Dangerous At The Plate, Miguel Andújar Is Opening Doors With His Defensive Versatility
As Miguel Andújar circled the bases at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday evening, trotting in silence under the lights, déjà vu was in the air.
Andújar had sliced a fastball to the opposite field and over the short porch in right, twirling across the batter's box with his signature helicopter follow through.
Almost five months ago, Andújar poked a solo shot down the right-field line in a Spring Training game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla. The Grapefruit League roundtripper was in the Bombers' second game on the schedule – Andújar's big fly on Tuesday came in New York's second intrasquad of Summer Camp.
It wasn't a coincidence that these identical home runs both sparked the exact same question in the Bombers' clubhouse. It's one of the most important and complex queries this club will need to answer ahead of its regular season opener later this month...
How are the Yankees going to get Miguel Andújar into the lineup this year?
Back in Spring Training, before the calendar had flipped to March, Andújar was in the earliest stages of an experiment on the defensive side of the ball. With Gio Urshela commandeering the starting spot at third base during Andújar's injury-plagued campaign last season, all parties involved were hungry to find a way to get the 25-year-old more at-bats in 2020.
"We know with Miggy that we've got a very good player," skipper Aaron Boone said, setting the scene in a conference call before Summer Camp began. "He's a guy who missed the bulk of last season but came into Spring Training and showed us that he was healthy, showed us a willingness to play a couple of positions because he wants to get into the lineup."
For the Yankees, MLB's lengthy coronavirus-induced hiatus – keeping the sport dormant up until the very end of June – did nothing more than postpone this project of expanding Andújar's versatility and placing different models of gloves in his left hand.
That said, over that span, Andújar didn't stop working. His initiative to acclimate himself with the corner outfield positions and first base – while still prioritizing his reps at the hot corner – continued through months of quarantine. The result is a newfound comfort across previously uncharted spots on the diamond.
"To be honest, I feel much more comfortable now comparing to back in Spring Training in Tampa," Andújar explained on Wednesday through the Yankees' interpreter. "I think this time has allowed me to have more practice, get more comfortable with the positions out there."
Remember, Andújar admitted in February that he hadn't played anywhere other than third base since he was a kid, let alone over the course of his professional baseball career. Just feeling relaxed and loose at a new position is a major first step toward success.
The native of the Dominican Republic recounted his decision to remain stateside amid the pandemic, finding an additional facility to supplement his workload at the Bombers' spring complex.
Days after Andújar went deep back in Spring Training, he made an error in what was his first in-game action at first base. The morning after Andújar's blast at Yankee Stadium this week, he was spotted at first, fielding, practicing his footwork and snagging throws from across the infield.
The 25-year-old hasn't had a chance to play first base in a game setting just yet during Summer Camp, but to say he's bounced around the field throughout the first week of workouts would be an understatement.
Beyond the extra reps during the day, Andújar has had in-game opportunities at both third base and in left field over the first two intrasquads of the summer. In the Yankees' first game on Monday, Andújar started at third, gobbling up the grounders hit his way. At one point, he made a tough play to his left look easy on an Aaron Judge chopper.
The following evening, shortly after his homer off Gerrit Cole, Andújar charged downhill on a shallow popup, calling off shortstop Kyle Holder to make a smooth running catch.
While skipper Aaron Boone is still unsure exactly how New York will be using their budding utilityman come Opening Day, he's encouraged about the progress Andújar has made. He's not perfect, but the early returns in Boone's eyes show that he's up to the task and capable of contributing on this side of the ball in 2020.
"I feel like he's added some versatility to the mix and at least the early signs to me suggest that he's going to be able to handle that versatility that he had hoped to show and that I feel like I saw," Boone spelled out. "He's still new at it and there's a lot of growth to be had there, but I do feel like it is something he'll be able to do and that'll give him even more of an opportunity to get on the field."
Boone specifically singled out Andújar's work in the outfield. Regardless of whether or not it's a part-time gig or a full-time role, Boone can vividly envision No. 41 on the outfield grass when the games start to count.
"One of the really encouraging things I felt in Spring Training was what I believe is Miggy's capability of playing the corner outfield positions," he explained. "I thought he took to it really well. I think it's something that he could absolutely do."
Like his manager, Andújar understands his defense is a work in progress. That said, he's willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win and give himself an opportunity to swing his lumber during the season, no matter which position he's penciled in to play.
"Playing first base, playing outfield, third base, of course you know it gives you the flexibility and opens more doors for new more opportunities," he said on Wednesday. "But yeah, it's learning a new position at this level so there's a lot of things going into that. You have to pay attention, you have to listen to the coaches and understand what they're trying to teach you so that you can put that into action right away."
This entire undertaking wouldn't be happening if Andújar wasn't such a threat at the plate. In the lone full season of his big-league career, Andújar hit .297 while slugging 27 home runs and driving in 92 runs over 149 games. He was an extra base hit machine, racking up 47 doubles to climb the leaderboard of the most two-base hits in the game.
What does that mean for this summer? Well, there's no clear-cut spot available for Andújar anymore. Now that Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are all setting their sights Opening Day, three spots in the Yankees' starting lineup that would've been vacant back in March are now occupied.
Mix that in with the longest-tenured Yankee Brett Gardner, as well as the likes of Clint Frazier, Mike Tauchman and more, Boone has his hands full making decisions in the outfield later this summer. Plus, multiple assets will be at the Yankees' disposal at both corner infield positions.
Depth heading into a 60-game sprint is invaluable and Boone has already alluded to his plans to rest those coming back from injury early on, taking full advantage of all 30 roster spots at the start of this season.
So, do the Yankees have an answer to that question Andújar's play posed once again as he rounded the bases on Tuesday? Not yet. But the plan is clear as day. Keep working Andújar across the diamond and get him ready to play in multiple spots come July 23.
"We'll get him a little bit of work [everywhere], prioritizing third base and the corner outfield spots but also we will get them some work at first just in case we get in a situation we have that option as well," Boone said on Wednesday. "I feel good about where Miggy is at in his defensive progression."
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