At MLB’s Winter Meetings last month in Las Vegas, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman was asked about his interest level in signing coveted free agent outfielder Bryce Harper. He denied having any interest at all, and proceeded to list the names of all six outfielders on the club’s roster. But is the Yankees’ outfield really too crowded to fit a generational talent like Harper?
Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t played since 2017, when he produced 1.7 WAR in 112 games. He slashed .264/.348/.402 over 409 plate appearances, and posted a negative dWAR for the third time in his career. Ellsbury went 0-for-9 during the Yankees postseason run. Raise your hand if you think Ellsbury will out-produce Harper over the next three years.
Clint Frazier appeared in only 15 games last season as he struggled to recover from a concussion suffered during spring training. Frazier has 183 big-league plate appearances under his belt, and has produced -0.4 WAR and 88 OPS+. I like Frazier and think he has potential. But until he can stay healthy and produce at levels above replacement, the Yankees should not use his presence on the roster as an excuse to not sign Harper. The fact is, Harper has arrived, while Frazier has not.
Entering his age-35 season, Brett Gardner has already showed signs of decline, as wheels-first guys so often do. His career peaked with 7.4 WAR in 2010, and he dropped from 4.9 WAR in 2017 to 2.8 last season.
I love Gardner and am glad the Yankees re-signed him — to be a depth outfielder. He’s a great team leader and is often a catalyst when in the lineup. Even so, let’s be honest; he wasn’t at his best when playing every day last season. Simply put, Gardy has more to offer playing less frequently.
With Aaron Hicks slated to start in center, Aaron Judge manning right, and Giancarlo Stanton penciled in as the everyday designated hitter, there is a spot open in left field for Harper. If manager Aaron Boone feels that Stanton is the better defensive option there (Harper produced -3.2 dWAR in 2018), then so be it. Or Harper and Stanton can rotate. The point is, there is definitely a spot on the Yankees for Harper.
The National League’s MVP Award winner in 2015, Harper has produced an oWAR of less than 2.0 only twice in his seven-year career. Following his 9.1 oWAR campaign in 2015, he compiled 1.9 the the next year, followed by 4.3 and 4.2. No, the Yankees don’t exactly need Harper to play the outfield, but they could use his mighty left-handed bat in the lineup.
Harper produced a .982 OPS with runners in scoring position in 2018, while Gleyber Torres (.957), Judge (.919), Miguel Andujar (.916), and Hicks (.901) were the only Yankees over .800. Hitting with RISP was the Achilles heel of the Yankees lineup last year, while this clutch stat has been a great strength (.899 OPS) for Harper throughout his career. Not to mention, what Yankees fan wouldn’t want three former home run champions in the Bombers’ batting order every single day — all of whom are in their prime years of production?
Let’s not forget that the Yankees started the 2018 campaign with the same six outfielders atop their outfield depth chart. Yet, Shane Robinson still appeared in 25 games — and Cashman still needed to acquire Andrew McCutchen to help with the postseason push. Injuries happen. Plans get scuttled. Even if the Yankees head into this season with Judge, Hicks, Stanton, and Harper slated to man the three outfield positions and DH, Gardner and Frazier will both still get ample playing time.
It’s one thing if Cashman made the outfield-glut comment as a stratagem, in order to understate the Yankees’ interest in Harper to foil his agent Scott Boras’ efforts to potentially use New York’s involvement to jack up the asking price. Such a ruse on Cashman’s part would be understandable, just as long as Cashman doesn’t truly believe that the Yankees are completely set in the outfield.
The Yankees absolutely have a place for a superstar like Harper. With spring training less than three weeks away, there’s only remaining question. When will Cashman make his move?