LAKELAND, Fla. — At 9:30 Tuesday morning the Blue Jays hadn’t named an Opening Day starter to face the Yankees on March 29 in Toronto, so Aaron Boone wasn’t ready to offer a glimpse of what his lineup will look like.
Not long after Boone left his office at George M. Steinbrenner Field to watch Sonny Gray pitch at the minor league complex, Blue Jays manager John Gibbons tabbed veteran lefty J.A. Happ to open the season against a team he has dominated recently.
Immediately, the guessing game began. Would Boone play Giancarlo Stanton in left instead of Brett Gardner, a career .300 (9-for-30) hitter against Happ? Will Greg Bird, who has never had an official at-bat against Happ, hit third between Aaron Judge and Stanton? In what spot will Boone use Didi Gregorius, who is 2-for-17 (.118) against Happ?
Following the Yankees’ 8-3 loss to the Tigers at Publix Field, Boone addressed the lineup questions without offering a touch of finality.
“We are starting to grind away on that now that we know the rotation for the first four games, keeping in mind who we might want to give a day off on Sunday,’’ said Boone, who anointed Tyler Wade a 25-man roster spot after he tripled and doubled against the Tigers to continue a scintillating spring. “We will look at it a little more earnestly now.’’
While the Yankees have experimented with Stanton in left field so they are covered when Boone wants to rest Gardner against a lefty, that won’t happen against Happ.
“Gardy will be in the lineup on Opening Day against Happ,’’ said Boone, who will likely use Stanton as the DH.
Like Gary Sanchez, Stanton is 2-for-9 (.222) lifetime against Happ. In a very small sample (54 at-bats) as a DH, Stanton is a .333 hitter with four homers, 13 RBIs and a 1.019 OPS.
As for who will hit between Judge and Stanton, Boone didn’t commit, but sounded like he favors Bird, a career .257 (18-for-70) with five homers, 15 RBIs and a .846 OPS against lefties.
“I would say there is a reasonable chance of that,’’ Boone said of hitting Bird third to break up the right-handed bats of Stanton and Judge. “We will see and it is one of those that could be fluid, too.’’
As always, health is the Yankees’ major concern with Bird.
“We feel like if we can keep him healthy and posting we feel like it will be a big season for him,’’ Boone said of Bird, who missed all of 2016 due to shoulder surgery and a big chunk of last year due to a foot problem that required surgery in mid-July and limited him to 48 regular-season games.
And despite giving Neil Walker $4 million — and despite his big edge in experience over Wade at second base — Boone said it’s possible the 23-year-old rookie with 30 big-league games under his belt could face Happ. The switch-hitting Walker is a .267 (4-for-15) against Happ.
“He showed me a lot here and all the other things he brings to the table there will be some lefties that you will see [Wade] in the lineup,’’ Boone said.
In seven games since returning to the Blue Jays in 2016 the 35-year-old Happ is 5-0 with a 2.00 ERA against the Yankees.
As recently as Saturday, Blue Jays ace Marcus Stroman predicted he would be ready for the opener despite being slowed by an inflamed right shoulder. Wanting to give Stroman more time, Gibbons will start Stroman on April 1 after Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada pitch the second and third games. The Yankees will counter with Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray.
Whatever way Boone goes with the lineup there is one thing guaranteed: It will be one of many arrangements Boone uses across 162 chances.