It’s natural at the beginning of a baseball season to take stock of a team’s strengths and weaknesses. For the 2018 Yankees, the latter category included their starting pitching, and that’s been borne out this year with Jordan Montgomery’s Tommy John surgery, Luis Severino’s up and down stretch since July, and other setbacks. Where the Yankees were supposed to be set was in the outfield.
Coming into the season, the Yankees started Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge left to right. Giancarlo Stanton would DH and play some innings in right field. Jacoby Ellsbury was also supposed to have a role as an occasional center fielder, more on him in a moment. Meanwhile, prospects like Clint Frazier and Billy McKinney were waiting in the wings for their opportunity in event of injury or ineffectiveness.
The outfield was so stacked that it was difficult to imagine fair playing time for all these guys, and indeed one of the weaker criticisms of the Stanton trade was that the Yankees had enough outfielders as it was. The depth was there all season.
Now it’s mostly gone. The Yankee outfield went from the team’s greatest strengths to running haggard and broken in August, to the point where New York was forced to swing a trade for Andrew McCutchen at the last possible moment. How did we get here?
First and foremost, the Yankees have been hammered by injuries to the outfield. Judge of course has been dealing with his wrist fracture since July 23, and there’s no replacing an MVP-level talent. Ellsbury hasn’t played a game in 2018, with a variety of ailments including season-ending hip surgery. Frazier’s post-concussion symptoms have also led to his missing most of the year. Without any action from the front office, or natural regression, the vaunted outfield depth took a huge hit purely due to health, or lack thereof.
That injury luck has played a huge role in the way Brian Cashman and company have had to approach the outfield. Shane Robinson in his substitute role was terrible offensively and barely any better defensively, recording negative value despite making just 54 plate appearances. Neil Walker’s bat has come along, but his own defensive misadventures in right field were unacceptable for a team in the playoff hunt. Still, the Yankees were hamstrung as Robinson and Walker represented the eighth and ninth outfield options for the team, and no team has nine quality pieces in a depth chart.
Then there’s the trade market, where the Yankees were stung on both ends. They traded away Billy McKinney for J.A. Happ, plugging a much needed hole in the rotation with a guy who’s performed above most fans’ expectations. Still, McKinney would have been a candidate to take over for Judge in right once Aaron’s wrist injury was revealed to be as bad as it is. Trading for Happ was necessary, and it’s probable the Yankees are worse with McKinney and a sub-par starter than they are with Happ and no real right fielder for a month, but the case stands that the outfield depth was chipped away.
There’s also the very real issue of leverage, in that Cashman had none of it. If you remember the Stanton trade, Cashman had the upper hand after Stanton vetoed two previous agreements with San Francisco and St. Louis. As Miami’s options fell one by one, the Yankees’ leverage increased proportionally, until the team landed another MVP-level talent for pennies on the dollar in terms of talent returned.
The same thing happened in the Aroldis Chapman trade, where the Cubs were desperate for a reliever to cap off a championship roster, and were willing to deal Gleyber Torres and McKinney, one of whom will be a Rookie of the Year finalist and the other, as said above, needed to shore up the pitching rotation. Cashman’s acumen for trades comes from his unique ability to understand his own position and how it relates to the rest of baseball. When it comes to the outfield problems of 2018, Cashman’s position was weaker than most of baseball.
We’ll never know how hard Cashman pushed for an outfielder before the non-waiver deadline, and what the price for available outfielders was before the McCutchen trade. The fact that Cashman waited until just about the last possible moment is a signal that other teams were well aware of the Yankees’ outfield depth problems, and there was some corresponding price-gouging.
Finally, the team was hit by basic old regression, as we’ve seen Gardner look his age for the first time. The veteran has seen a steady decline in offensive output in basically each month of the season, aside from a May outlier:
More than that, his defense has also taken a step back this year. Gardy’s on pace for his worst season by DRS since 2015, his UZR/150 is down three straight years, and his Statcast Outs Above Average ranks him as barely above the league median. Players age and decline, that’s normal, but it’s hurt the Yankees even more this season given the hits the outfield has taken elsewhere.
All this leads to Andrew McCutchen. I love Cutch as a player, and he’s been one of the most exciting and personable people in the game for the better part of a decade now. I meant what I said last week when I wrote about how he was a better option in the lineup than the likes of Robinson, and he has a real opportunity to make an impact for the Yankees down the stretch.
Still, he’s just one hit in his first four games with the Yankees. This isn’t cause for concern or real criticism, but rather acknowledgement that moving to a new league is really hard. There are new pitchers to study, a change in game philosophy, along with new teammates and team culture to work through. We saw both Stanton and Walker struggle to adjust to the American League earlier this year. The trouble with McCutchen is, with only about two dozen games to go, he has to adjust quickly.
Even if he does, until Judge is doing more than just hitting off a tee, the outfield depth is still frighteningly thin. Hicks has been stellar this year, but injuries happen to everyone. Frazier and Ellsbury are both done for the season. The outfield is in better shape than it was at this time last week, but the team’s still walking on eggshells for the time being.
Depth can often be an illusion. The Toronto Blue Jays boasted one of the deepest rotations in baseball at the start of the year, and injuries to Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada, as well as the trade of Happ, have torn the staff to shreds. The Yankees went through the same with their outfield. And when we inevitably discuss team strengths before Opening Day 2019, the lesson of 2018’s depth should stay top of mind.