Much of the excitement surrounding the Yankees this season centered on the young players getting a chance to take over roles with an eye toward the future. The first glimpse of a new era heightened last August when Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez took over behind the plate. Sanchez's historic home run barrage and cannon arm put a charge into the notion of the youth movement creating a new core.
Unfortunately, Sanchez will be out for four weeks with a biceps strain, leaving a huge vacancy in the lineup. The Yankees were already down one of their potent bats with Didi Gregorius out with a shoulder injury until early May, so Sanchez's malady further depletes the team's offensive firepower.
While the Yankees do not need to venture outside the organization for catching help, neither Austin Romine nor Kyle Higashioka will put up statistics resembling Sanchez's potential. As such, the Yankees will need someone in the everyday lineup to step up their game over the next four weeks. I contend this will have to be a collective effort, with four players potentially playing a bigger role.
Greg Bird is off to a slow start and has been battling the flu, but he's shown the ability to go on a tear and he'll operate from a run-producing slot in the lineup. Provided Bird is healthy, he has the firepower to put a team on his back in short bursts.
Bird was Sanchez, before Sanchez was Sanchez, when the Yankees first baseman launched 11 home runs in the couple months of the 2015 season. Bird owns a fantastic swing, patience at the plate and showed he was well past last season's shoulder surgery with seven home runs in 63 spring training plate appearances.
Jacoby Ellsbury was demoted at the onset of the season to a role in the middle of the Yankees lineup with Sanchez taking the No. 2 slot in the batting order. The theory was with Gregorius out and Ellsbury's finish to last season, a change of pace might be in order. Ellsbury had a fine spring training and it has carried over into the regular season thus far.
In 24 plate appearances in the early going, Ellsbury is hitting .348 with a .375 on-base percentage and a .565 slugging percentage. Ellsbury will shift back to the No. 2 spot in the order, so it becomes essential that he complement leadoff hitter Brett Gardner by either moving him ahead on the base paths, or by picking up the left fielder when he fails to reach base.
Matt Holliday might be the one player who can take the team on his back while Sanchez is on the shelf. Holliday was initially signed to protect Sanchez in the lineup, but now he'll likely aid Bird's ability to see better pitches.
Holliday is off to a great start this season - .364/.553/.591 slash line in 30 plate appearances - and seems to be acclimating nicely to the role of primary designated hitter. The good news is that Holliday does not need to change his approach as he'll be hitting in basically the same part of the order with Sanchez out. Further, Holliday will remain off the field, which should aid the veteran's ability to remain healthy.
Aaron Judge showed improvement in his method at the plate during spring training which assisted his grasp of the starting right field job. Judge has maintained the hit mechanics and has exhibited some patience at the plate since breaking camp. Judge has homered in two straight games, showing he is not sacrificing power while limiting the number of strikeouts that plagued him in his cameo last summer.
To date, Judge has been hitting lower in the order, so placing him among this listing might be conceived as putting too much pressure on the youngster. I think it would be advantageous to see Judge hitting fifth or sixth in the current roster construction. However, I also believe Judge can contribute toward the lower part of the order, doing exactly what he has over the first handful of games this season.
When it comes down to it, each hitter in the lineup has the potential to step up his game. That said, these players in particular seem to be positioned well in the lineup and have the capacity to stay or get hot over the next four weeks.