Welcome to Yankees Year in Review. This is the first of a four-part series looking at each position group for the Yankees. The first group up is the outfielders.
Only four players reached over 400 plate appearances as outfielders for the Yankees: Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton. When healthy, this position group was one of the strengths of the Yankees.
Aaron Hicks broke out, reaching nearly 5 fWAR (FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement) despite only playing 137 games. Aaron Judge was on pace for another 6-7 fWAR season before breaking his wrist, he was only limited to 112 games, he settled for 5 fWAR. Giancarlo Stanton played in 158 games total, the first time he has ever played at least 150 games in consecutive seasons and produce 4.2 fWAR. The veteran of the group, Brett Gardner produced 2.5 fWAR, while splitting time between left field and center field while Hicks was injured.
Not to be forgotten, Andrew McCutchen was fantastic after the Yankees traded for him in September. He played 25 games and contributed .391 wOBA and 149 wRC+ in place of Aaron Judge. McCutchen is a free agent but the Yankees have expressed interest in bringing him back.
Judge continued his excellence in the postseason, slashing .421/.500/.947 in five games. The problem was, he was the only outfielder who produced. The other four outfielders combined for nine hits and one home run. Judge had eight hits and three home runs by himself. When healthy, Judge will continue to be an MVP candidate for the next few years.
Fans may be disappointed by Stanton’s year, considering the cost and length of contract. Stanton was wildly inconsistent and seemingly lost the plate discipline he developed during his MVP season in Miami. However, many teams would love to have an outfielder who hits 38 home runs in an “off” year.
What seemingly no one has talked about is that Stanton is a positive outfielder by both DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) and UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 defensive games). Is he Aaron Hicks level? No, but not being a defensive liability at both corner outfield spots is something that should be recognized.
Aaron Hicks truly was the key to this outfield. He anchored centerfield with great range and an impressive arm. On top of that he nearly topped 30 home runs, despite not playing a full year due to injuries. Every passing day, the John Ryan Murphy trade looks like an absolute steal by the Yankees front office.
I wrote earlier in the season that this outfield could be one of the Yankees best in history and well, they came up short. One concern for the future is health. When Judge was hurt this was a team that was reduced to giving playing time to Shane Robinson and Neil Walker in the corner outfield spots. Still, going forward, this outfield should continue to be a strength both offensively and defensively.
Judge and Stanton are under team control for at least three more years (Stanton has an opt-out after the 2020 season). Hicks is a free agent in 2020 and should anchor centerfield during that time. There is also Jacoby Ellsbury, who is signed until 2021, but if you think he will contribute then I have a bridge I would like to sell you. That leaves us with Gardner, who is the only question mark.
Gardner will play next year at the age of 35 and the Yankees need to decide whether they want to pick up his team option or let him enter free agency. It is a $12.5 million option with a $2 million buyout. Clint Frazier was knocking on the door when healthy and leads to a couple possibilities going forward.
The Yankees could pick up Gardner’s option while opting to keep Stanton as a full-time designated hitter. That leaves Frazier, Gardner, Hicks, and Judge to split the three outfield positions. The other option is to bet on Frazier staying healthy and not picking up Gardner’s option. The slight downside is that you now have three outfielders (Hicks, Frazier, and Stanton) who all had injury problems in the past.
This is all before you factor in bringing back McCutchen, who could still be a valuable outfielder now that he has escaped the cavernous space of AT&T Park in San Francisco. This is a good problem to have for the Yankees. Having many options to choose from is much preferable to being limited. Potentially having six outfielders, all of whom would start for any MLB team, for three positions hedges against the potential injuries.
Now, there is the free agent market. You may have heard that Bryce Harper will be on the market, whom the Yankees have been connected to since he entered the league. Any time you can potentially sign Bryce Harper, you probably should look at doing that. The pick up of Harper would probably lead to the exit Gardner and McCutchen and would again leave Frazier blocked at all three positions. I do not think anyone will feel bad for the Yankees in that case.
Despite all this, even if the Yankees stand pat, the outfield should continue to be a part of a strong core in the next few seasons. Stanton’s contract will get ugly in the later years, but for now, he’s producing. Judge will be under cheap control for another year or two and Clint Frazier continues to wait in the wings if there are any injuries.
Look at the teams that made the league championship series’, Milwaukee, Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles all feature outfields with strong offensive and defensive production. If the Yankees want to continue to compete for a World Series, their outfield will be a driving force, not dead weight.
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