Outfield Depth Getting Challenged in New York

Remember last year when  the Yankees had the equivalent of most teams’ payrolls sitting on the injured list? Remember? Guess what? Here we are in Spring Training and already the Yankees are winning the injured list payroll game! Yay! Go, Yankees! Ouch. What a bad way to start the pre-season. You won’t hear this too often about the Yankees, but they are going to start the season with one hand tied behind their collective back. Domingo German, their most successful starting pitcher from 2019, is out for a little more than a third of the season for violating the league’s PED rules. That is a self-inflicted wound unlike the injuries. Adding to their rotation woes, Luis Severino is out for the year with Tommy John surgery as of 2/27/20. Severino had back to back 5 WAR seasons in 2017 and 2018. Adding to that, James Paxton just had back surgery in February so he is out for the early part of the season at least. Yeah, they added Gerrit Cole but then went out and lost 60% of the rotation behind him. If we are talking about injury impact, that isn’t even the part of the team that has been hit the hardest percentage-wise. The outfield, which is what this article will focus on, currently is without 100% of the starting three, and it is possible they will start the regular season that way! So it’s hard to talk about the Yankees outfield without including a lot of talk about injuries and depth, so let’s get to it.

In left, we have that behemoth masher of the leather covered pill – check that – we have Mike Tauchman. Giancarlo Stanton (the aforementioned masher) is on the IL with a strained calf and, after playing only 18 games last season due to a myriad of injuries, the Yankees have to be concerned about the durability of their cleanup hitter moving forward. Back to Tauchman in a moment – a healthy Stanton is usually good for 35 or more home runs with good on-base skills. His career slash line is .268/.358/.547 with a 142 wRC+. That is nigh on impossible to replace but, at 30 years of age, Stanton seems to be having a hard time staying off the IL. His latest injury doesn’t appear to be serious, but where would you put the over/under on games played? 150? 120? 85? The Yankees need him to at least get to his Depth Charts projection of 123. There are a couple small sample size curiosities to watch this year, like the nearly 5% drop in his swing rate in 2019 without a noticeable change in his contact rate. Stanton also experienced a nearly 3% improvement on his contact rate on balls outside the strike zone – a career high of 55%. UZR/150 and DRS have generally liked Stanton as an outfielder, so if his legs are good that gives them good defense in left field even if it is a mix and match situation in the other corner. The Yankees will probably try to wrap Stanton in bubble wrap for the rest of the spring in hopes that this latest booboo is minor.

Oh yeah – Mike Tauchman was a Fan Graphs favorite while he was toiling away in anonymity in the Rockies minor league system. It didn’t make much of a splash when the Rockies traded him to the Yankees for Phillip Diehl, a then 24 year old lefty who was taken in the 27th round of the 2016 draft. Diehl finished his season getting lit up in Colorado Springs (triple-A) while Tauchman finally got a real chance to play in the Majors – the Rockies only gave him 69 plate appearances over two seasons – and he slashed .277/.361/.504 for a wRC+ of 128. In 296 plate appearances Tauchman made it clear that he had talent at the plate. He also put up good defensive numbers in all three outfield spots. How many 4th outfielders can play center well and perform 28% better than average with the bat? Not many, because guys who produce like that are usually called starting outfielders. Assuming Tauchman is for real, he will get 400+ plate appearances – more if Stanton and Judge miss substantial time. For now, he is the primary starting left fielder until Stanton is ready to roll.

Aaron Hicks – uh, Brett Gardner is probably the starter in center as Hicks recovers from elbow surgery. Gardner, who is 36, just had his most productive full season in the majors from an offensive standpoint with a wRC+ of 115. His 28 home runs far surpassed his previous career high of 21 – the only other time he hit more than 17. Even though Gardner reached the other side of the fence a lot last year, he is no longer the big base-stealing threat he used to be. He should no longer be a top of the order hitter as his OBP dropped to .325 in 2019 (.322 in 2018) down from his career mark of .342. It says a lot about Gardner that at 36 the Yankees are ok running him out to center field until Hicks recovers. He is no longer a Gold Glove defender – he won the award once in 2016 – but he still puts up positive DRS and UZR/150 for now. If his power numbers fall back to his previous levels, the Yankees will have a hard time playing him everyday. Gardner has become a 2.0 to 3.0 WAR player, which is great for most teams, but the Yankees expect more from their starters, so a decline below that mark would lead to the Yankees declining his 2021 team option.

Aaron Hicks was coming off a 5.0 WAR season (2018) in his first year as a full-time starter. He was off to a slow start in 2019 then played his last game on August 3rd. Now with his elbow reconstructed, Hicks will have to fight to get his job back when he returns mid-season because the Yankees are so deep. He provides power (27 bombs in 2018), solid-to-good defense in center (7 career DRS in center), and some plate discipline when he is right (OBP of .372 in 2017 and .366 in 2018). But if you look at Hicks’ career slash line, it is hard to see him as a starter on a championship level club – .236/.328/.401. The Yankees must be a little worried that his career slash line is more representative of the real Aaron Hicks than his 5.0 WAR 2018 after he slashed only .235/.325/.443 last year. He will definitely be given an opportunity to win his job back unless the Yankees have an outbreak of good health and Tauchman or Gardner has a spectacular first half.

Right field belongs to Aaron Judge – or is it Clint Frazier, or Miguel Andujar. Judge is a superstar and he owns right field as long as he is healthy, which – of course – he isn’t right now – stress fracture of a rib. Judge is not a one-dimensional masher, although he would still start if that were the case because his power is tremendous. In 1718 career plate appearances – the equivalent of almost three full seasons – Judge has 110 home runs. The main issue with Judge – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – is his health. Judge, who is likely to miss the start of this season, only played in 112 and 102 games in 2018 and 2019 respectively, due to injuries. He will play most of the season as a 28 year old and has amassed 17.8 WAR already. His career slash line is about what he does every year – .273/.394/.558 so he gets on base in spite of his high strikeout rates –  a career mark of 31.6%. He takes a lot of pitches looking for something he can mash and he has been consistent with that approach. His swing rate each of the last three seasons has been between 40.3% and 41.9%. Also, his swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone is annually about 5% below average for the rest of the league. So he is going to strike out but he is also going to take some walks. And when he swings – well, his hard hit rate for his career is 48.6% which leads to some pretty high BABIPs because he hits the dang ball so hard! Compare his career wRC+ of 152 to Stanton’s 142 and you see why the Yankees have so much invested in the two hitters. Add in Judge’s good outfield defense (20 DRS last season in right) and you can see why Judge is the golden child of the position players.

The mention of a golden child might have been reserved for Clint Frazier a couple seasons ago when he looked like a can’t-miss prospect. Frazier seems to have shed the shininess that comes with being a 5th overall pick now that he is 25 and hasn’t established himself as a regular. Part of that comes with being a Yankee minor leaguer but Frazier also has some warts. The former Indian prospect, has decent power, but doesn’t walk enough, especially when you look at how often he strikes out. His career slash line in 429 plate appearances is .254/.308/.463 with a 6.5% walk rate and a 29.4% K rate. He has always had a pretty high K rate in the minors, but his walk rate used to get over 10% pretty regularly. If he can get back there in the Majors, then Frazier works as a starter IF he can improve on his defense, which has been consistently poor/bad to this point. Last year in about a half a season of work, mostly as a corner outfielder, he cost the team somewhere between 11 and 17 runs (DRS of -11 and UZR/150 of -16.7). The bat hasn’t shown quite enough to be a DH but the glove has profiled very much like a DH. Frazier gets another chance to play some outfield because of injuries and might be playing for a trade to another club. His future doesn’t look good in New York where they have plenty of corner outfield/DH types, but if he shows improvement there will be teams who are interested. At 25, it is time for Frazier to show what he can do or that fading prospect shininess won’t help him much longer.

Another 25 year old is in the mix for some outfield time – Miguel Andujar. Similar to Frazier, Andujar isn’t a big fan of the free pass (4.1% career walk rate), but unlike Frazier, Andujar has a 130 wRC+ season under his belt and doesn’t strike out nearly as often (16.3% K rate). The Yankees have worked Andujar in the outfield this spring and the reports have been good, but he has only played third base in the majors – a position currently filled by Gio Urshela – so he will either work in the outfield or find himself DHing and maybe getting some time at first.  Andujar has already gotten to his raw power in the majors hitting 27 bombs in his first full season in the majors in 2018, but lost almost all of 2019 to injury resulting in surgery this past May for a torn labrum. Andujar’s arm was one of his best tools (a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale) so his recovery will dictate a lot positionally. He is athletic, so a move to the outfield isn’t far fetched.

Obviously it would be best for all concerned in Yankee land for Stanton to recover quickly and have a mostly injury free season. The same goes for Judge. At this point it seems clear that neither of those outcomes are likely and Hicks will definitely miss a lot of time. That means the Yankees will have to rely on their depth right out of the gate. This will force the Yankees to see what they have in Clint Frazier and give them a chance to see if Miguel Andujar can learn to play the outfield at the major league level. Of course it is possible that neither of those experiments works out, Mike Tauchman gets over-exposed starting everyday, and Yankee fans are forced to watch Brett Gardner decline in real time. I don’t know about you, but I think it will be fun to watch the Yankees have to work to put their lineup together like mortals instead of just running superstars out to each position. I am not happy to see Stanton, Hicks, or Judge, who seems like a great guy, felled by injuries, but all teams have to deal with that and the Yankees have the depth to deal with it better than most. If Tauchman repeats and Frazier improves, it will mean they get to have careers as starters probably on some other team once Judge, Stanton, and Hicks get healthy (if that actually happens). Lots of moving parts here, but we are talking about the Yankees, so they will either figure it out or trade from their depth of young players to fix it.