Why Yankees’ Aaron Judge (briefly) picked up a 1B glove again and how he feels about it

TAMPA, Fla. — As Aaron Judge worked out at the New York Yankees’ player development complex in January and early February, he was surrounded by mostly infielders.

Often, he’d find himself on the field with Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Volpe, Gleyber Torres and others. So, when it was time for grounders, Judge would occasionally grab the first baseman’s mitt he swiped from the Yankees’ equipment closet and head over to the position.

“Somebody had to go over there,” he said, smiling.

Judge also worked at first base with infield instructor and first-base coach Travis Chapman. The 31-year-old said he enjoyed revisiting the position and learning some of the nuances he hadn’t needed to consider since he last played there as a freshman at Fresno State.

For instance, Judge said he enjoyed learning how to take angles toward grounders screaming toward him rather than just trying to keep the ball in front of him and letting it potentially thud into his body like a hockey goalie. Plus, he said, it would sometimes get a little monotonous being the only outfielder taking fly balls.

But, Judge said, he hasn’t at all considered a possible permanent move to the infield.

“I plan to be an outfielder for as long as I can, for as long as my contract lasts,” he said.

However, he didn’t rule out being ready to play there in a game in a pinch if necessary.

“I always want to be ready to help the team,” he said, “if it’s playing center field or left field, anything I can do to help the team win.”

It wasn’t the first time Judge had played around at first base. Before 2023 spring training, reporters — watching from behind the center-field fence of one of the back fields at the team’s player development complex — saw Judge take groundballs and throws at the position. He also played first base and pitched in high school.

Judge acknowledged that it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that he could be called upon to play there a few innings as soon as this season.

Rizzo, who missed the final two months of last season with post-concussion syndrome, is healthy and expected to be the team’s starting first baseman. But Rizzo’s primary backup, LeMahieu, is slated to be the Yankees’ starting third baseman.

What if Rizzo gets hurt again and the Yankees somehow can’t move LeMahieu off third? Or what if both Rizzo and LeMahieu are hurt at the same time?

Judge has already shown a willingness to be flexible.

As the Yankees dealt with a slew of injuries in 2022, he played the majority of his games in center field and still hit 62 home runs, setting an American League record.

And when the team acquired star Juan Soto from the San Diego Padres in the winter, the Yankees determined his defensive skill set would best fit the short right field at Yankee Stadium. That meant another move to center field for Judge — except now it’ll be full time.

Soto will be a free agent after this season, but on Thursday, owner Hal Steinbrenner said he wouldn’t rule out trying to talk contract extension with Soto and his agent, Scott Boras, during the season — as long as the negotiations didn’t cause a “distraction.”

If the Yankees signed Soto to a long-term deal, right field — Judge’s primary position — would likely be locked up for the foreseeable future. And two of the Yankees’ top hitting prospects — Jasson Domínguez and Spencer Jones — are center fielders. Steinbrenner specifically mentioned the power-hitting Jones when talking about the prospects he would be “hesitant” to surrender in a trade.

Two other 31-year-old right field stars on nine-figure, long-term deals have moved to the infield recently. The Philadelphia Phillies’ Bryce Harper will play first base this season, and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts has said he plans to exclusively play second base.

Still, Judge, who doesn’t have a Gold Glove but is consistently ranked one of the better defensive outfielders in the game, said he’s committed to the outfield. He said his dalliance with first base was mostly about having fun while staying ready in case something extreme were to happen.

“I just like taking on new challenges,” he said.

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