My name is Michael Memis and I would like to be considered for a position on the writing staff. Thank you.
The Yankees outfield, despite containing an MVP and MVP runner-up from last year, is their weakest link. This is a problem that can be solved partially when Brett Gardner is a free agent next year and the Yankees (likely) decline his team option but can't fully be fixed without the Yankees eating up a lot of money or trading a young asset. The Yankees are currently paying 6 different outfielders and two of their top 20 prospects are outfielders. These eight players will be listed from least concerning to most concerning.
1. Aaron Judge: He is still striking out a lot but has shown no regression from last season, when he hit 52 home runs and was runner-up to Jose Altuve for MVP.
2. Billy McKinney: He played briefly this year due to injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Hicks, and Clint Frazier. His debut was brief as he sprained the AC joint on his left shoulder. He is currently in rehab from his injury and will play on the Yankees Triple A Affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barres Railriders. He is the Yankees' 18th ranked prospect according to MLB.com and is their second ranked outfielder but is also the fourth ranked position player due to many of the Yankees' top prospects being pitchers. He will likely be major league ready by the end of the year but is blocked from making the major league team. He still has his rookie status as he wasn't on the team for enough days and didn't have close to the at-bats needed to lose rookie status.
3. Estevan Florial: He is currently on the Yankees Advanced Single A affiliate, the Tampa Tarpons. He is the Yankees top outfield prospect, the 2nd ranked prospect in the Yankees system, and the 41st ranked prospect by MLB.com. Although he is a few levels away from the majors, his stock has been shooting up over the past year and it wouldn't be too surprising if he is in the top 20 of prospect rankings next year. However, he may be there for a while as there will be several players blocking his spot on the Yankees 25-man roster.
4. Giancarlo Stanton: He was the MVP of the National League in 2017 and the Yankees big offseason acquisition. He struggled at the beginning of the season and was booed several times by Yankees fans during multi-strikeout performances. However, his worst month during his career has been April (similar to how Mark Teixeira was in April as compared to other months) and he has done better as of late. Due to the fact that he has played over 95% of his games in right field and Aaron Judge playing every game but 1 in right field, Stanton has primarily been the Yankees designated hitter. Against National League teams, he is likely to play left field and has played there on a few occasions this year but is a liability at that position until he learns how to play it. He is under contract until 2028 but can opt-out in 2020.
5. Clint Frazier: The Yankees’ top prospect was called up last year. He got hurt and was sent down to the minors but not before losing his rookie status by four at-bats. He had his moments last season in the majors and hit about average but was a plus defender and showed above average speed. He got a concussion during Spring Training and got optioned to Scranton when he came back but was called up to the big league team today. However, I suspect that the Yankees won’t have five outfielders on their roster for a long time and Frazier will be sent down when Adam Warren and Tommy Kahnle return from the disabled list (or when the Nationals series is finished and they don’t need an extra hitter). He should be on the major league team permanently but the Yankees have four outfielders on their roster (with a fifth on the disabled list) and don't want to be forced to designate a player for assignment or send down a young player who is producing (like Miguel Andujar or Gleyber Torres) to make room for him.
6. Brett Gardner: Gardner had a power surge last season, hitting over 20 home runs for the first time in his career. He is still an above-average defender despite his arm strength and speed declining. However, he has struggled to stay above the Mendoza Line this season. He has the lowest slugging percentage of his career (.298) but is on pace to get over 20 stolen bases this season. There is a $12.5 million team option on his contract next year and if the Yankees decline it, he still gets paid the $2 million signing bonus.
7. Aaron Hicks: Hicks is one of the best defensive center fielders in the league, can switch hit, and has above average speed. He started off last season at a torrid pace and was playing at an all-star level. However, since he strained his oblique last season, he has not been the same hitter. Since August of last year, when Hicks came back from injury, he is batting under .220 and has an OPS that is 200 points lower than before his injury. He is hitting similar to 2016, when he was the fourth outfielder and Yankee fans were calling for Joe Girardi's head anytime Hicks played over Carlos Beltran. This means either the oblique strain is still affecting Hicks or that his torrid start to 2017 was just an aberration and he really is just a fourth outfielder. He has one more year of arbitration left before he becomes a free agent in 2020.
8. Jacoby Ellsbury: Ellsbury has the worst contract on the Yankees. Not only is he under contract until 2020 making over $20 million a year (he has a team option in 2021 which the Yankees will probably decline and just pay him the $5 million signing bonus), but he also has full no-trade protection. The Yankees signed him hoping that he can put up numbers close to 2011, when he was an all-star, Gold Glove Award winner, and Silver Slugger Award winner for the only time in his career and second in MVP voting. He has not played up to his contract and lost his starting spot last year to Aaron Hicks. He can still steal 20 bases and lead the league in catcher's interference calls but is not as good on defense as Hicks or Gardner. He doesn't hit for power and is only an average contact hitter. At the end of last season, Ellsbury was hot, hitting .337 in September and October of last season but didn't get a hit in his nine at-bats during the postseason. He strained his right oblique on Opening Day and got placed on the 10-day disabled list. He was transferred to the 60-day disabled list due to a hip ailment.
This problem becomes even bigger when Ellsbury comes back (he will be finished with 60 days on the disabled list in two weeks). Unless an outfielder gets hurt or the Yankees designate Ellsbury for assignment, they would have to carry five outfielders and lose a valuable roster spot. In this case, they would either designate Neil Walker or Tyler Austin for assignment (depending on who is on the 25-man roster when Greg Bird gets back) or lose a reliever by sending down Jonathan Holder or Chasen Shreve to Triple A. Even though it wouldn't be a huge crisis to have one less reliever due to the Yankees having several elite arms in their bullpen (when they are pitching up to their potential), there still is the problem of Clint Frazier. Assuming the Yankees decline the team option on Gardner and let him walk, they will still have four outfielders under contract and would not want to carry five on their 25-man roster for an extended period of time. Also, letting Gardner go is problematic because they wouldn't have a leader. Gardner and C.C. Sabathia have been the team's unofficial leaders since Derek Jeter retired and C.C. may retire after this year. Aaron Judge and Didi Gregorius have shown leadership qualities but they are also very young. Masahiro Tanaka, Ellsbury, and Stanton are veterans but none of them have shown leadership qualities. David Robertson can be a team leader but he is also a free agent after this season. I would like to keep Gardner for his leadership but it isn't possible with their current outfield situation.
One option is that the Yankees can waive Ellsbury and eat up the rest of his contract. They can try to trade him but Ellsbury can block any trade and no team would want to pay his contract unless the Yankees agree to pay a majority of it or give a top prospect or draft pick in addition to Ellsbury (although that sort of thing usually happens in the NBA and not the MLB). If the Yankees are plagued by injuries or if Sonny Gray continues to pitch like Hideki Irabu, they can use Frazier, McKinney, or Florial in a trade to acquire elite talent although Brian Cashman previously considered Florial and Frazier untouchable. They can try to move one of their outfielders to another position. This would be difficult as the only position open for Stanton, Gardner, and Ellsbury is third base (Gregorius and Torres have shortstop and second base locked down), which is something that is very difficult to do and is virtually unheard of.
I believe the Yankees should do what the Red Sox did with Pablo Sandoval. The Red Sox signed Sandoval to a five year $95 million contract in 2015. However, when he didn't produce, the Red Sox designated him for assignment and released him. They then replaced him with one of their top prospects in Rafael Devers. Ellsbury has not been as much of a disaster as Sandoval but is in a similar situation with a big contract, underwhelming numbers, and an elite prospect ready to replace him. When Ellsbury comes back, the Yankees should see how he produces as he may be able to hit better than Hicks and Gardner. If he still is playing like the fifth best outfielder on the team, he should be designated for assignment. If he starts producing, then the Yankees should consider trading Hicks or Gardner and sacrificing defense for offense. They already have to do this when they put Stanton in left field when they face a National League team, use Gary Sanchez as the designated hitter, or rest either Gardner or Hicks. Either way, the Yankees should decline Gardner's option and let Frazier be on the active roster next season, with McKinney being the replacement in case of injury. By the time Florial is ready to be called up, the Yankees can make room for him by either Stanton opting out of his contract or the Yankees not re-signing Aaron Hicks when he becomes a free agent. They can also try to move Florial to another position as he is young so it won't be as hard to do. The fact that he is a top prospect won't change that as the Yankees changed Jorge Mateo from a middle infielder into an outfielder after they acquired Gleyber Torres from the Cubs.
This problem of having a logjam in the Yankees' organizational depth chart was bound to happen after all the trades the Yankees made to bolster their farm system in 2016. Although Brain Cashman has traded several prospects to avoid losing players to the Rule 5 draft, he still has to fix the outfield problem. If no changes are made, the Yankees will not only see less production in the outfield, but they will be wasting Frazier and Florial's potential.
Statistics and contract details used in this article come from ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, and Baseball Reference.