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Yankees 2023 Season Preview: Harrison Bader

The Yankees found their true post-Brett Gardner center fielder, and boy is he fun.

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

When the Yankees traded Jordan Montgomery to the St. Louis Cardinals for a then-injured Harrison Bader, it shocked plenty of people around the baseball world. Not only did the New York get rid of their third or fourth starter (depending on who was healthy in the rotation at the time), but they brought back a player who had been on the IL for over a month and was still in a walking boot — still weeks from returning. Questions were immediately raised about the kind of impact that he would have to make on the team in the postseason to justify the deal.

The good news? Despite the initial uproar from Yankees fans, Bader came in and was everything they asked for defensively, and in the postseason, he was a lightning rod at the plate.

2022 Yankees Statistics: 14 games played, 49 plate appearances, 0 HR, 9 RBI, .217/.245/.283, 47 wRC+, 4.1 BB%, 30.6 K%, -0.1 fWAR

2023 ZiPS Projections: 112 games, 395 plate appearances, 13 HR, 50 RBI, .250/.319/.419, 111 wRC+, 7.6 BB%, 23.3 K%, 3.5 fWAR

Since the Yankees declined to bring old standby Brett Gardner back before the start of last season, the team had to adjust its outfield plans. They had hoped for a rebound from Aaron Hicks after an injury-riddled 2021, but it didn’t take long to learn that it wasn’t in the cards. So it was Aaron Judge who shifted over from his standard right field to man center more often than anyone else in pinstripes.

The eventual MVP was good in the position, but there was a more significant risk of him getting hurt, and considering the legendary season he was having in 2022, that wasn’t something the team could afford. So, they went out and acquired one of the league’s fastest players in center field, and someone with elite defense to boot.

Bader percentile rankings and hits spray chart 2022
Baseball Savant

Bader couldn’t make a huge splash in the regular season, only playing 14 games and trying to get acclimated to his new environment as New York closed in on a division title.

But the man was an incredibly effective postseason contributor. He slashed .333/.429/.833 with a wRC+ of 252 in 9 games and 35 plate appearances. He had as many home runs with the Yankees in the postseason (5) as he did in 72 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2022. This blast against the Cleveland Guardians was huge to turn the series around.

Or how about this no-doubter against the Houston Astros in Game 4?

Watching Bader mash baseballs was fun, especially in a playoff atmosphere, but I don’t think anyone expects him to keep doing so much of it in 2023. The regression will be real. However, when he inevitably hits worse than that 252 wRC+, he could still do plenty of damage if he stays healthy. This is someone who notched a more than solid 111 wRC+ in 153 games from 2020-21 before slumping in the first half of ‘22 in St. Louis. Not only will Bader continue to be an elite defender, but in this potent batting order, he could have one of his most productive seasons yet.

Bader is set to be a free agent at the end of the upcoming season, and at 28 years old, he may be a smart investment for general manager Brian Cashman. The sample size needs to get bigger than 14 regular season games and 9 postseason games, but if he’s performing very well, why not try and lock up another piece of your outfield? (For more on the Bader extension debate, check out my colleague Josh’s article from January.)

The former third-round draft pick has only been in The Bronx for a short period, but the fans have taken a liking to him (for good reason), and he has shown, albeit over a short time, that he can be a stable piece in the Yankees roster. His 2023 season will be defined by his health and production at the plate, primarily because we know what he can do in the outfield grass.