When the Yankees pulled off the blockbuster for Juan Soto, understandably far less attention was paid to the other player being sent to the Bronx. However, Trent Grisham was by no means a throw-in to the deal nor should he be an afterthought for the Yankees in 2024 and beyond. In fact, the all-world defender in center is poised to play an outsized role in the upcoming season.
2023 statistics: 153 games, 555 plate appearances, .198/.315/.352, 13 HR, 50 RBI, 91 wRC+, 13.5 BB%, 27.7 K%, +1 Defensive Runs Saved, +7 Outs Above Average, 1.7 fWAR
2024 ZiPS projections: 140 games, 523 plate appearances, .219/.322/.402, 18 HR, 60 RBI, 103 wRC+, 12.0 BB%, 25.2 K%, 2.8 fWAR
2023 was Grisham’s worst full season in MLB, the center fielder sitting below the Mendoza line for the second year in a row, but with a drop off in defensive value from the season prior. The offensive output ticked up slightly from 2022 but was still worse than league average. Despite this, I actually come away encouraged looking under the hood of his 2023 campaign.
One might be tempted to use Grisham’s breakout sophomore campaign of 2020 as a guide for how to get the most out of the team’s new center fielder. Indeed, if we integrate Grisham’s success from 2020 with positive signs from 2023, we get an idea of the type of ceiling he might be capable of. Grisham logged a 122 wRC+ in the COVID-shortened season with an xwOBA and barrel, walk, and chase rates all in the top quartile of the league.
After two years in the weeds with the bat, we saw some of those indicators return to 2020 levels despite not being accompanied by actual results at the plate. His 13.5 percent walk rate was 13th-highest among qualified hitters while posting the best average exit velocity (90.3 mph) and barrel rate (11.9 percent) of his career. If he could just improve his selectivity the results should come, as swinging less should cut down on the strikeouts and whiffs.
That being said, 2021 is probably the closest representation of Grisham’s true talent level across a full season and ZiPS agrees. The model expects a repeat performance at the plate but with a return of his elite defense from 2020 and 2022, adding up to 2.8 fWAR across 140 games. It’s interesting that ZiPS projects him for essentially a full season by games and plate appearances — I wonder whether they are baking in expected IL stints for other members of the Yankees outfield or envision a true rotation of players. Regardless, I’m sure if you offered the front office almost three wins out of Grisham in 2024, they’d snap your hand off.
Of course, Grisham’s calling card is his defense. Since the start of 2020, Grisham grades out as the best outfield defender in the league, his 38 Statcast Outs Above Average four ahead of second-place finisher Michael A. Taylor. He’s got some of the best reaction times in the game, his initial burst helping make up for the at times circuitous routes he takes toward the ball.
One of the biggest things to watch during the upcoming season is how the team will manage starting Aaron Judge in center field. The captain maintains that he is more than up for the job, though the tone from the team’s decision-makers has hinted that they are less than thrilled with the idea. The amount of extra running that a center fielder has to do adds up quickly over the course of a full season — we know that increased fatigue carries elevated injury risk — and the Yankees would certainly prefer the face of the franchise to be available all year.
One creative solution the Yankees could employ to limit the amount of time Judge has to spend in center — besides bringing in Grisham as a late-inning defensive substitution — is to take advantage of Grisham’s stark reverse platoon splits and how they integrate with the other outfielders on the roster. Starting with the assumption that Judge, Soto, and Giancarlo Stanton are in the lineup every day, Grisham’s splits lineup nicely with fellow lefty newcomer Alex Verdugo.
Last year, Grisham hit lefties at a 124 wRC+ clip vs. just 79 against righties while Verdugo posted a 67 wRC+ against lefties vs. a 109 wRC+ against righties. This opens the possibility of a Soto-Grisham-Judge outfield left to right when a southpaw is pitching and Verdugo-Judge-Soto on days with a righty on the mound. Stanton would be DH in either scenario as it is difficult to envision him being booted from the lineup even if he’s struggling.
One final thing to note is that Grisham’s presence allows the Yankees to be patient with Jasson Domínguez’s rehab from Tommy John surgery. Grisham provides insurance in center such that they do not need to rush their star prospect back and even have the luxury of easing him into game action at Triple-A. It may not seem like it at first glance but Grisham offers a multitude of ways to help the team in the upcoming season.