Since trading Carlos Beltran on August 1st, the Yankees starting outfield has consisted of Brett Gardner in left, Jacoby Ellsbury in center, and Aaron Hicks in right, with the corner positions being backed up by Rob Refsnyder. Without the pressure of chasing after a playoff spot, the Yankees can use the remainder of the season to set their outfield depth chart for 2017. Let’s take a look at some of the scenarios that could play out the rest of the way and continue into next year.
Currently, there are two outfielders on the Yankees roster who are locks to keep their starting jobs for the foreseeable future. Gardner is under contract through 2018 and has been a productive player this season with a 1.9 WAR. Ellsbury is under contract through 2020, and although he hasn’t been anywhere near the 4.0 WAR that he was worth in 2014, he has still been a productive player, worth 1.5 WAR this year.
Hicks has struggled as a part-time player this year, but he now has a chance to get consistent at-bats and show the Yankees his value for next season. Unfortunately for him, his time may be limited because the Yankees have two top outfield prospects on the verge of being called up.
Pinstripe Alley recently ranked Clint Frazier and Aaron Judge as the top two prospects in the Yankees system. Judge seems likely to be called up soon, and Frazier isn’t far behind. If either Aaron Judge or Clint Frazier get the call to the majors, it’s probably the end of Aaron Hicks’ shot at being the team’s starting right fielder. The Yankees have no intention of calling up a prospect of this caliber and not giving him regular playing time. So, whenever Judge or Frazier are called up, we should expect them to get an extended shot.
At the start of the 2017 season, the Yankees could potentially have too many outfielders with Gardner, Ellsbury, Hicks, Judge, and Frazier. How could this log jam potentially play out? First of all, Frazier is likely to spend the better part of next year at Scranton. Though Hicks has been somewhat of a disappointment this season, his contract makes him a pretty low-risk player to have. He will be eligible for arbitration for the first time next year, though he is out of options, so the team will have to either keep him or try to pass him through waivers to demote him (where he would probably be claimed). If Hicks departs, the Yankees could use Judge in the outfield with Refsnyder capable of filling in when needed.
Would the Yankees consider signing a free agent outfielder this offseason? It seems extremely unlikely because there are no star outfielders available. The best free agents will be Jose Bautista (36 years old) and Josh Reddick (30 years old), but hardly seem worth signing to multi-year contracts that will block the Yankees’ top prospects. If a player such as Bryce Harper were available, it could make sense to try to sign him and trade away a prospect. Fortunately for Judge and Frazier, Harper doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2018 season.
It’s also possible that the Yankees feel confident starting next year off with both Judge and Frazier on the major league roster. In this scenario, the Yankees could probably trade Gardner because of his reasonable contract. Given the Yankees’ recent trades, this scenario is more likely to happen than some might want to believe, especially those who would be sad to see a homegrown player get traded.
Much of what happens from here could be contingent on how Hicks, and his prospect opponents, play over the remainder of the season. If they all play well, it might give the Yankees the confidence to move Gardner. If they struggle, it seems likely that they would keep the depth and let them battle it out in spring training for a roster spot.