TAMPA, Fla. — No one from the Yankees had to tell Miguel Andujar he might need to find a new home on the baseball diamond this year.
Andujar, the runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2018, entered last season as one of baseball’s brightest young stars. But on March 31, just three games into the 2019 season, he tore cartilage in his throwing shoulder on a seemingly innocuous slide into third base, an injury that would force him out of nearly the entire rest of the season.
As he underwent several months of rehabilitation after surgery, Andujar watched third baseman Gio Urshela, a relatively unknown reserve player, seize control of his old spot and become one of the saving graces of the Yankees’ injury-ravaged 2019 campaign with his stout defense and breakout hitting.
Andujar, 24, already known more for his bat than his glove, could foretell what this all meant. So in August, with his teammates surging toward an A.L. East title and a deep playoff run, Andujar approached his agent with an idea: It was time to learn some new positions, maybe left field and first base.
“We realized that we had to work and be ready this year to give my best wherever on the field and support the team,” Andujar said in a recent interview.
It was a humbling realization for a player who so recently seemed poised to lock down the Yankees’ third base spot for years to come. But by the time Yankees Manager Aaron Boone met with Andujar at the team’s facility in the Dominican Republic last month and mentioned those two new positions, Andujar said he was way ahead of his manager.
“When we first broached the subject with him, he was excited about it and even told us he had started to do some things on his own,” Boone said.
So Andujar spent the fall and winter not only rehabilitating the injured labrum in his right shoulder but also working with a private trainer here in Tampa to improve his agility so he could handle third and first base, and left field. (He had also worked the previous winter and spring to better his shaky defense at third base.)
He began taking ground balls and fly balls at the other positions in the Dominican Republic and in Tampa. During spring training games, he said, he expects to play all three positions.
“I feel like he has the athletic ability to do it, to be able to move around and hopefully add to his versatility,” Boone said. “And with the quality and the depth of our roster, it could be something that’s important not only for him, but potentially for us, too.”
To appreciate the importance of depth, the Yankees only need to look to last season, when, through shrewd moves and deep pockets, they managed to withstand a major league record 30 different players landing on the injured list.
Despite an overhauled medical and training staff for the 2020 season, the roster may be in flux again this season.
The Yankees could use a revolving door of players in left field, from Giancarlo Stanton to Mike Tauchman to Clint Frazier — all of whom spent time on the injured list last season. And when center fielder Aaron Hicks returns from elbow surgery over the summer, Brett Gardner could slide over to left, too. At first base, the Yankees have Luke Voit (who is recovering from off-season core-muscle surgery), the multipositional star D.J. LeMahieu and Mike Ford.
And while Urshela was outstanding with a .314 average and 21 home runs last year, there is always the possibility of regression after the breakout season, which could put Andujar back at his old position.
But for now, he doesn’t begrudge Urshela his taking over third base. The two are friends and not rivals. “He was tremendous last season and helped the team a ton,” Andujar said.
Before General Manager Brian Cashman proclaimed this winter that third base was Urshela’s job to lose, he likened Andujar’s situation to that of the former Yankees slugger Alfonso Soriano, a natural shortstop who learned left field in the spring of 2001 before eventually becoming the everyday second baseman in the major leagues. (An All-Star named Derek Jeter was already entrenched as the Yankees’ everyday shortstop.)
“It was, ‘How can we keep this dynamic bat where it plays?’” Cashman said of Soriano in November. “I can’t dispute that I’ve run that through my mind about Andujar, too.”
In the past, some have bristled at being called utility players, a label Andujar could earn, because it implied they were not good enough at one position to play there every day. But that has lessened with the success of Ben Zobrist (who earned a four-year, $56-million contract as a utility player in 2015), Kris Bryant (who won the 2016 N.L. Most Valuable Player Award while bouncing between third base and the outfield) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (winners of seven straight division titles with a roster full of Swiss Army knife players, led by first baseman/outfielder Cody Bellinger, the 2019 N.L. M.V.P.).
Andujar said he still preferred third base because that is the only position he has ever known. “But I want to contribute to the team,” he said. “And whatever decisions are made, I’ll take them positively.”
That includes potentially having him start in the minor leagues, should the Yankees have too much of a logjam or if Andujar needs more time to dust off the rust from last season or master his new positions.
Wherever he ends up, it will be preferable to the lonely situation he experienced last year, the first lost season of his career. He is hoping 2020 looks more like 2018, when he smashed 27 home runs and batted .297.
“The results so far have been positive,” he said, “and I’m happy with how I’ve responded to this.”
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