TORONTO — The New York Yankees are one of very few teams that can hold a daunting practice.
A few hours before the Toronto Blue Jays officially kicked off their 2018 season, their opponents for the opening four-game series took to the batting cage in the Rogers Centre. And, frankly, they abused the place.
There was Aaron Judge, unwinding his monstrous frame and sending an opposite-field rocket off the facing of the third deck. There was Giancarlo Stanton, who stepped up after Judge and looked weirdly tiny, but who still belted balls that crashed into the second deck before they had reached their apex. There was Gary Sanchez, merely the best power-hitting catcher to arrive in a couple of decades, who at least just hit batting-practice home runs that look like normal home runs.
As much as the Blue Jays come into this year needing a bunch of players to have bounce-back seasons if the team is going to make a serious push at returning to the playoffs, one of the main reasons the next few months will be challenging was staring them in the face on Thursday afternoon.
The Yankees, to the utter chagrin of pretty much the entire baseball world that does not actively support the team from the Bronx, have become frighteningly good. The team that made the playoffs 17 times over an 18-year stretch between 1995 and 2012 — and won five World Series — somehow managed to turn itself into another powerhouse just a few seasons after the key players from those championship teams retired. They did this without even having a single losing season, the jerks.
I suppose I was being disingenuous with the “somehow” part a couple of sentences ago. It’s no secret how the Yankees become so good again. They combined shrewd scouting — Judge was a late first-round draft pick and Sanchez was signed as a non-drafted free agent — with financial resources that are roughly the equal of a sheikh sitting on a pile of oil. And with the front office having finally relieved itself of the mega contracts of Alex Rodriguez and C.C. Sabathia, it had plenty of money to use on the $25-million contract of Stanton, the reigning National League MVP who was acquired from the Miami Marlins, whose new owners were all but using the furniture for firewood this winter. The Marlins are now run by Derek Jeter, who insists he is not a double-agent for the Yankees, but that’s what he would say, isn’t it?
Anyway. How they got here is somewhat beside the point, but what matters for Blue Jays fans is not just that that Yankees are the favourites to scoop up one of the three playoff spots that are available to Toronto — the AL East title and two wild cards — but that they will have to face them 18 more times before the season is out.
It’s a problem, and not just because of the batting-practice fireworks. In his rookie season last year, Judge mashed 52 home runs, and while his giant strike zone led to a remarkable 208 strikeouts, he also led the American League with 127 walks. His 33 home runs at Yankee Stadium were the most ever for a New York player, passing the mark of 32 set by Babe Ruth. I mean, honestly: Babe Ruth!
Stanton, meanwhile, hit 59 home runs himself in Miami last season, the most by anyone since Barry Bonds. The 111 combined home runs from Judge and Stanton last season are exactly half of the total that the Blue Jays, as a team, hit in 2017. On Thursday, with a runner on in the first inning, Stanton absolutely powdered a line drive to the opposite field to give the Yankees an early 2-0 lead. For fans of the Blue Jays and also foreshadowing it was not a great combination. He lasered a double in the fifth inning to drive in another run.
Amid all the (deserved) fuss over Judge and Stanton, Sanchez has become something of a forgotten man, even though it was him who arrived in the majors with a thunderclap in the summer of 2016, hitting 20 home runs in about two months. The 33 homers he hit last season were the most by any catcher in the majors in the past 15 years and the most by any catcher under 25 years old since Mike Piazza hit 35 in 1993. Or, the last time the Blue Jays won a World Series.
Aside from all the pop, the Yankees have high-end starters in Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka, plus they picked up a potential ace from Oakland in Sonny Gray because that’s what Oakland does. And the New York bullpen features a veritable army of fireballers. The Yankees gave the rest of baseball a noogie by trading closer Aroldis Chapman for four prospects late in 2016, then re-signing him a few months later.
It all adds up to a Yankees team that, to the rest of the sport, is annoyingly well-constructed. They are also young — just seven of 25 players older than 29 — and could always add salary, because that’s what New York does.
It is, to use a term from earlier, daunting. But if Blue Jays fans want to console themselves with something as they ponder the Yankees with envy and disgust, they should at least know they have plenty of company.
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