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When Aaron Judge Returns, Yankees Will Have an Outfield Puzzle

MINNEAPOLIS — It was a welcome sight for the Yankees on Wednesday, as Aaron Judge jogged across the diamond to take batting practice with the full team for the first time since breaking a bone in his right wrist on July 26. Judge, their 6-foot-7, 282-pound slugger, grabbed a bat and proceeded to spray line drives all over Target Field.

The Yankees remain optimistic that he will return from the injury before the end of the season, but they’ve offered few details beyond that. He needs at-bats first, most likely in simulated games at the Yankees’ complex in Tampa.

Whenever Judge returns to the lineup, though, Manager Aaron Boone will have a puzzle to solve: One of the three regular outfielders he has used lately — the veteran Brett Gardner, the dependable Aaron Hicks and the recently acquired Andrew McCutchen — will have to go to the bench.

And the decision may not be as simple as plugging Judge into right field in place of McCutchen, the five-time All-Star with Pittsburgh and former National League most valuable player — especially with the Yankees struggling to score when they’re not hitting home runs.

“I think they all will play a role,” Boone said Wednesday. “There’s no question there is going to be an everyday player who sits more than he ever has.”

Hicks seems the safest bet to remain where he is in the short term. Playing exclusively in center field, Hicks has posted career highs this season in games played (124), at-bats (435), hits (106), home runs (24) and runs batted in (68).

“That’s the reason why I’ve been so productive this year: I’ve been in the lineup pretty much every single day,” Hicks said. “It’s good for me that all I need to do is go out there and produce, and I’m in there the next day.”

Defensively, the 28-year-old Hicks covers more ground than Gardner, 35, or McCutchen, 31. But with the way his team is playing, the determining factor for Boone might be offense, not defense.

The Yankees entered Thursday’s off-day clinging to a one-game lead over the Oakland Athletics for the top American League wild-card spot. Over their recent 7-9 funk, which allowed Oakland to close the gap, the Yankees woefully underperformed with men on base. Over the nine-game road trip they just completed, the Yankees were 10-for-59 (.169) with runners in scoring position. Half of those hits came Monday night in a 7-2 victory in Minnesota, the only win in a three-game series against a club the Yankees have generally dominated since 2002.

If this keeps up, Boone, the rookie manager, might be forced to play whoever gets hot. Unfortunately for him, none of the three are right now.

McCutchen is batting .152 as a Yankee; he was 2-for-8 with five walks in the Minnesota series. Hicks, a switch-hitter, went 3-for-27 (.111) on the road trip and hasn’t had a multiple-hit game since Aug. 30.

Gardner batted .209 in August, but was 7-for-25 (.280) on the trip — though he missed the final two games after injuring his right knee on a sliding catch on Monday. Boone expects Gardner to return for Friday’s series opener against Toronto at Yankee Stadium.

“I think defense matters,” Boone said. “I think who’s swinging the bat well matters. I think who we’re matching up against, who’s on the other side, I think all of those things get baked into the cake when you’re making those kinds of decisions.”

Gardner and McCutchen could play in center, also, if they had to. McCutchen is a former National League Gold Glove winner who shifted from center to right this season when the Pirates traded him to San Francisco. Gardner, while primarily a left fielder, has played about a third of his career games in center, 26 of them this year.

Batting order position could be a factor, as well. Boone said in Minnesota that he expected to slot Judge into his familiar No. 2 spot when he returned. Boone experimented with McCutchen leading off all three games in Minnesota, dropping Gardner to ninth, and McCutchen reached base eight times in the series.

This weekend, Judge, who was hitting .285 with 26 home runs in 99 games before his injury, is expected to work out more extensively at Yankee Stadium before the club decides what’s next for him. At best, he could return sometime next week. That doesn’t give Gardner, Hicks or McCutchen much time to make himself indispensable.

“It’s a good problem to have because we have Aaron Judge back in the lineup, and we’re deciding between a couple of really good players for who’s in the lineup on a given day,” Boone said. “That’s only going to make our roster stronger. It’s only going to make our bench stronger. It’s only going to make us more capable of matching up, not only at the start of the game, but as the game unfolds.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B14 of the New York edition with the headline: Judge’s Impending Return Leaves the Yankees With an Outfield Conundrum. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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