The Yankees are not the American League favorites.
Oh, the defending AL East champions might capture the junior circuit’s pennant. They certainly can. Yet if the first week of spring training 2.0 has taught us anything, it’s the folly of trying to anticipate a professional sports season defined and dominated by a pandemic.
We don’t know whether there actually will be a full season. We know already, however, that if the schedule opens as desired on July 23, there will be no favorites.
Manager Aaron Boone opened his Zoom news conference Saturday with the news that elite closer Aroldis Chapman has tested positive for the coronavirus. Chapman — who worked out with his teammates for a few days earlier in the week and met virtually with the media on Tuesday from Yankee Stadium’s press conference room — has “mild symptoms,” his manager said, and “will not be here for the foreseeable future.”
The COVID hits keep coming (and, to mix in some old-school injury news, Aaron Judge sat out Saturday’s intrasquad game with a stiff neck). As USA Today’s Gabe Lacques noted Saturday on Twitter, the Yankees became the 10th baseball team of which we know to see a player pass the intake screening upon arriving at camp, only to subsequently test positive. At least 14 players in such circumstances have tested positive. The Yankees completed their necessary contact tracing upon receiving the Chapman news, Boone said, and everyone was cleared by testing negative.
“This is something that … even moving forward, a positive test is going to come our way,” Boone said. “It’s about doing all the things that hopefully, as a whole, keep us safe and healthy but right now we feel like we’re doing a good job in here of managing.”
The Yankees now have three players out of commission with COVID-19, and two — Chapman and infielder DJ LeMahieu — played in last year’s All-Star game; pitcher Luis Cessa is the third. Zack Britton likely would get most of the save opportunities in Chapman’s absence, Boone said on Saturday, while Tyler Wade figures to serve as the primary fill-in for LeMahieu at second base. Wade is unproven, and though Britton is a former All-Star himself, his usage in the ninth inning would weaken Boone’s options in earlier frames.
(Yup, it remains ghoulish discussing the baseball consequences of players contracting a disease that has killed nearly 140,000 Americans in less than six months. Sorry.)
The Yankees hardly are alone in the baseball world when it comes to the difficulties of navigating this unprecedented time. Just on Saturday, the Astros canceled their workout after someone on their staff was exposed to the coronavirus, and Royals catcher Cam Gallagher discovered Saturday that he had tested positive despite feeling well enough to play in an intrasquad game Friday night.
“It’s kind of hard to say that … we expected to go through the whole season without anyone testing positive. I think that would be remarkable,” Aaron Hicks said. “It’s part of what’s going on right now. You can get the COVID at any time.”
With that in mind, sure, though the Yankees have registered more casualties on this front than their fellow AL powers in Tampa Bay, Minnesota or Houston — not to mention Masahiro Tanaka suffering a concussion — every team should assume it’ll receive its share of coronavirus bad news. It’s too prominent a condition, our country too uncommitted to thoroughly fighting it.
“We’ve spent a lot of months trying to get to this point and certainly understand what we were getting into when we came here,” Boone said, “and certainly understand that, hopefully on a small level … we’re going to have to deal with these things along the way,” Boone said.
I’m not sure anyone could fully understand what they were entering with these notions of holding sports seasons. We learn more with each day, and each day seemingly brings enormous developments. We need not see anything else, though, to know that the Yankees can forget about cruising through this 60-game sprint. It’s going to be a slog, quite possibly an unmanageable one, for everyone.