On Thursday, the Yankees announced that longtime outfielder Brett Gardner had declined his player option, and the team did the same with his club option, making him a free agent. One day later, on Friday, the organization made it known that fellow outfielder Tim Locastro was claimed off waivers by the Boston Red Sox, and that Greg Allen will now play for the Pittsburgh Pirates after being claimed, too.
In less than 24 hours, the Yankees’ outfield depth suffered a severe hit. Granted, none of those players were expected to be major factors in 2022, not even Gardner. However, they all have one thing in common: they are capable of playing center field. As of now, Aaron Hicks would be at the top of the depth chart in center field. He missed most of the 2021 campaign with a wrist injury, but is expected to be ready from the start of spring training in 2022.
Joey Gallo and Aaron Judge can play center in a pinch, but there is just no way that the Yankees enter the 2022 campaign with Hicks at the top of the depth chart and no other outfielder capable of defending the middle regularly. If anything, the roster moves that occurred on Thursday and Friday tell us not only that center field is clearly an area to improve and add depth to, but it’s now a pressing need.
There are no assurances with Hicks, both from a health standpoint and performance-wise. He remains a talented player, but at 32, it’s likely that his days as a well-above average defensive center fielder are over. After having 12 Defensive Runs Saved in 2017, he had -7 in 2018, -1 in 2019, -8 in 2020, and -4 in 2021. Outs Above Average also thinks he has been steadily declining, expect for a positive 1 rating this season in limited action this year.
If we talk about his health, he hasn’t played more than 100 games since 2018, but he did play 54 out of 60 games in the 2020 pandemic-shortened season. He has missed lots of contests per season during his whole career, though, and that probably won’t change as he gets older.
So, what does this tell us? Well, the Yankees should be expected to bring a legit, reliable center fielder capable of challenging Hicks for playing time. It could be via trade, or it could be via free agency, but now that Gardner, Locastro, and Allen aren’t in the picture, the depth chart looks bleak in the middle of the outfield. Among the free agents capable of playing center are Starling Marte, Chris Taylor, Kevin Pillar, Odúbel Herrera, and then a bunch of players with less than one WAR in 2021. Marte and Taylor are perhaps the only starting-caliber ballplayers of the bunch.
The trade market may be a better source of players for the Bombers. Perhaps they can make a run at Bryan Reynolds if they want to make a statement, but he remains unlikely to be moved by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Maybe another team can shop a reliable center fielder over the winter. Complicating things is the fact that a new CBA agreement between owners and players remains a significant hurdle, and in the absence of a deal, teams will likely want to wait before signing major free agents and making transactions.
One thing is clear: Gardner was seen as an insurance policy for at least a couple of years, and now that he is not in the Yankees’ plans, the team will likely bring someone capable of at least pushing Hicks. The next few weeks will tell us all we need to know.