Yankees’ Brett Gardner: ‘The Red Sox are the team to beat’

New York Yankees
Clint Frazier, Aaron Judge and Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees react after the victory in game one of a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox. –Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. — Don’t say health. Every team needs healthy players. But if not health, then what, exactly, should worry the New York Yankees in the final week or so before the regular season? Answering that question might be the biggest challenge of this strangely serene spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

At least when camp started, the Yankees had openings at second and third base, with highly touted prospects penciled in. Then they added veterans who can play both positions, trading for Brandon Drury from the Arizona Diamondbacks and signing the veteran Neil Walker as a free agent.

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Add them to their offseason prize, Giancarlo Stanton, and the Yankees have three proven newcomers to replace the trio they lost from their American League Championship Series lineup: Starlin Castro, Todd Frazier and Chase Headley. Plenty of prospects await in the high minors, scratching at the clubhouse door.

If a general manager’s job is to worry, as Brian Cashman often says, then he must feel pretty comfortable right now, right?

“I’m never comfortable,” Cashman insisted on Monday. “I never said I was comfortable. The best general managers are served well by being uncomfortable at all times. I think these guys all know my job is to find something better than they are. At all times, that’s the job: to improve the roster when opportunity exists.”

The Yankees had pursued Drury for a while, and got him on Feb. 20 in a three-team trade that sent one prospect to Arizona and another to Tampa Bay. They got Walker last week for $4 million, a steal for a reliable switch-hitter with power and a good on-base percentage.

But might the Walker deal hurt the Yankees’ chances of adding a piece at the trading deadline while still staying under the $197 million luxury-tax threshold? Nope, Cashman said. No worries there, either.

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“I wouldn’t have done Walker if I didn’t still have powder dry to do stuff,” Cashman said.

Maybe the Yankees’ hitters will strike out too much; Stanton and Judge did combine for 371 strikeouts last season. Then again, they also combined for 111 home runs. The Yankees can live with that.

“It’s a trade-off for our power,” Cashman said, “but I don’t worry about that as long as we’re putting runs on the board.”

Aaron Boone, the Yankees’ new manager, said he often wakes up in the middle of the night with a new idea or concern. Boone said he dreams a lot about his job — but he didn’t say he has nightmares.

“I tussle with a lot of things on a daily basis,” Boone said. “Not necessarily all that I’ll share here, but you’ve got to have some degree of health.”

Nope, Aaron, sorry. Rules are rules. You can’t say health.

“I mean, if you’re asking me if I really like our team, the answer’s yes,” Boone said. “But there’s always concerns. There’s always things that I’m thinking about. I’ve talked about being really good at the details and the margins that I think help good teams become great teams.”

The best team of Boone’s playing career was the 2003 Yankees, a team with such a deep bench that Boone did not even start Game 7 of the ALCS, which he ended with his famous home run. It was so deep in pitching that two relievers for that postseason — Jose Contreras and Jeff Weaver — soon pitched in rotations for teams that won the World Series.

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Rotation depth might be an actual concern for these Yankees. C.C. Sabathia turns 38 in July, though he has learned to thrive with guile, not power. Masahiro Tanaka had that elbow problem in 2014, but he looked quite sturdy last October. As for Luis Severino, Sonny Gray and Jordan Montgomery — and all the power relievers behind them — what’s not to like?

“I felt good about our team last year, and obviously we had a really good year, but I do feel better about our team going into this season,” left fielder Brett Gardner said. “It’s a long season and we’ll see what happens, but I expect us to have a lot of fun together.”

That has been Sabathia’s message to Stanton, too. Sabathia won the World Series in his first year as a Yankee, in 2009, when expectations were even higher than they are now. That is how Sabathia remembers it, citing the opening of the new Yankee Stadium and the contracts the Yankees had just showered on him, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. Stanton will be expected to adjust as smoothly as Sabathia did.

“We’ve talked, just leaving from the small market to the big market,” Sabathia said. “It’s the same, man. It’s baseball. A few more media reporters, but it’s all the same — and it’s a lot of fun to play here.”

Spring training has not been fun for everyone. Clint Frazier is out with a concussion, and Jacoby Ellsbury has a strained oblique. Mostly, though, the Yankees look ready, and only this should really concern them: other teams — especially the defending champion Houston Astros — are also really good.

“The Red Sox are the team to beat because they won the AL East last year, and same thing with the American League with the Astros,” Gardner said. “They had the best team in baseball and they’re better now than they were at the end of last year. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

They do, but who doesn’t? Soon there will be real games, tangible examples of reasons to worry. For now, though, you need to squint pretty hard to find any faults. Enjoy it while it lasts.