It’s not hard for Giancarlo Stanton to stand out in a crowd. Look at him: He’s 6-feet-6 of granite, and along with Aaron Judge, one of the towers that span the horizon on the New York Yankees.
But Stanton hasn’t been around much this season. In fact, he’s been the poster boy for the incessant string of injuries that has torn the team’s roster asunder since April.
Remarkably, the Yankees began play on Thursday with a magic number of one in the American League East, one win shy of 100 and one game behind the Houston Astros for home-field in the upcoming playoffs.
And now they suddenly have a decision to make. With Stanton finally back from his knee injury, how and when do they re-incorporate him into a lineup that has done just fine without him?
Stanton returned to the team on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Angels at Yankee Stadium. Manager Aaron Boone put him into the five-hole and sent him out to left field.
“I was sleeping on whether I wanted (to give him) a DH day or play the field. We both felt like today was a good day to start out in the field and get a couple of at-bats and start getting built up in that way,” said Boone.
And right on cue, Stanton smacked a double into the left-center gap in his first at-bat and was retired on a hard-hit ground out in second at-bat before striking out in the sixth inning.
Boone then kept his pregame promise of removing Stanton for a defensive replacement to start the seventh inning. The manager did want to move too quickly too fast with his star.
“For not being out there for a few months, I felt good in the box and moved around pretty well in the outfield, so it’s a good start,” Stanton told reporters after the game. “You’ve just got to lock it in and go with what you know. If it’s going to take a little bit of time it will, but it will be back and forth for a little while, and I have a week and a half to figure it out.”
Unbelievably, this was just the 10th game of the season for Stanton and it was his first since straining his right knee on June 25. He’s also dealt with a left biceps strain, a cranky left shoulder and a strained calf.
Over the course of the last nine games, Boone will use him regularly in an effort to gauge how useful he might be to the team in the postseason.
It’s not as easy a decision as you might expect. The Yankees have excelled this season without him, hardly missing the powerful punch he normally provides. And knowing how prone he is to strikeouts, and how unreliably he performed in the playoffs in 2018 (.238, one homer, one RBI in 21 at-bats) the Yankees need to decide whether to rock a boat that’s been sailing quite smoothly.
“You’ve just got to roll with what you’ve got,” said Stanton. “I worked to get back and I’m here now, so using these games as a tune-up and be ready for the playoffs.
“I’d like to play as much as I can to get at-bats, but I’ve still got to be smart with not being able to go on a rehab assignment at all. Just have to build it up and get it right.”
In his brief time in the lineup, Stanton is hitting .294 with one home run and seven RBIs. The Yankees plan to use him as their designated hitter and in left field. But just like its worked out all season, the timing for Stanton’s return is perfect.
Mike Tauchman, the journeyman outfielder acquired from the Colorado Rockies, had played spectacularly in Stanton’s place. But he strained his left calf earlier this month and is not expected to return this season.
Tauchman’s is not the only injury the Yankees are currently dealing with in their outfield. Aaron Hicks (elbow) is also likely done for the season and Cameron Maybin has been playing lately with a sore wrist.
“I’m here now,” said Stanton.
Before rejoining the Yankees, Stanton was forced to work out at the team’s spring training facility in Tampa, Fla., because the Minor League season is over. While there he took his swings against instructional league pitchers; not exactly the type he’ll be facing in the playoffs. But the Yankees saw great progress in his health and mobility.
“For not being out there for a few months, I felt good in the box and moved around pretty well in the outfield,” Stanton said. “It was a good start. I’d like to play as much as I can to get at-bats, but I’ve still got to be smart with not being able to go on a rehab assignment.”
What can a healthy Stanton provide the Yankees? Well, he signed his 13-year, $325 million deal with the Miami Marlins in 2017 after hitting 59 homers and winning the National League’s MVP.
In his first season with the Yankees, his numbers were less gaudy – 38 homers, 100 RBIs with a .266 batting average in 158 games. But now they really need him, especially with other sluggers like Gary Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion also currently out.
“When we’re 60-70 guys in that room at the start, we try and get across in that message that even though you may not think so, there are a lot of guys in this room that may have to impact our big-league club this year,” said Boone.
“And we’re serious about that. We try to prepare them for what might be a role in the season. We’ve had to dig into that a little more than obviously anyone could have imagined this year, but to their credit over and over and over again, guys have come in and the next-man up has really taken hold and they’ve stepped up in a big way to allow us to be in this position.”
Well, Giancarlo Stanton is now in the “next-man-up” situation for the team he was signed to lead. It remains to be seen if this will benefit a team with aspirations to win a World Championship.