For the Yankees, Even the ‘Next Guy Up’ Is Plenty Dangerous

For the Yankees, Even the ‘Next Guy Up’ Is Plenty Dangerous

April 18, 2019

Six franchises have won the World Series in the decade since the Yankees’ last title, and three of those teams appear on their schedule this month. The Kansas City Royals (2015 champions) visit the Bronx this weekend. The Houston Astros (2017) swept the Yankees last week, and this week the Yankees swept the Boston Red Sox, who have gone from pristine to pitiful since claiming the crown last fall.

There is nothing quite like an emphatic sweep of their rivals — even in a two-game series — to clear away the clouds over Yankee Stadium. After a blowout on Tuesday and a comeback on Wednesday, the Yankees and their patchwork roster seem capable of weathering their crush of injuries and contending yet again.

“There’s always a guy down and a guy up and a guy stepping in, trying to pick each other up the best we can,” starter J.A. Happ said after working six and one-third innings in Wednesday’s 5-3 victory. “We’re hoping we get a bunch of guys back, but at the same time, these games count the same. We’ve got to hang in.”

The best way to do that is with starting pitching. On Tuesday, James Paxton became the first Yankee since 2002 to record at least eight shutout innings and 12 strikeouts in a game. A day later Happ improvised after struggling with his four-seam fastball, using two-seamers and changeups to keep the game close until Brett Gardner delivered the go-ahead grand slam in the seventh.

With Paxton, Happ, Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia and Domingo German in their rotation, the Yankees should keep most games close enough for the bullpen and the offense to give them a chance. Paxton and Happ — who had combined for zero quality starts in six outings before this week — showed that in vivid detail.

“Those are character-builders,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “Those are things in the course of the season that I think guys benefit from, when you kind of break through and are finding your way in a season.”

Speaking of breaking through, Clint Frazier homered on Tuesday and went 3 for 4 on Wednesday, raising his average to .333. He is capitalizing on the absence of outfielders Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton — two of the 12 Yankees currently on the injured list — and making up for the lost season he endured in 2018 after a concussion in spring training.

“I wanted to be out on that field, but no one could put their hand on my head and work on it and make it feel any better,” Frazier said. “That’s the hard part. Some of these injuries, you can go into the training room and they can do certain things, physically, to make you feel better. And for me, it was a hard one to go through because there was so much unknown with that injury. It lasted a long time, man.”

Before his teammates’ injuries this season, Frazier, 24, had no clear path to playing time with the Yankees; he started the year in the minors. Now he is showing why the Cleveland Indians made him the first high school position player selected in the 2013 draft. It just might take some roster gymnastics to keep him around when his fellow outfielders return from their injuries.

“I look forward to those gymnastics,” Boone said, adding later, “He’s a guy, the talent and the bat speed and the ability to impact the ball kind of leaps off the screen. I think everyone sees that.”

The Yankees saw it in July 2016, when General Manager Brian Cashman acquired Frazier and Justus Sheffield from the Indians for reliever Andrew Miller — a move that came six days after extracting Gleyber Torres and Billy McKinney from the Chicago Cubs in a deal for closer Aroldis Chapman.

Cashman played kingmaker that season, helping send the Indians and the Cubs to the World Series. The Yankees have not been there in a decade, but those deals keep paying off: Besides the production of Frazier and Torres, their starting shortstop, Cashman used McKinney to trade for Happ and Sheffield to trade for Paxton.

Chapman, of course, returned to the Yankees after winning Game 7 of the World Series for the Cubs, retiring the Indians in order in the ninth inning after blowing the save in the eighth. That effort, under the most intense pressure possible, without his best stuff, was instructive for the evolution Chapman would eventually have to make.

He was averaging a career-low 96.9 miles per hour on his fastball before Wednesday, according to Fangraphs, and he is throwing more sliders than ever. But that slider is still quite effective, and he did hit 99.8 m.p.h. against his final hitter on Wednesday. Chapman remains an elite closer and should be the least of the Yankees’ concerns.

The biggest question is the depleted lineup, but Frazier, Torres, Luke Voit and D.J. LeMahieu seem dangerous enough behind Aaron Judge.

“We’re the Yankees, so we can bolster our lineup a ton of ways,” Frazier said. “It’s hard being a young guy trying to break through. You need to catch a break sometime. You hate it to be at the expense of somebody’s ability to stay on the field, but it happens, and it’s next guy up. I want to stay here for a long time.”

If he can do that, the Yankees’ injury epidemic will have led to something lasting. Frazier deserves the chance.

“I sometimes even forget that I got drafted by the Indians, because I feel like it was so long ago,” he said. “That was a special moment for my family, to welcome myself into pro ball, but I’m happy that I’m here. I feel like I’ve found a good home.”

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