Yankees Biggest Question Mark for 2017: Aaron Judge

August 20, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) reaches third in the ninth inning against Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
August 20, 2016; Anaheim, CA, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge (99) reaches third in the ninth inning against Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Of all the promising rookies who will be at the Yankees spring training camp in February, none will have a bigger challenge facing them than right fielder Aaron Judge. And that’s not because he has to win a job. It’s because he can possibly lose his job.

Everyone associated with the Yankees, as well as baseball people in general, agree that Aaron Judge has all the tools and talent to have a long and successful career in a major league uniform. That’s not the issue. Instead, the problem is whether or not he has the “head” to be a big league ball player.

2016 began with a flourish for Judge when he and fellow rookie teammate Tyler Austin hit back-to-back home runs in the first game they played together in August. But for Judge it was all uphill from there as he slid into a horrendous slump that included 42 strikeouts in 84 at bats while hitting just .179. His season mercifully ended when he suffered a strained right oblique in mid-September.

Aaron Judge: Fight Back or Step Back

Interestingly, the Yankees chose not to send him to play winter ball anywhere to recover what was misplaced. And while this may have been a health and healing decision, it’s also possible that they thought it would be best to give him a “rest” that would heal his head as much as his body.

His teammates last year say they did not notice any change in his demeanor when things went south, one of whom told the New York Daily News:

"“You never saw a change in him,” Chase Headley said. “You wouldn’t know what his batting average is by his mood, which is not always the case.“He was confident and always involved and not shut off. I was impressed with the way he handled himself. … There are so many variables, some that are in the player’s control and some that aren’t, but when someone has a good head on their shoulders, it generally helps the process. I think he does.”"

Yankees Face Challenges Equal to Those of Judge

If true, that’s a good sign that things will straighten themselves out this season. But that’s not the issue, because ultimately they probably will. Instead, the real problem is if it will happen quickly enough for Aaron Judge to remain a fixture in the Yankees lineup. Because if he sputters and fails early in the season, manager Joe Girardi will have no choice but replace Judge, which probably means a demotion back to the minors so he gets the at bats he needs.

Girardi has already said at the end of the 2016 season that “the hard part is not getting here. The hard part is sticking as people adjust to you, you have to make adjustments as a ballplayer. I think next year’s camp could be extremely competitive, and you need to be ready.” And while he was speaking of the entire team, he was also sending a clear signal to Aaron Judge in particular.

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Clearly, Judge does not want to find himself in a position like the one that has befallen Michael Conforto of the New York Mets, in which he bounces back and forth between the minors and the big club as an All-Star in one league and a giant flop in the other. But at the same time it stands to reason that the Yankees cannot afford to throw the season away in the first month or two.

The Yankees, and in particular Joe Girardi, must know that they have a huge challenge facing them as well with all of the young talent they have assembled in the past several months. How much patience they exercise, when to intercede, who should intercede, and how they need to intercede when things get rough for a player are all going to be questions the Yankees will be answering.

And what makes it even more interesting is that these are questions that for the most part they’ve never had to answer before. Joe Girardi, for instance, is used walking in to see the likes of fully established professional players in the clubhouse. Post a lineup, check on injuries and wait for the game to begin.

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So it’s likely that Aaron Judge will be watching the Yankees as closely as they are watching him. But he is without doubt the one player who, because of all the power he has, will mean the most in determining what the early part of the season looks like for the team as a whole. And the biggest question of all is if Aaron Judge can put those strikeouts (44 percent of the time last season) behind him and move forward to join Gary Sanchez as one of the best 3-4 punches in the game today that can put the Yankees in a serious position to challenge the Red Sox for the AL East title.