Returning stars bring tough decisions in Yankees' outfield

For much of the 2019 season so far, the Yankees have played great baseball. They are currently sitting in first place and have grabbed that spot in the standings despite an almost comical slew of injuries that began in spring training and hasn’t let up since. While the injuries have struck every part of the roster, one group that was particularly hard hit was the outfield. The Yankees entered this season with a group of outfielders that boasted multiple All Star and MVP-caliber players. With some of these players now set to return, what will this group look like going forward?

Credit: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

For the Yankees’ outfield, the season never really got out of the gate. Starting center fielder Aaron Hicks came down with a lower back strain at the very beginning of March and, despite optimism, didn't return until mid-May. OF/DH Giancarlo Stanton played in just three games before landing on the IL with a bicep strain on April 1st. After several false starts and new issues that have arisen he finally appears to be on the cusp of returning sometime in the next week. Starting RF Aaron Judge also appears to be on track for a return next week after going down in mid-April with what was deemed a “pretty significant” oblique strain. With their depth decimated, the Yankees’ had to scramble and have found some pieces that have proved useful. The Yankees will now have to decide the fate of these players and who they might keep around. 

In the absence of these players, top prospect Clint Frazier has been playing the outfield everyday. Cameron Maybin was plucked off the Cleveland Indians Triple-A roster and has been a very useful player, both offensively and defensively. After losing his starting job down the stretch last season, Brett Gardner has been playing everyday with mixed results. These three players will now see their roles change or disappear altogether.

I’ll start by saying that the return of Judge and Stanton will almost certainly spell the end for Kendrys Morales in pinstripes. While Morales was placed on the IL with a calf injury Thursday and Mike Tauchman was recalled, once Stanton or Judge are ready Tauchman will be sent back down and Morales will likely be DFA'd when he is healthy. While he is an admired veteran in this league, he has been terrible as a Yankee and the return of Stanton especially makes his presence useless. 

The simplest way to clear up the second roster spot among these players would be to DFA Maybin. He hasn’t been with the team for very long and his days in the league are likely dwindling. Still, he has been a revelation for this Yankee team. He sports a solid .278/.361/.368 line and can comfortably play every outfield position. If he was DFA’d, he would almost certainly be claimed. They could try to get him to Triple-A but due to his service time he could refuse and elect FA.

The most complicated of these cases is Clint Frazier. Frazier has been considered a top prospect since he joined the organization in 2016. We have long heard that his defense is not very good and that is proving to be true on the major league level so far. In his defense, Frazier has reportedly been showing up early and working hard with coaches to improve, but much like it was with Gary Sanchez, it could be a while before we see the results.

On the other hand, Frazier has been very good with the bat so far, posting a .276/.328/.523 line so far with 11 homers and 33 RBI. His season has included a three-week stint on the IL for a sprained ankle but in his first extended action since 2017, he is showing that he could be a very good hitter for a long time. While his defense is definitely concerning, Clint possesses the natural hitting talent and bat speed that you cannot teach and that could make him a perennial 30 home run threat. It's very possible that the Yankees send him down to continue playing everyday and working on his defense, but at the very least he has shown that he could be a very good everyday player in the years to come all the while improving his trade value.

The last and probably the toughest situation to address is that of Brett Gardner. We know that both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will be in the lineup everyday when they return, with Aaron Hicks manning center field. Judge will be in right field and Giancarlo will likely be the everyday DH although he is a very capable outfielder as well. Gardner is currently the longest tenured Yankee and is a respected veteran presence on this team, but his performance this season has been very tough to watch. He has gone on a few hot streaks here and there, but his overall numbers are not good (.228/.302/.443). While he still provides speed, defense and works at-bats, it is hard to say that the team doesn’t have players like DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks that don’t do those things as well or better than he does. Gardy has already been replaced at the top of batting order by those two and they currently have two other players at his position on the roster hitting better than him as well.

Credit: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

The complicating factor is that Gardy is a career Yankee and because of that it would be very difficult to imagine them DFA'ing him or forcing a retirement mid-season like they did with Alex Rodriguez. While he does have a very tradable one-year deal, I believe the most likely scenario with Gardy is for him to play out the season in a part time role. Frazier has been hitting too well to demote at this point and he could very well be the future at that position. Gardy can play part time and spell Clint late in games for defense. Giancarlo Stanton can also play in left or right field when others require a day off. The Yankees could elect to punt this decision further into the season by keeping the more well-rounded Maybin for now and sending Frazier to Triple-A. If Maybin's performance tails off, they could make a clean break then and bring Frazier back after he has had more time to work in the minors. 

While Clint's defense is definitely concerning enough to consider sending him back to the minors to work out the kinks, I believe they will elect to keep him around and Maybin will be the one to lose his spot. This will let Gardy play out one last season and get a proper send off before parting ways while also keeping the growing impact bat of Frazier at the major league level. Losing a versatile and very likable player like Maybin would be unfortunate but if the Yankees stay healthy from here on out, he would have very little playing time anyway. Maybin has performed well and will certainly land a job with another team this season. In the meantime, the Yankees look about as close to full health as they have been all season. This will present some good problems to Aaron Boone and we may see some players we have come to like depart, but it will also put a really scary lineup on the field and that will certainly be fun to watch.  

Article by Matt Graziano


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