Back in the early, innocent days of spring training, Clint Frazier’s winding path in pinstripes seemed to lead, at last, to a role as a major contributor to this Yankees team. With injuries to Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton, he was poised for a bump in playing time, even with Miguel Andujar getting reps in the corner outfield spots Frazier had in his sights.
After a couple seasons of tough injury luck and uneven results, Frazier would have an opportunity in 2020 to burst through an open door.
Then came the postponement of the season. The delay bought time for the roster to heal up over the summer, and Frazier gradually found himself returning to a familiar position: buried under more proven names in a robust outfield depth chart.
Yet even confronted by these old obstacles — plus new, coronavirus-related challenges — his talent persists. The question remains: what, with a 60-game schedule and tricky new roster rules, constitutes a success for Frazier this season?
Making the cut
Frazier’s first priority will be surviving the gradual winnowing of the Yankees roster from the 60-man player pool to the eventual 26-man roster. His continued presence in the Yankees’ clubhouse is a crucial step toward success.
He will have precious little time to make an impression: three weeks of spring training redux, and should he qualify for the 30-man Opening Day roster, two more rounds of cuts over four weeks.
Baseball and coronavirus (and the Yankees’ recent injury luck) being what they are, opportunities for Frazier to reenter the fray will likely emerge even if he doesn’t survive the initial culling process.
But he needs playing time to truly make his case as a Yankee, and the longer it takes for him to force his way onto Aaron Boone’s lineup card, the less meaningful the fruits of his season will be.
Maintaining offensive consistency
Earning a spot in the lineup is one challenge; keeping it is a whole other beast to be tamed.
Last season Frazier assembled a couple stretches of brilliance. During his first 18 games in 2019, he slashed .324/.342/.632 and clubbed six home runs, helping carry the team through an injury-ravaged April before landing on the IL with ankle trouble of his own.
As sizzling as he was at times, his injury and his slumps tempered his overall performance.
If he can produce at a high level consistently in 2020 — an admittedly difficult task when his daily inclusion in the lineup will be uncertain — he can start to make a claim on a spot in the batting order. To do it, his offensive game will have to mature at the margins.
For instance, improving his walk rate might be one way to weather any unlucky weeks. His career walk rate in the minors is 10.1%. As a big leaguer, it’s 6.5%.
An uptick that lands him somewhere between those two numbers would put him in the neighborhood of Gary Sanchez, and could help him keep innings alive even when his thunderbolt swing isn’t connecting.
Avoiding notice in the field...and off the field
Frazier doesn’t have to be someone he’s not — the Yankees don’t need him to compete for a Gold Glove. Competence, or just plain old inconspicuous mediocrity will do.
His UZR/150 last season was an unsightly -16.7, and he committed a handful of memorable and blush-inducing errors. If he can just be average this year, or even slightly below, it will make it easier for his bat to shine.
Look at Andujar — Boone seems more than willing to trust him in left field so long as he proves proficient enough to avoid detracting from his offensive production. If Frazier can follow the same formula, that’s a win.
A knock-on effect of Frazier’s struggles with the glove has been his increased tension with reporters, which came to a head after his infamous fielding blunders versus the Red Sox last year.
The particulars of his frosty relationship with the media aren’t worth relitigating in full here, but it’s in Frazier’s interest to avoid conflict in the press for the time being — especially if he’s playing well.
Success smooths a lot of rocky waves. The hotter he is at the plate, the wider the berth all concerned parties will afford him.
This is becoming a serious concern, maybe even the primary one for Frazier.
It’s hard to fault him for his past injury woes. His scary concussion issues in 2018 can’t be attributed to shoddy training, and his ankle sprain last season seemed fluky.
But during his time in pinstripes, Frazier has lost 158 days due to injury, per Spotrac, 113 of which came from his concussion symptoms.
And now comes news of “a little foot issue” he has apparently been dealing with for months, according to Boone. Given the team’s recent track record of poor communication regarding the severity of injuries, the skipper’s comment feels ominous.
And as a matter of arithmetic, Frazier simply can’t afford a health setback in a 66-day calendar. If his foot — or any other body part — rob him of even a short stint, his 2020 season could quickly deteriorate into a bust.
Let’s hope, for all of our sakes — Frazier, the Yankees, and Yankees fans — that such worries are unfounded. Because Clint Frazier swinging a hot bat would not only make for a fun season — it would make for a more successful one.