Who is the Yankees' MVP? They've got plenty of candidates

NEW YORK -- Since Luke Voit was called up last August at the end of his most recent minor league stint, the New York Yankees have played 91 regular-season games.

Voit has appeared in nearly all of them.

As a result, his name has suddenly become as recognizable among the Yankees' fan base as Aaron Judge's, Giancarlo Stanton's, Gary Sanchez's and Didi Gregorius'.

The once-unknown first baseman hasn't just become one of the most identifiable faces on the team, he also has been a consistent presence in a Bronx Bombers lineup that, at least across the past 91 regular-season games, often has been without some of the aforementioned megastars. Key injuries at the end of last season and the start of this one have routinely depleted the roster.

But despite the various pains the Yankees have endured this spring, they somehow have one of the best records in all of baseball and are leading the American League East.

Injuries aside, it has been business as usual.

"There's just been a good energy, consistently, day in and day out about the way these guys have gone about things," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

Now that they have passed Memorial Day and are a third of the way through a season in which they've lacked most of their expected top contributors, one big question is: How have the Yankees done this?

Here's another: Who's the MVP, the man most responsible for keeping them afloat?

A strong case certainly could be made for Voit, the burly slugger who's tied for second on the team with 13 home runs. He has missed only one of the Yankees' 53 games to this point, splitting time at first base and designated hitter.

Batting lately out of the No. 2 hole normally occupied by Judge, Voit has been one of several saviors for the banged-up Bombers.

"He's brought so much to the table for us," Boone said. "Obviously between the lines, he's been really good. He's loved coming here and being a Yankee. They love him in that room. He brings something to the park every day, just from an energy standpoint, and we're so lucky to have him."

Voit brings so much energy during his home run trots that he left his teammates bewildered Saturday afternoon when he rather calmly glided around the bases after the 470-foot shot that he parked into a bush just below the outfield concourse at Kauffman Stadium.

Typically when he hits a no-doubter, Voit gives a little quick hop out of the batter's box, a la Sammy Sosa, before beginning his jog. Virtually any time he slaps a ball deep, other Yankees are on the lookout for the move.

This time, though, after he paused briefly to view the deep drive -- the longest homer of his three-season career, which was hit in his home state in front of about 60 family members and against the team that made him a 32nd-round draft pick out of high school -- Voit just put his head down and started running. There was no hop.

"Everyone was like, 'Why didn't you do the hop?'" Voit said, laughing. "I didn't mean anything bad [by admiring the homer], but it was one of those you don't hit very often."

Voit's most pressing short-term goal is a team one. He longs to finally see batting orders that resemble those used in last year's playoffs, ones that feature Judge, Stanton, Gregorius and Sanchez along with him.

"I'm super anxious for those guys to get back," Voit said.

Naturally, he believes each player's mere presence can help the Yankees win. But there is another reason he's eager to have them back in the lineup.

"Because I might be able to see more fastballs than what I'm seeing," he said.

It's true. Since Judge joined the injured list April 21, Voit has seen fastballs on 33.2 percent of the pitches thrown to him. That's just below the league average of 35.4 percent, and it's way below the 47.1 percent he saw while Judge was healthy and helping protect him in the order. Constantly fed fastballs during that three-week, early-season stretch, Voit hit four home runs.

In the 91 regular-season games since Voit made his ascent to New York's 25-man roster, the Yankees have trotted out 88 different lineups. Only nine times has he been in the same batting order as Judge, Stanton, Sanchez and Gregorius. Voit actually didn't think, aside from last year's playoffs, that he ever had.

Perhaps within a few very short weeks, the lineup he's seeking will become a staple.

Gregorius is at most another two weeks away from a full return from offseason Tommy John surgery. Stanton, currently shut down due to an unexpected, non-related setback in his rehab from a biceps/shoulder injury, could be back about the same time. Judge continues progressing from a left oblique issue, and may get back sometime before the end of June.

Sanchez, who was on the injured list earlier this season, has been back since late April. And so has his bat.

Since his return off the IL, Sanchez has 10 homers. After an opposite-field, eighth-inning solo blast Monday, he's up to 16 for the season. In 2018, when he was limited to 89 games because of injury, he had 18 home runs.

Of Sanchez's post-IL homers, four have traveled more than 440 feet.

Which takes us back to the MVP question. If it isn't Voit or Sanchez, who is it?

"Guys like Gio [Urshela] and Thairo [Estrada], it's unbelievable how some of those guys aren't playing every day, and they're stepping up in huge situations for us," Voit said.

Added Yankees lifer Brett Gardner on the bevy of Triple-A talent the Yankees have employed this season: "When you have guys like that that are literally fighting for a job, fighting to stay up here day-to-day, it's fun to see."

As Gardner spoke in front of his home locker, the player Urshela is replacing, injured third baseman Miguel Andujar, walked by with his right arm in a black sling. A little more than a week ago, Andujar had surgery on his partially torn right labrum.

"Como estas?" the veteran leader Gardner said, asking Andujar how he was feeling.

"Tranquilo," Andujar responded.

That's actually a good word -- quiet -- to describe the defensive wizardry Urshela has routinely demonstrated in Andujar's absence.

Whether throwing from his backside across to first base, or throwing while falling or charging and making barehanded scoops, Urshela has looked quite smooth and easygoing in producing his share of "wow" moments.

"He laughs at a ground ball coming to him," Boone said earlier this season. "It's like he's getting into a warm bath. He just picks it up real nice, you know?"

After one particularly jaw-dropping snag and seated toss in Kansas City over the weekend, Boone doubled down on that statement.

"That's that warm bath I'm talking about," Boone said of the play. "He was over there taking a bath."

Urshela did have a rare miscue Sunday that ultimately cost the Yankees in a 10th-inning loss to the Royals. On the game's last play, a grounder chopped toward Urshela took a higher hop than he anticipated and got past him for a walk-off Royals hit.

Boone, a former major league third baseman himself, believes Kauffman Stadium's infield, hardened at the end of a long, sunny day, may have contributed.

"You're dead there. You've just got to stay in your legs as best you can," Boone said. "You almost know at that point in the game where it's dried out, and this isn't the greatest field anyway. You're a little bit at the mercy. You've just got to fight the fight and be able to make the play.

"Most usually really good infielders kind of create their hops. That's a situation where you're up against it."

In addition to his generally solid defense, Urshela has delivered timely hits throughout the season. In 14 plate appearances with two outs and runners in scoring position entering Monday, Urshela had eight RBIs with a 1.000 OPS.

"Even when we got him last year [via a late-season trade], I don't know if we expected this kind of offensive output that has been really consistent since Day 1," Boone said.

Aside from Voit, Sanchez and little-known fill-ins like Urshela, a case could be made that starting pitcher Domingo German has been the key piece to making this whole Yankees operation flow. The unexpected ace of the staff was the first pitcher in the big leagues to nine wins. He ended up drawing a no-decision after he allowed seven runs and four homers Sunday. His lone loss came in an earlier start versus the Royals, a team he has an 8.18 ERA against. Against everyone else, he's undefeated with a cool 2.47.

And when it comes to leading perhaps the quietest early-season Yankees MVP campaign, the 35-year-old Gardner gets the nod.

He's batting .240 with a .786 OPS (his career-high is .804) and has already hit eight home runs. At this pace, he'd set a career-high in long balls (21 in 2017). Considering the work he put in this winter, that might be expected.

"I made some adjustments over the course of the offseason and spring to try and drive the ball a little more and do some things a little differently," Gardner said. "Nothing major."

Such as?

"You can't just go up there and say I'm going to drive the ball," he said. "There's obviously got to be a process to it. So for me, it was just a matter of cleaning up a couple things in my swing, and putting myself where I was capable of doing that.

"[That was] anything from my stance to where my feet are, to the angle of my feet, to the height of my hands, to the timing when I get started, to my load. Nothing major, just trying to clean up a few things to put myself in a position to be more consistent."

Speed is still a weapon for Gardner, too, as evidenced by his seven doubles and three triples. One of those triples came on the Yankees' recent road trip, in the same game that he hustled from first to home for a key run.

"That's just the way I've always kind of played, and it's important to bring that energy," Gardner said. "I think these guys get a kick out of seeing me still be able to run a little bit. I talk a little trash to them. I tell Clint [Frazier] and Tyler Wade and those guys that I'm still faster than them."

Whether or not he's actually faster than some of the organization's speedsters, the Yankees see the Gardner's style of play rub off on their current underdog-laden roster.

"It has a profound effect," Boone said. "That's one of the ways that he impacts the room and the clubhouse, is the way he goes about his business. There's an edge, there's a toughness, there's a blue collar that is who he is. And that's part of his game. Hopefully guys always take notice of that, and I think they do."

Yankees players are noticing something else too. They're noticing the work of the men they consider the real MVPs of this challenging start to the season.

"It all starts with our coaching staff. They put in a lot of work behind the scenes to put us in a position to be successful," Gardner said. "That's the one thing that's been constant.

"None of those guys have gone on the IL."

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