On paper, the New York Yankees’ outfield is one of the team’s biggest strengths. It boasts a perennial MVP candidate, a major power source, an all-around solid center fielder, and some familiar bench options. As is often the case with paper projections, though, the actual story of what ended up happening in 2018 is much different than what was expected.
In reality, the Yankees’ outfield faced good deal of hardship in 2018, mostly due to injury. Aaron Judge missed two months, Giancarlo Stanton had such a bad hamstring that he couldn’t regularly play the field, and Jacoby Ellsbury and Clint Frazier missed most of the year with injuries. Adding to that issue, Brett Gardner showed serious signs of decline at age 35. All of these factors resulted in journeyman Shane Robinson and infielder Neil Walker getting playing time in the outfield during crucial August games.
The Yankees need to seriously evaluate the future of their outfield so that scenario doesn’t play out again. It makes sense to begin with right field, where no controversy even remotely exists. Aaron Judge is the team’s best player and de facto captain; he is not going anywhere. Judge should be the team’s right fielder for the next 10 years.
Besides Judge in right field, the Yankees have few constants in the outfield moving forward. Aaron Hicks had a career year in 2018 and is one of the league’s 10 best center fielders. The thing about Hicks, though, is that he has probably peaked as a player.
Hicks is under contract for one more year, his age-29 season. He’s very valuable now, but he’s not going to get any better as he enters his 30s. If he puts up another similar season to the ones he has produced over the last two years, he could command, at minimum, a four-year, $60 million contract that would take him to his age-34 season. Can the Yankees afford to give that type of contract to a player like Hicks when Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius will be up for extensions within the next three offseasons? What if the Yankees decide to spend big money on starting pitching? Hicks has been awesome these last two years and will be a big contributor next year too, but his 2020 status is complicated.
Over in left field, the Yankees have just as big a problem. They have no left fielders on the active roster! Andrew McCutchen is a free agent, and Brett Gardner figures to become one with the Yankees likely to decline his $12.5 MM option. While McCutchen performed pretty well in New York, I’m leery of giving a declining 32-year-old outfielder a multi-year deal. The team may take McCutchen back on a one-year deal, but I doubt he’d settle for that in what’s probably his last chance to cash in as a free agent.
Gardner could return, but it’ll have to be at a pay cut and a reduced role. Gardner profiles well as a fourth outfielder for $5-6 million, but another team could offer him a more attractive role with more money. I do think that Gardner comes back as a bench player, however, due to his clubhouse importance and the Yankees’ lack of depth. Even if his playing time is cut, Gardner is a pretty good safety net to have for the inevitable injury.
Still, Gardner is not an everyday player at this point in his career. This is where three question marks come into the fold for the Yankees: Giancarlo Stanton, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clint Frazier. The Yankees need a left fielder next year, and these three players (plus Gardner) will likely fill the hole.
People seem to forget that Stanton played the outfield every day for eight years for the Marlins and reside to the idea that he’s only a designated hitter. That is not what the Yankees had in mind when they traded for Stanton. Now that his hamstring is healed, the team will need Stanton to play the field often to free up the DH spot for more defensively-challenged players, like Luke Voit, Miguel Andujar and Gary Sanchez.
As for Ellsbury, he is very similar to Gardner in that he’s a veteran backup outfielder that is more on the team for his speed and defense than his hitting. The only problem is that he hasn’t played in a year and has the third-highest salary on the team. There’s not much that can be done about that now though, and Ellsbury could be a solid backup if healthy.
Frazier is the wild card here. He is way too good for the minor leagues. Unfortunately, his stock took a hit this year due to his concussion problems. Still, there remains a big opportunity for Frazier in left field. If he can stay off of the disabled list, the Yankees would like nothing more than for Red Thunder to become the team’s left fielder of the future.
Complicating matters, the Yankees have no good MLB-ready outfield prospects. Their top minor league outfielder, Estevan Florial, has yet to play a game above Single-A. In fact, the Yankees have just five outfielders among their top 30 prospects (according to MLB.com), and none of them are above A-ball. For whatever reason, the Yankees have had trouble developing outfielders recently, and it could cost them if injuries strike or Hicks bolts in free agency next year.
For 2019, the team will likely roll with Judge in right, Hicks in center, and some combination of Gardner, Stanton, Frazier and Ellsbury in left. Moving forward though, the futures of left and center field are less certain. Will Frazier seize a spot? Is Hicks worth a big contract? Will the team trade for any external options? Who can be a Triple-A recall? The Yankees have some questions in the outfield, both now and in the future. Aaron Judge aside, the fate of the Yankees’ outfield is up in the air.