TAMPA, Fla. – It didn't take long for Miguel Andújar to take the first test of his debut in the outfield on Wednesday. He passed with high marks, making an impressive first in-game impression at the position.
After the Yankees revealed the club is attempting to absorb yet another injury – a Grade 1 calf strain for Giancarlo Stanton – Andújar's reps in the outfield are no longer an experiment to find him playing time. They very well may need him to play there.
On just the second pitch of Wednesday's exhibition game – an 8-2 victory for the Bombers over the Washington Nationals shortened by rain – Victor Robles skied a pop up off Masahiro Tanaka to shallow left field.
Shortstop Gleyber Torres backpedaled out onto the outfield grass, waving his arms to signal he had the ball in his sights.
All of a sudden, in came Andújar. He loudly called off Torres – a play that the outfielder in that situation has every right to make – before confidently making the grab.
Brett Gardner gave Andújar a pat on his back. Tanaka clapped on the mound. Andújar smiled.
“I thought he did well,” manager Aaron Boone told reporters. “That first ball, Gleyber was waving his hands and Miggy took charge like he should and called him off. When he came out of the game at the end, I said, ‘Nice going today, I really liked that.’ It’s good to see him out there and to start getting that experience."
Let's not blow this out of proportion. It was a routine fly ball, a play on defense that every outfielder in Major League Baseball is capable of making. It's even something that Andújar has grown accustomed to over the first few weeks of Spring Training, taking part in fielding drills with the other outfielders each day.
This was a milestone for the 24-year-old though. Across eight seasons within the Yankees' organization, Andújar hadn't played a single game away from third base until Wednesday. In fact, he revealed a few days ago that he hasn't played another position since long before his professional career began.
"I haven't played outfield since I was a little kid," Andújar said through the Yankees' interpreter on Sunday. "But we have great coaches here and they're guidance and they're instructions have been very well received. I feel that what they are teaching me is definitely making a difference."
To an average baseball fan watching Andújar haul in that fly ball while calling off one of his teammates, it was nothing more than a routine play. That's exactly why this was significant. It was hard to tell that he was out of his comfort zone. It's about as small a sample size as you can get, but he looked like he belonged.
By now you've heard the backstory. With Gio Urshela excelling at third base in his place last season – as Andújar was sidelined with a tear in his right labrum – the 24-year-old was forced to prove his versatility.
It was a means to find a way to fit his bat into the lineup. After all, in his one full healthy season, he proved his worth on offense. He's already found success this spring, homering in his Spring Training debut this past weekend.
In 2018 – Andújar's rookie season – he finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year race, hitting 27 home runs and posting a batting average just south of .300. He was an extra base hit machine, slashing 47 doubles across a durable 149 games – tied for the fourth-most doubles in baseball that season.
Incorporating his potent bat into a lineup that accounted for 103 victories last season – a campaign in which Andújar contributed to just 12 contests – has the potential to be dangerous. Therefore, after Urshela won the starting job at the hot corner in his absence, it's a no brainer that Andújar tried out an outfielder's glove this offseason.
Now that Stanton is shut down with a strain in his calf, the gravity of Andújar's success in the outfield is instantaneously heightened. Boone explained that Stanton will be "up against it" when it comes to being healthy for Opening Day but he could end up missing an extended period of time if this gets any worse.
The slugger isn't the only outfielder hobbling into March. Aaron Judge has yet to make his Spring Training debut after right shoulder soreness has continued to prevent him from swinging freely. He's expected to make his first in-game appearance some time next week, but Boone has already hinted at an overly cautious game plan that could keep Judge off the field for even longer.
Otherwise, Gardner is entering his age-36 season and Mike Tauchman is easing his way back into a full-time role after ending the 2019 season on the injured list.
The Yankees have other options for depth, including Clint Frazier who has taken significant strides in his defense this offseason. Based on how long a 162-game season can be and this team's injury tendencies, however Andújar's presence as an outfielder is crucial.
As Boone and the Bombers continue to pencil in Andújar's name in left field, keep an eye on how he fares. If he's able to seamlessly transition, it drastically lessens the pressure for Judge and Stanton to return as quick as possible. If he happens to struggle and settles into a backup role at third base, any other health setbacks can be debilitating down the road.
Plus, if he can eat up innings in the outfield, it'll open the door for Stanton, Judge or anyone else in the Yankees' order to reduce the chances that they'll get hurt.
Regardless of what's happening around him, Andújar is eager to help the team. Whether it's third base or left field, he's just grateful for the opportunity to suit up and play alongside his teammates.
"I’ve loved having an opportunity to play and help the team," he said. "At the end of the day, that's what you want to do. You want to be able to help the team in any way possible. I'm honored to have the opportunity to be here. Any opportunity is going to be welcome."
He's got the opportunity to get a lot of practice for the rest of Spring Training. The only question is whether or not he'll continue to pass tests each time he takes that long jog to the outfield.
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