Later today, the last of the Yankees’ trade deadline acquisitions, Harrison Bader, is expected to make his pinstriped debut. A native of Bronxville, New York, Bader was drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2015 draft; he made his MLB debut just two years later, and has until this point spent the entirety of his six-year career in St. Louis. In that time, he has established himself as one of the premier gloves in center field: among the 72 outfielders with at least 1,000 innings in center since the start of the 2017 season, he ranks fifth in Defensive Runs Saved with 38, fourth in Outs Above Average with 48, and first in UZR/150 with 15.1. He gives the Yankees the elite defensive center fielder that they have lacked since Aaron Hicks put up 12 DRS and 4 OAA while taking over for Jacoby Ellsbury halfway through the 2017 season.
And yet, despite his elite glove in center field, if I were Aaron Boone, I would be penciling him into the lineup most days as the left fielder, with Aaron Judge in center field and Oswaldo Cabrera in right.
This is not, of course, a knock to Bader’s defense, but rather a testament to Cabrera’s abilities in right field. Despite just 25 innings across 3 games in right field while in the minors, the rookie has quickly established himself as a more-than-capable defender in right (depending on your choice of metric, he ranges from league average to elite). Among outfielders with at least 150 innings in right, he’s tied with Brett Phillips and Jackie Bradley Jr. for sixth among right fielders with 8 DRS, is tied with a dozen with 0 OAA, and his 46.8 UZR/150 leads the league by 20 points. Furthermore, his six outfield assists are tied for 11th. In short, Cabrera has done everything he’s been asked of in right field.
With just 16 games left in the regular season, is it worth dropping Cabrera into left field — a much harder position in Yankee Stadium than right — with just one game’s worth of minor league experience there? Although it’s possible that he could slide right in no problem like he did in right field, there’s also the chance that he might not — just ask Joey Gallo, a Gold Glove right fielder who struggled to find consistency with the leather as the Yankees left fielder.
Accommodating Cabrera in this way would force two players, Judge and Bader, to technically play out of position. Judge, however, has been more than adequate in center field, while a shift from center to left isn’t exactly a major jump for a defender of Bader’s caliber. I’m not typically an advocate for playing guys out of position, and had this been early August and not the latter half of September, I’d be all in favor of a Cabrera/Bader/Judge alignment, but in this instance, ensuring competence in all three outfield spots outweighs the potential loss of value by not playing Bader in center. His quality of defense will play anywhere.
Of course, this alignment would only be used while Cabrera is in the outfield; on days when somebody else gets the start — whether it be Aaron Hicks, Tim Locastro, or Miguel Andújar (at time of writing, it is unclear who will be sent down) — they would man left, while Bader and Judge would shift over to their natural spots. But so long as Cabrera is in the lineup, in my mind, it’s best not to rock the boat too much, even if that means asking a Gold Glove center field to play some left field.