On Monday afternoon, Yankees fans were treated to a bit of long-awaited good news. Their best player took batting practice on the field for the first time since getting injured. Aaron Judge swinging a bat was a sight for sore eyes and his return can’t come any sooner. His return is still to be determined, but as long as he can deal with the lingering pain and there are no other setbacks, it is imminent.
When he comes back, he’ll immediately reclaim his job as the Yankees’ right fielder. He’s not only the team’s best player, but he’s one of the best in baseball. The job is his. Currently holding down the fort for him is the newly acquired Andrew McCutchen (can you believe that he and Giancarlo Stanton are Yankees?!). While McCutchen is working on getting going with his new team, he’s still been a revelation at the top of the order.
The hits haven’t come yet, but McCutchen’s eyes and patience haven’t skipped a beat since he switched coasts. McCutchen owns a .419 OBP in his short time with the Yankees, though he’s only hitting .172. Even so, the hits are starting to come for Cutch.
Over the weekend in Seattle, McCutchen hit his first two home runs as a member of the Yankees. He followed that up with another RBI single in Monday’s win against the Twins. The most impressive thing about his last few games, though, are the walks. He had a walk in every game against the Mariners and followed that up with another five walks in the first two games of the Minnesota series.
His ability to get on base consistently is a weapon the Yankees cannot afford to give up once Judge returns. There’s obviously no question that Judge’s presence in the lineup is much more important, but McCutchen still figures to be a big factor for the Yankees playoff push. He’s new on the team, but his value is tremendous. The only real question is how do they work playing time in for everyone.
This problem is similar to one that the Yankees were dealing with in the offseason after they acquired Giancarlo Stanton. With Stanton, Judge, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury (lol), and Clint Frazier all in the organization, there just wasn’t enough room for everybody. That ended up sorting itself out with Ellsbury getting Thanos’d and Frazier’s concussion issues, but once Judge is healthy they still have five outfielders for four spots.
Judge and Stanton are basically untouchable with this team. If this team is destined to go anywhere, it’s riding the dongs of those two giants. While I was skeptical of Aaron Hicks for a long time, he’s really cemented himself as one of the top center fielders in the game. According to fWAR, he’s the third-best center fielder in baseball this year and fifth in wRC+. His job is also safe.
Which just leaves Brett Gardner. It’s hard to write this about Gardner because of what he means to the Yankees as a teammate, leader, and person, but he should not be counted on as an everyday player anymore. Gardner’s first half was solid and he was fighting off the decline, but age has seemingly reared its ugly head for him in the second half.
Throughout his career Gardner’s been a very streaky hitter, but there’s been no such streak yet in the second half and the numbers show it. In the first half, he was hitting .254/.345/.403 which was good for a wRC+ of 105. Not great, but solid numbers for the veteran. But the wheels have really come off for him since as he’s hitting just .212/.295/.313 with a 68 wRC+ in the second half. It’s most definitely not nice.
Whether the Yankees should bring Gardner back or not next year is a debate for another day. There’s probably some baseball left in him, especially if he’d be willing to accept a reduced role, but the Yankees can’t rely on him right now. If he was their only option, it’d be far from the worst thing (looking at you, Shane Robinson) but they actually have a better player on the roster right now.
The Yankees, Brian Cashman, and Aaron Boone have a responsibility to put the best field out every day. They’re holding on to a slim lead for home field advantage in the Wild Card and if they want to secure that and have success throughout the playoffs, it’s McCutchen who needs to be out on the field.
*Season statistics provided courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.