Giancarlo Stanton could have been forgiven if a return to the Yankees’ lineup seemed like merely an illusion. He had, after all, spent more than two months on the injured list, enduring one setback after another, feeling more and more distant from his teammates, his reinstatement seemingly forever out of reach.
But there Stanton was Tuesday afternoon, sitting in front of a scrum of cameras and microphones before the Yankees’ scheduled game against the Tampa Bay Rays. He had been dreaming about contributing to the offense ever since he tore his biceps in late March, but that injury set off a chain of events that kept Stanton on the sidelines for all but three of the Yankees’ first 71 games.
He was slotted into the No. 5 spot on Tuesday, part of a broader revamping of the Yankees’ run-scoring machine: Stanton will join Edwin Encarnacion, who was acquired from the Mariners over the weekend and will bat sixth. The final piece of the puzzle, Aaron Judge, is expected to be activated before the Yankees begin a series against the Houston Astros on Thursday.
The three create a dizzying potential for home runs, not unlike the formula the Yankees used in a 100-win regular season in 2018. Stanton was expecting more of the same in 2019, but that was before the first twinge in his biceps. What was originally considered to a be strain that would heal in 10 days or less turned into the most arduous injury marathon of his career.
“It’s been a long time. It feels longer than it has been for me,” Stanton said.
The torn biceps soon compromised his shoulder, which required a cortisone shot. Once the area finally calmed down, Stanton began a minor-league rehab assignment where another setback occurred: He was plunked in the knee by a pitch. Already impatient by his extended stay on the I.L., Stanton admitted he did not give the knee enough time to heal. As part of the same kinetic chain, a weakened knee resulted in a strained calf.
Fortunately for the Yankees, Stanton’s primary replacement, Clint Frazier, performed well after being called up from Class AAA. Along with a surprising contribution from third baseman Gio Urshela, who has stepped in for the injured Miguel Andujar, the Yankees largely survived the dual absences of Stanton and Judge, the 1-2 punch that provided 65 of the Yankees’ record 267 home runs last season.
With the powerful core of their offense returning, the Yankees will have to prove home runs are a viable counter to the kind of elite pitching they will see in the playoffs — or even this week against the Rays and Astros, who boast the American League’s two top pitching staffs.
Manager Aaron Boone has been preaching a familiar mantra to his hitters: control the strike. That’s another way of reminding them not to chase bad pitches. That was the surcharge for all those home runs last year — they led all playoff teams in regular-season strikeouts.
The Yankees are currently 10th in strikeouts in 2019, but they figure to climb in the rankings with the Stanton and Judge returning — not that Boone is all that concerned. As he said on Tuesday, “the more contact we make the better, but we don’t want to sacrifice who are.”
The Yankees’ plan to maximize that formula calls for Stanton to primarily play in left field, yielding his former position in right to Judge. In the infield, Encarnacion will split first base and the designated hitter’s spot with Luke Voit, while D.J. LeMahieu will take over at third, sending Urshela to the bench. It’s potentially the league’s most dangerous lineup, and it could soon be complemented by the restoration of the starting rotation. While the immediate focus was on the offense, Boone noted that Luis Severino, who has been on the I.L. all season with a torn lat, will finally begin throwing off a mound on next Tuesday.
Barring any setbacks, Severino will start what will essentially be a second spring training, and he could return to the Yankees just after the All-Star break. The Yankees were also heartened by news that Domingo German, who is nursing a hip flexor injury, has responded well to treatment and is now throwing without pain. He could come off the I.L. much sooner than Severino.
Even so, General Manager Brian Cashman is looking for an upgrade to the rotation via the trade market.
“I’ve got more work to do,” he said after acquiring Encarnacion. Whether that means dealing for the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman, the Indians’ Trevor Bauer or the most elusive target, the Nationals ace Max Scherzer, this much is certain: long home runs are about to become more plentiful at Yankee Stadium.
As Stanton said, “We’re already dangerous, and now it’s another icing to the cake.”