The AL East leading New York Yankees are about to be as healthy as they’ve been on the offensive side of the ball at any point this season. Didi Gregorius (Tommy John surgery) was activated two weeks ago and Giancarlo Stanton (biceps, shoulder, calf) was activated earlier this week. Aaron Judge, who’s missed two months with an oblique strain, will return Friday.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone announced Judge’s was imminent return prior to Thursday’s series opener with the Astros. The team has not yet determined who will be removed from the roster, though fifth outfielder Cameron Maybin and his .307/.383/.491 batting line could be in jeopardy.

After playing five Triple-A rehab games the last six days, the Yankees are giving Judge a rest day Thursday before activating him Friday. He went 2 for 16 (.125) with a home run and seven strikeouts in those five rehab games. Judge told reporters, including MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch, he is healthy, and joked he may not crack the lineup because the Yankees are playing so well.

“When I get back on the field, I’ve got to play. I’m not going to try to baby it or go at 80 percent. We’re in the major leagues. I’m going to go at it 100 percent. I’m going to play at it 100 percent. We’re ready to go. That’s not something I’m worried about happening again,” he said. “We added an AL-leading home run hitter in (Edwin) Encarnacion, which I’m excited about. This is going to be fun. Like I said before, I’m trying to crack this lineup now and know where I’m going to fit in. We’ll see.”

The Yankees have gone 36-17 since Judge landed on the injured list, the best record in the American League and the second best record in baseball. Also, they’re averaging 5.48 runs per game this season, fourth best in baseball, despite all those injuries. Now the lineup will be even more formidable with Judge (and Stanton and Encarnacion). Consider:

  1. 3B DJ LeMahieu – .315/.360/.459
  2. RF Aaron Judge – .288/.404/.521 (in 20 games)
  3. 1B Luke Voit – .270/.393/.506
  4. C Gary Sanchez – .266/.336/.616
  5. LF Giancarlo Stanton – .167/.474/.167 (in 4 games)
  6. DH Edwin Encarnacion – .237/.351/.526
  7. SS Didi Gregorius – .294/.314/.412 (in 9 games)
  8. CF Aaron Hicks – .198/.299/.356 (in 27 games)
  9. 2B Gleyber Torres – .283/.345/.524

The Yankees and manager Aaron Boone are firm believers in batting your best hitter second — Voit hit second pretty much full-time while Stanton and Judge were sidelined — so much so that Judge has literally never started a game hitting anywhere other than second under Boone’s watch. I see no reason to think that’ll change. Judge will go back to the No. 2 spot again.

LeMahieu has been so good and so clutch for the Yankees — his .469 average with runners in scoring position is the best in baseball — that it’s hard to see them removing him from the leadoff spot. Stanton batted fifth for the first time since 2017 in his first game back earlier this week. Encarnacion batted sixth for the first time since 2014 in the same game. They could stay there.

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros
New York’s lineup runs much deeper than Luke Voit and Aaron Judge. USATSI

The downside to that lineup above is the left-right imbalance. Gregorius is a lefty and Hicks is a switch-hitter. Everyone else swings from the right side. The team’s lineup construction the last few years tells us the Yankees would prefer not to stack six straight righties atop the lineup. Gregorius or Hicks often batted third between Judge and Stanton last year. An alternative lineup:

  1. 3B DJ LeMahieu
  2. RF Aaron Judge
  3. 1B Luke Voit
  4. SS Didi Gregorius
  5. C Gary Sanchez
  6. RF Giancarlo Stanton
  7. DH Edwin Encarnacion
  8. CF Aaron Hicks
  9. 2B Gleyber Torres

Hicks has struggled since returning from his back injury last month, making Gregorius the natural choice to break up the righties in the middle of the lineup. Should Hicks turn it around at some point, he could find himself in the middle of the order. Until then, Hicks is likely to hit in the lower third of the lineup given the club’s available firepower.

Me? I say stack the righties atop the lineup and let ’em eat. Those guys are not normal right-handed hitters. They are among the game’s best hitters and should be given as many opportunities to impact the game as possible. There are 175 righty hitters with at least 400 plate appearances against right pitchers since Opening Day 2017. Consider the right-on-right OPS leaders:

2. Aaron Judge: .998 (behind Mike Trout — 1.127)
6. Luke Voit: .898
12. Giancarlo Stanton: .873
16. Edwin Encarnacion: .863

While I totally get an opposing team bringing in a righty slider specialist to combat all those righty bats in the late innings worries the Yankees, I don’t think they should sweat it much. Not to the point of giving inferior hitters (with all due respect to Gregorius and Hicks) more at-bats. The Yankees have some great right-on-right hitters. Just put them in the lineup and let them go.

What the Yankees will do and what I think the Yankees should do are two different things. This know nothing CBS Sports scribe suggests the Yankees roll with this lineup once Judge returns Friday:

  1. RF Aaron Judge
  2. 1B Luke Voit
  3. LF Giancarlo Stanton
  4. C Gary Sanchez
  5. DH Edwin Encarnacion
  6. 3B DJ LeMahieu
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. 2B Gleyber Torres
  9. CF Aaron Hicks

Boone mentioned using Judge as the leadoff hitter against left-handed pitchers last spring — “What do I think of a leadoff hitter? It’s someone who gets on base. Starts the team. Gets things going. There’s all different types of leadoff hitters,” Judge told MLB.com’s Bryan Hoch when presented with the idea — though it never did happen in regular season games.

Would Judge be a conventional leadoff hitter? No, he would not. And truth be told, I generally believe No. 2 is the best spot for him. That way he still gets a ton of at-bats, he still hits with men on base, and his on-base skills allow him to set the table for the middle of the lineup. That is the entire thinking behind the “best hitter bats second” strategy.

These current Yankees present a special case, however. They have so much power — so much power — that potentially turning a few multi-run homers into solo homers by batting Judge leadoff is not a huge deal. I believe the Yankees would gain more by getting Judge those extra at-bats than they would lose in multi-run homers. It’s a net positive.

Batting a slugger in the leadoff position is an increasingly popular strategy. Reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts mashed 30 home runs from the leadoff spot last year. George Springer has been crushing dingers from the leadoff spot for a few years now, including five during his 2017 World Series MVP performance. Unconventional doesn’t equal bad.

I don’t expect the Yankees to actually bat Judge leadoff, as tempting as it may be. LeMahieu at the leadoff spot, Judge in the No. 2 spot, then Voit, Encarnacion, Stanton, and Sanchez in the 3-4-5-6-7 spots in some order with a lefty (Gregorius or Hicks) mixed in is the likely outcome. Either way, there is no soft landing spot for pitchers. This lineup will be a nightmare.

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