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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘He’s here’: Yankees’ top prospect makes team as shortstop

Anthony Volpe’s strong play in spring training helped him earn a roster spot with the Yankees.

By Tyler Kepner

He was somewhere downtown, Anthony Volpe remembers, though not near City Hall, because he didn’t hear the speeches. Wherever he started in that giddy crowd of New York Yankees fans, he ended up in front.

“My sister and I, we were tiny, so we weaseled our way in,” Volpe said last week, all grown up now, in the Yankees’ clubhouse at spring training. “We were pretty much right next to the gate. It was amazing.”

Volpe was 8 years old on that crisp November afternoon in 2009, just another beaming face at the Yankees’ championship parade, basking in the glory of a World Series title. He could not tell exactly who was gliding by, but to him they were all legends.

“I was so small that I could honestly hardly even see on top of the float, but it didn’t matter,” said Volpe, who grew up in Watchung, New Jersey, 40 miles southwest of Yankee Stadium. “What I remember about it is, no matter who was there, everyone was just going crazy. It could have been someone you never even see on TV, but they’re a part of the team and they probably got just as big a cheer.”

Volpe, 21, will be on TV a lot this season. The Yankees named him to their opening day roster Sunday, meaning he will work on the same patch of dirt where his favorite player, Derek Jeter, once roamed.

Volpe will be the youngest member of the Yankees’ opening day lineup since Jeter, also 21, in 1996. That season ended in a championship, the first of five for Jeter. None of his successors have led the Yankees back to the World Series since 2009, and now it is Volpe’s turn to try.

“My heart was beating pretty hard,” Volpe told reporters Sunday, after Aaron Boone delivered the news in the manager’s office at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. “I don’t really have too many words right now. It just feels amazing.”

Volpe was competing with Oswald Peraza for the starting job, with the incumbent, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, now in a utility role. Volpe, who has never played in the majors, earned the spot by hitting .314 with three homers, five steals and a 1.064 on-base plus slugging percentage through Sunday.

A couple of late flourishes offered hints of the dynamic kind of player Volpe can be. On Friday, after Minnesota’s Pablo López struck him out on a slider, Volpe hammered the same pitch over the center-field fence in his next at-bat. On Saturday, when his bloop hit skipped past the Philadelphia right fielder, Volpe dashed 270 feet — in 12.3 seconds — for a triple.

“Everything we kind of expected and hoped for, he’s looked the part,” Boone said after the game with the Twins. “He’s come in and fit in really well. His work has been excellent, and he’s gone out and performed.”

The Yankees drafted Volpe with their first-round pick, 30th overall, in the 2019 draft, swaying him from a commitment to Vanderbilt with a bonus of more than $2.7 million. Turning pro was the hardest decision he ever had to make, he said, but he kept reminding himself that he had two appealing options, so he could not lose.

Volpe excelled in the Yankees’ system, showing so much promise that the Yankees passed on a loaded free-agent shortstop market two offseasons in a row. They could have pursued an established star such as Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager or Trea Turner, but invested in Volpe’s future instead.

Volpe insisted he did not pay much attention to the Yankees’ strategy; to him, he said, it felt “super, super out of my control,” which has helped him simply focus on improving. His progress has shown in his statistics: 27 homers and 33 steals at two Class A levels in 2021, then 21 homers and 50 steals at the upper two levels last season.

“He’s a competitor and he’s a gamer, and those are two intangibles that you need to have a fighting chance in the big leagues,” said outfielder Aaron Judge, the team captain.

“You see what he can do with the bat, you see what he can do on the field, but I think playing in New York is a little different than playing anywhere else. So if you’re a competitor and a gamer, the fans want that out of you. They’re paying good money to see us play, and if you’re giving it your all — you’re hustling down the line and doing things on a daily basis to prepare — the fans are going to be with you through the ups and the downs.”

The challenge, Judge said, will be for the Yankees to stick with Volpe even if he struggles early. Judge hit .179 in his first taste of the majors in 2016, striking out in half of his at-bats. Yet he made the opening day lineup the next season, won the American League Rookie of the Year Award and was on his way to becoming the sport’s premier slugger.

Not all prospects develop the way Judge has, of course, and the core of young talent the Yankees tried to develop around him has mostly faded: Miguel Andújar, Tyler Austin, Greg Bird, Clint Frazier and Gary Sánchez are all gone, none fulfilling their early promise.

The Yankees could have bought more time for Volpe by sending him to the minors and giving Peraza the job, but Volpe seems to have the makeup to go with the talent.

“As far as overall skill set, I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player, so now it’s about his maturity and how he goes about it,” said Willie Randolph, the Yankees’ former second baseman and captain. “But I’ve got to say, I’ve been pretty impressed with that. We’ve had a lot of conversations, and when we interact with each other, you can see that he’s here.”

Randolph, a special instructor at spring training, pointed to his head.

“He’s here,” Randolph repeated. “And when you get a kid that’s here, you’ve got a chance.”

Now Volpe is really here — Yankee Stadium, Thursday afternoon, opening day against the San Francisco Giants. The kid has broken through the gate.

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