Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez Will Be Critical Big Bats to Watch at Yankees Camp

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Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez Will Be Critical Big Bats to Watch at Yankees Camp
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The New York Yankees have the right idea. The bigger question is whether they have the right players.

The Yankees are trying to rebuild without rebuilding, to get younger and better without coming close to any charge of tanking a season. The process is difficult enough that they haven't won a playoff game since 2012 but so far painless enough that they've stayed in the 84-87 win zone that at least guarantees some form of contention.

They spent 100 days in first place in the American League East last year, with a team built mostly on the very old (Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira) and the fairly young (Didi Gregorius, Nathan Eovaldi, Dellin Betances). They hung on to win a spot in the American League Wild Card Game, in large part because when they needed late help, then-22-year-old Greg Bird and 21-year-old Luis Severino were there to provide it.

So now we come to 2016, after another winter where the Yankees stayed out of the free-agent market and their biggest position-player acquisition was again a 20-something infielder acquired in a trade. If new second baseman Starlin Castro does as well as his new double-play partner Gregorius did in his first Yankee season, the building process will be seen as working.

But just as the Yankees eventually needed Bird (after Teixeira got hurt) and Severino (after Eovaldi got hurt), they're sure to need help from the farm system again this year. That's even more true now, with Bird out for the season after shoulder surgery.

And that's why two of the first players featured in stories coming out of Yankees camp were outfielder Aaron Judge (by Dan Martin in the New York Post) and catcher Gary Sanchez (by Anthony McCarron in the New York Daily News). They're not the two best prospects in the Yankees' improved farm system—20-year-old shortstop Jorge Mateo is an even better long-term bet—but they could be the ones who make a difference in 2016.

Neither figures into the Yankees' projected everyday lineup, but when your everyday lineup includes seven guys on the wrong side of 30, it's best to figure some of those guys won't make it every day. The Yankees got 500-plus plate appearances out of A-Rod, Beltran and catcher Brian McCann in 2015, and 462 from Teixeira, but a plan built around them better include backup plans.

That's especially true behind the plate, with the Yankees trading John Ryan Murphy to the Minnesota Twins in the deal for outfielder Aaron Hicks. While Sanchez hasn't been handed the backup spot behind McCann, the path is certainly open for him.

One rival scout who follows the Yankees system closely predicted Sanchez will open eyes this spring with his powerful arm and powerful bat, but he said big questions remain.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Sanchez has a strong arm to go along with his powerful bat.

"His bat's going to play," the scout said. "But defensively, he's got a really long way to go. He doesn't block balls well, and he doesn't have good hands. He's probably a 35-40 [on a 20-80 scouting scale] defensively."

Sanchez, who will play all this season at 23, hit 18 home runs in 365 minor league at-bats in 2015. He led the Arizona Fall League with seven home runs in 88 at-bats.

He still may not have as much power as Judge, the 6'7" outfielder who has 37 home runs in two minor league seasons.

The trade with the Twins that potentially opened a spot for Sanchez created something of a roadblock for Judge, with Hicks now an option to start in the outfield if one of the three starters (Beltran, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury) is hurt. One scout who follows the American League Central said Hicks could be a surprisingly important addition.

"I think he's ready to click," the scout said.

Judge will still get attention, and with his .224 batting average and .680 OPS after last year's midseason move to Triple-A, you could argue he'll benefit from some more minor league time.

"Every place he's gone, he's gotten better the longer he has stayed," said the scout familiar with Yankee prospects. "The slider is still an issue for him, and he tends to be tentative, taking pitches and getting himself into bad counts.

"But he has monster power."

That power has had Yankee fans wanting to see more of Judge, and it earned him the top spot among Yankee prospects in a winter ranking by MLB.com. It's why Judge will be one of the biggest names to watch when the Yankees start playing exhibition games—and why he could be one of the Yankee keys later this summer.

It may not matter, if the fragile starting rotation doesn't hold together. It may not matter, if all the old guys start to show their age.

But if this latest stage of the Yankees' building plan goes pretty much the way the last few have, there's going to be a point during the season when they'll need a boost. There's going to be a point when they'll need some help.

Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez could be the two guys who provide it.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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