’s advice was for Frazier to put himself in uncomfortable places that would force him to fight his way through the symptoms. Among the places he visited often on doctor’s orders? Concert venues.
The latest ZiPS projection has Wade getting into 119 games, collecting 93 hits and seven home runs. It also anticipates he’ll score 51 runs, drive in 34, steal 13 bases and post a .220 batting average. The addition of Urshela, though, could snatch some playing time from Wade as the infield depth chart gets shaken up.
Frazier’s latest ZiPS projection: 96 games, 87 hits and 17 homers. ZiPS sees him scoring 53 runs, driving in 53 and batting .246.
If the Yankees were at full health, it would be hard to imagine these players getting nearly as much time in the field. But the Yankees are nowhere near full health.
“In spring training, when we had all those guys in there, we told everybody, ‘Hey, everyone’s going to make an impact on this team somehow,'” Judge said. “‘You don’t know when your time’s going to be called to step up and play for us. It could be the first week of the season, it could be in September — you just don’t even know. So just stay ready.'”
For how long will Wade, Frazier and other call-ups need to stay ready?
Maybe not for too much longer.
Andujar, who smacked 47 doubles in his rookie season last year, is still facing possible season-ending surgery. Until he’s re-evaluated in a couple of weeks to determine that, the infielder has been taking ground balls and staying generally active. If surgery can be avoided, he could be back in the coming weeks.
Hicks is finally back to baseball activities, and he could be just a couple of weeks away from rejoining the team. Sabathia’s rehab stint following offseason knee and heart surgeries will end this week. Reliever Dellin Betances’ return from a right shoulder impingement might soon follow.
Later this week, the Yankees ought to have a clearer picture on how much longer Stanton and Tulowitzki will be out of action.
Severino (right rotator cuff inflammation), however, might not be back by May 1 as previously hoped. Tuesday’s MRI aside, he still hasn’t thrown off a mound since he went on the injured list early last month. The Yankees say pain isn’t an issue for him at this stage, but he just isn’t feeling quite right and hasn’t been ready to start throwing in a true bullpen format.
“For the most part, we feel like we have good long-term news on most of those guys, and know that they’re going to be coming back sooner rather than later,” Boone said.
But until those comebacks happen, the banged-up Bombers need the Wades and Fraziers and Loaisigas on their roster to keep nodding vigorously in the corner, eager to take on the opportunities before them.
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