The Yankees couldn’t have asked for much more from Clint Frazier in 2020 than the production they received. Forced into regular duty in mid-August when Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge went down with injuries, he finally put together the kind of quality stretch that the team dreamed of when they acquired him from Cleveland in 2016. In a rough patch for the Yankees, Frazier suddenly became the best outfielder on the team, and he hit .267/.394/.511 with eight homers and a 149 wRC+ as the team locked down a playoff spot.
Given the Yankees’ more glaring holes elsewhere entering the offseason, it can be tempting to assume that there’s not enough to worry about to warrant a serious pursuit of an outfielder via free agency or the trade market. After all, the club has Judge, Frazier, and Aaron Hicks all under team control for quite awhile, and even though Stanton is probably at best a part-time outfielder at this point, he could certainly spend some time out there in a normal season. Add the possibilities of a Mike Tauchman rebound and another potential low-risk reunion with Brett Gardner, and why rock the boat? That group of outfielders represents more options for Aaron Boone than most managers are lucky to have at their disposal.
The problem is that 2020 was not enough of a real season to inspire 100 percent confidence in Frazier as the real deal for the long-term future. It was 39 games. The Rockies’ David Dahl, who is just a few months older than Frazier and another former highly-touted prospect, had similar stretches of dominance during his All-Star campaign in 2019. After a brutal 2020 that saw him battle injuries and ineffectiveness, he’s out of a job — an odd move for the rebuilding Rockies, but not completely out of left field. Noting all that doesn’t mean that I think Frazier will absolutely turn into Dahl in 2021; it’s just a possible scenario that must be considered.
For the record, I am not trying to be a Debbie Downer about Frazier because I loved seeing him break out. I thought that he was a brilliant pickup by Brian Cashman in the Andrew Miller trade, and even when he occasionally struggled during his all-too-brief call-ups over the previous three seasons, I held out hope that given his young age and potential, he could still put it all together. Judge’s offensive explosion came at age 25, and while Frazier’s 2020 at the same age obviously can’t be described quite that glowingly, it was still superb. I even think that he’ll probably keep it going in 2021.
However, through no fault of Frazier’s, 2020 just wasn’t a full season and shouldn’t be treated as such. This wasn’t even like when Hicks finally showed off his full skill set to the Yankees in 2017. Even with missed time from oblique strains, it was still 88 games of 3.9-WAR production — both more than double Frazier’s 2020. When a team has more data to go by, it allows a little more confidence in their decisions. I’d love to look at Frazier’s 2020 and say the Yankees are totally set in the outfield, but I just can’t.
The Yankees’ other outfielders only further complicate matters. This is an outstanding bunch when healthy and truly among baseball’s elite — that just doesn’t happen very often. Although Judge was healthy for all of his sensational 2017, that’s a couple years in the past now; he averaged 107 games between 2018-19 and missed about half of the already-abbreviated 2020 with a calf strain. I just praised Hicks’ breakout, and unlike Judge, he didn’t hit the IL in 2020, but between the full seasons of 2017-19, Hicks only averaged 95 games. We know the story with Stanton, who the team is mainly counting on as a DH anyway. On a team with more stability in the other outfield spots, there wouldn’t be any qualms about riding it out with Frazier, but for all its explosive potential, “stable” is not an accurate descriptor of the Yankees’ outfield. Depth is always key.
The defending World Series champions would undoubtedly vouch for that idea. The Dodgers have rarely shied away from improving their team despite a positional crunch. Eyebrows were understandably raised when they signed A.J. Pollock to a five-year deal in January 2019. Even after Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp were traded, the back-to-back NL pennant winners already had Cody Bellinger and any combination of the steady Joc Pederson, top prospect Alex Verdugo, and super utility men Chris Taylor and Kiké Hernandez to fill out the other two slots.
All those players had been fine in 2018, and some were much better than “fine,” so why sign Pollock? Depth — expensive depth, but worthwhile depth given that it just helped the Dodgers finally win that piece of metal. (They also crammed another outfielder into the mix prior to 2020 despite the logjam: Mookie Betts.)
Hell, the Yankees’ most overwhelming recent smash hit of a free agent signing is another example of adding to an already-strong core. At the end of the 2018 season, the Yankees’ infield had the following players:
1B - Luke Voit, a 1.095 OPS second-half sensation
2B - Gleyber Torres, third in AL Rookie of the Year voting
3B - Miguel Andújar, second in AL Rookie of the Year voting
SS - Didi Gregorius, 27 homers and a slick glove to boot
Gregorius needed Tommy John surgery that would keep him out until June 7th, but a two-month absence doesn’t normally mandate signing someone to a multi-year contract to fill in. So why rock the boat?
As it turned out, DJ LeMahieu was exactly why you rock the boat. Even with Gregorius out, he didn’t even start on Opening Day 2019 (thank you, Yankees legend Troy Tulowitzki). Before long though, LeMahieu became an integral part of the lineup, especially after Andújar injured his shoulder during the very first series, rendering him a non-factor for the rest of 2019. If the Yankees had rested on their laurels and not added LeMahieu to their stacked infield*, who knows how the past two seasons would have gone?
*Gio Urshela’s shocking ascent would have been great for the infield regardless, but he wasn’t producing at LeMahieu level. Few in baseball were.
Again, it’s vital to note that Frazier’s 2020 performance means that it’s not an indictment of the fanbase or anything extreme like that if the Yankees choose not to add any outfielders beyond perhaps re-signing Gardner as a backup. It will probably be fine, and Frazier will likely be good in 2021. Nonetheless, it’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario where one or two outfielders are on the shelf or slumping badly in May and Cashman is looking at his roster and thinking, “Hm, perhaps I should have tried harder on a Pederson or Michael Brantley.”
This is the kind of team with the financial flexibility to paper over any depth concerns whatsoever, no matter how much potential Frazier flashes. They can find a way to bring back LeMahieu, add a starter, and do more than mere due diligence on the outfield market. The highest-profile names likely won’t sign with the Yankees because they have no reason to expect any cut in playing time, but so many outfielders are at the very least worth considering on a 2019 LeMahieu-like deal. By the 2021 All-Star Break, the Yankees might be glad that they took the minor splurge.