Center fielder Harrison Bader is the latest name to be bitten by the Yankees injury bug. The former Gold Glove winner is nursing a left oblique strain, effectively ruling him out for Opening Day. Regardless of the severity of the injury, it would not surprise anyone to see Bader kept out of action until at least a few weeks into the 2023 campaign.
Given that the Yanks didn’t really address the outfield in the offseason other than bringing back Aaron Judge, their plans for center field don’t have an obvious answer at the moment. This is partially a problem of their own making by not adding enough to their depth, but what’s done is done. So what options can they consider at this time?
The most practical solution would be entering the season with a rotation, or some sort of timeshare, that includes Judge, Aaron Hicks and, in case of emergency, Oswaldo Cabrera. The Yanks’ captain played 632.2 innings in center while covering for both the ineffective Hicks and the recovering Bader (post-deadline), and both the eye test and the numbers say he passed. Judge had 1 DRS, 1 OAA, and three outfield assists.
Since New York went out and traded for Bader in the first place to decrease the need for Judge to cover center, they’d prefer to not play him out there. But with Bader again on the IL, perhaps the easiest answer is to temporarily roll the dice with Judge again.
Hicks used to be an asset in center, but writing in the year 2023, that seems like a long while ago. Last year, he was at 8 DRS in left and -4 in the middle. He finished with -4 DRS in center in 2021 and a whopping -8 in 2020, too. He might work as a situational option (if his bat recovers at all), but he is no longer even average there.
The utilityman Cabrera is versatile, young, and athletic, but he is no natural center fielder. He was good in the corners last year and could be a serviceable option in the middle with enough reps but didn’t even log an inning there as a pro. They might test the 24-year-old out there a little more this spring with Bader injured, but perhaps it’s best to view him as an emergency alternative.
If the Yankees will be employing these names in center field, then they should be willing to shore up depth in the corners by signing free agent Jurickson Profar, who Sam covered as a possible free agent target way back in December and is currently playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. It’s unlikely they entertain the possibility because it would involve reaching the final luxury tax threshold, though.
Profar could play left field adequately and contribute some sneaky power (15 homers last year), on-base ability (11.1-percent walk rate), and versatility. Outfield depth was an issue even before Bader went down, and Profar would definitely help. If the Yankees want to be truly competitive, they should be open to exceeding the CBT if they have to, and Profar was recently rumored to be seeking a $10 million AAV — not a sky-high ask for someone who contributed 2.5 fWAR last year. But they probably won’t do it for someone they merely consider average.
Whether New York signs Profar or not, non-roster invitees could enter the picture, too. Rafael Ortega and Willie Calhoun should be considered for a roster spot and they are both having excellent springs (1.417 and 1.108 OPS, respectively).
Ortega could have the upper hand since he is actually serviceable in the outfield corners, unlike Calhoun. The latter has much more offensive upside in the pure sense of the word, though, since he is a former top prospect with some great minor league numbers.
The pool of available free agent outfielders outside of Profar is just not good at all, so signing him or having one of Ortega-Calhoun take some at-bats and play in the outfield corners makes sense.
There is another potential avenue to help solve center field in the early going. The Yankees could theoretically give longtime prospect Estevan Florial a more extensive look in The Show. In fact, he is the closest player to Bader in the direct comparison: good defender, fast, with some power, and the potential for a bad season at the plate.
We would say that Florial has more offensive potential than Bader, but the latter’s floor is considerably higher and the difference with the glove is significant. Although Florial is a legitimate center fielder (unlike most of the alternatives listed in this article), the Yankees should be ready to stomach a potentially disastrous outcome performance-wise if they choose this option. He has a 69 wRC+ and a 33.3-percent strikeout rate in 63 MLB plate appearances for a reason.*
*And in 179 games at Triple-A, Florial has fanned 30.6 percent of the time. If he’s whiffing that much in the minors, then it’s a long shot to get much better in the majors.
Since the idea will surely be floated by some out there, promoting No. 3 prospect Jasson Domínguez (three home runs and a 1.526 spring OPS) is probably not realistic. He makes Florial’s potential look downright pedestrian, but with only 10 games of experience above High-A and shaky Arizona Fall League numbers the 20-year-old would be best served by garnering more plate appearances against upper-minors pitching before being considered ready. It’s tempting to look at 2022 NL Rookie of the Year winner Michael Harris II for inspiration, but even he had 43 games at Double-A before Atlanta fast-tracked him to Truist Park.
Of course, the Yankees could always look to re-visit trade talks with the Pittsburgh Pirates for Bryan Reynolds – who is also capable of playing center field, albeit not a very good one – but the Bucs are probably holding on to him until July. Furthermore, bringing him aboard would reportedly require more than one player from the Anthony Volpe/Oswald Peraza/Domínguez group ,and that is probably a no for New York.
Bader might not have too much offensive upside – last year’s playoff explosion notwithstanding – but losing him for a considerable amount of time definitely creates a problem for the Yankees. They’ll at least have a few more weeks of exhibition play to figure it out.