If — and boy, is it a big if — the season starts in July, as proposed by MLB, the Yankees could return at very close to full strength (get well soon, Luis Severino.) In a year of lousy baseball news, it gives Yankees fans a reason to cheer.
But for Clint Frazier, this development represents a new hurdle in what has been a frustrating quest for regular playing time with the Yankees.
With the Aarons Judge and Hicks on the mend, Stanton’s calf fully healed, Andujar showing promise in left and Gardner and Tauchman providing quality glovework, innings in the outfield will be mighty scarce when the calendar flips to July.
But the truncated season could offer Frazier a unique opportunity: instead of employing a “starting job or bust” mentality, Frazier should focus on owning the role of the Yankees’ go-to offensive sub.
Every field player wants to be a full-time starter, it’s why they show up to the park each day. But Frazier would do well to recognize the realities of the outfield depth chart, and to make an elite bench role in 2020 part of his long-term pursuit.
His numbers provide a whiff of justification for the idea. As a substitute, Frazier has batted .333/.474/.733 in 19 plate appearances. And his late-game output is intriguing as well. In innings seven through nine, Frazier has hit at a .307/.357/.559 clip in 140 plate appearances.
Some of this late-game efficiency is due to his numbers rising once he’s seen a pitcher a few times, and it’s possible this production won’t hold up under the weight of a larger sample as a substitute.
There’s certainly noise in his splits, given how little time he’s actually seen at the major league level. For example, his career OPS in late and close situations — defined by Baseball-Reference as plate appearances in the seventh or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck — is a paltry .657.
But defining a bench role for Frazier is less about trying to prove his potency or his clutch factor with small samples, and more about encouraging him to leverage his strengths.
He isn’t going to get into the lineup as a defensive substitute — his own limitations and the presence of Tauchman, Gardner and Hicks guarantee that. So why shouldn’t he transform himself into a different kind of contributor, one who’s equally crucial to the Bombers’ success in 2020?
A bench player isn’t guaranteed regular at-bats, but a condensed season could result in more frequent lineup rotation. If Frazier came through consistently as an offensive replacement in tight games, he could make himself indispensable as a run-generating spark plug off the bench, the Yankees’ very own microwave to get the offense cooking.
Frazier’s attitude, a point of contention for some fans, is ideal for a guy who would be asked to strut into the batter’s box to do damage in high-risk, high-reward situations. If he embraces the role, he has the charisma and the talent to turn himself into the inverse of a lockdown closer — a regular late-game entry who makes opponents wish they’d done more to put the Yankees away.
If nothing else, leaning into the idea would be a surefire way to earn the trust of fans. In three seasons as a part-timer in the Bronx, Ronald Torreyes posted a .682 OPS with just four dingers. As an infielder he produced a total of -7 DRS in the same span. Yet many Yankees fans celebrated Torreyes and mourned his departure to the Twins, because he committed wholeheartedly to a role that suited the team’s makeup. Imagine what a player of Frazier’s ability could accomplish with a similar commitment.
To be clear: Clint Frazier should not resign himself to a career as a substitute. At 25, he’s no longer a hopeful prospect with sky-high potential, but he still flashes the promise of an important everyday player.
Fate has complicated his story again, however, and now his best path to a happy ending might be the road less traveled. If play does resume in July with shortened schedules and lengthened rosters, it’s going to be a strange, almost surreal season. If the league is experimenting in 2020, why not Frazier?
It might not be the season he was expecting, but it might be just what he needs.