May 29, 2020

Keep Clint Frazier

There is somewhat of an assumption that Brian Cashman and the New York Yankees are motivated to trade 23-year-old outfielder Clint Frazier. After all, the top prospect could be a centerpiece of a deal for a top starting pitcher. And, parting with him won’t be too painful as Cashman has already indicated that Frazier is all but blocked from the Major League roster at the onset of the 2018 season.

With the Yankees ready to capitalize on a stunning 2017 season and with the acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton that soon followed, it stands to reason why the Yankees would be going all in on 2018. Acquiring a top flite starting pitcher would certainly help as the rotation, while solid, seems to be the weakest part of the 2018 team. Cashman seems steadfast that he will not trade top prospect Gleyber Torres, but Frazier’s name was linked to Gerrit Cole rumors before the Astros acquired the right hander from the Pirates.

Perhaps moving Frazier in a deal for Cole made sense. After all, Cole would’ve been under control for two seasons and is still just 27 years old. But, with other pitchers still on the free agent market and a current starting five of  Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia, and possibly Jordan Montgomery, Cashman doesn’t have to make a big move right now. They can enter the season with the current rotation, along with some intriguing young Minor League depth, and compete. It may be the weakest part of the team, but it is good enough to compete.

And, while it seems that Frazier is blocked, depth is always an important quality of a championship team. Last year, the Astros, at different points, had Carlos Correa, Dallas Keuchel, and George Springer on the disabled list. Their depth allowed them to survive and then go on to win the title. The Yankees need that depth, especially in the outfield.

The Yankees are going to field a young team in 2018. All but one of their everyday starters are under the age of 29, at least as the roster stands right now. But, that one player over 28 years old is entering his age 34 season. His current backup is also entering his age 34 season. While not old by any means, both outfielders do come with some warning signs.  

Brett Gardner is coming off of his best power season. In 151 games, the lefty hit .264/.350/.428 with 26 doubles, 4 triples, 21 home runs, and 23 stolen bases. The .428 slugging percentage and 21 home runs were career bests. Defensively, his defensive runs saved of +17 led all Major League left fielders. In all, it was a very good season for the 33-year-old.

Even with that good season, Gardner did struggle against southpaws, hitting just .209/.299/.291, a sharp decline from 2015 and 2016. Heading into his age 34 season, one has to wonder if Gardner will continue to have trouble against left-handed pitching and if he can sustain his performance considering much of his game is predicated on speed and athleticism. While a sharp decline isn’t expected, it is unrealistic to believe Brett Gardner can replicate his 2017 power. And, will his performance decline against left-handed pitching to the point where he becomes a platoon player? With more rest most likely needed, the Yankees will need some depth, especially from the right side of the plate.

Part of that depth involves 34 year old Jacoby Ellsbury, another left handed hitter. Ellsbury has stated that he intends to win back his starting job, but he is coming off of a season in which he appeared in just 112 games, the second time in three years that he has played in under 115 games. Aging players do not become more durable.  

He did put together a solid season of .264/.348/.402 with 20 doubles, 4 triples, 7 home runs, and 22 stolen bases. Defensively, he is coming off of his worst season since his first year in New York, posting a minus-3 DRS.

While his statistics are suitable for a fourth outfielder or even a starting outfielder on this team, they do not match his salary, which does have an awful lot to do with the perception that Ellsbury can no longer contribute. But, like Gardner, Ellsbury showed some difficulty against southpaws, hitting just .240/.301/.337, continuing a trend of the past couple of seasons.

Despite the perception, both Gardner and Ellsbury are essentially the same player in the sense that they bring essentially the same skill set to the lineup. Both get on base at the same rate, both bring the stolen base element, both have relatively the same power, and both are susceptible to left-handed pitching. The two can be useful, but they are not a tandem. The Yankees are still a right-handed bat short, even if they move Stanton to the outfield when facing a southpaw.

And, that doesn’t even include some worries about Aaron Hicks. Make no mistake, Hicks finally had that long-awaited breakout season in 2017. He showed signs in September of 2016 and carried it over to have a stellar 2017 of .266/.372/.475 line with 18 doubles, 15 home runs, and 10 stolen bases in 88 games. He also turned in an elite defensive season, posting a +15 DRS combined in all three outfield spots.

A switch-hitter, Hicks performed better against left-handed pitching, batting .312/.389/.514 as opposed to .240/.363/.453 against right-handers. But, 88 games is something to look at. Injuries derailed his hot start and Hicks did see his production steadily decline as each month passed. Can he sustain his performance over a full season? His track record is incomplete to say with certainty. While it seems like a solid bet, there is a possibility that Hicks returns to a pre-2017 performance.

Admittedly, this is a first world problem type thing. The Yankees have a group of talented outfielders. Judge and Stanton project to produce elite numbers with Stanton spending much of his time at DH. A combination of Hicks, Gardner, and Ellsbury in the other two outfield spots does project to be positive, which does make it seem like Clint Frazier isn’t needed. But, the young, right-handed hitting Frazier is needed, which is not only good for the organization but could be beneficial to his career.

The Yankees do have Minor Leaguers Billy McKinney, Jabari Blash, and Jake Cave as potential call-ups should they need them. But, none have the pedigree or ceiling of Frazier. Of course, Cashman could sign a free agent to fill the void of a right-handed hitting outfielder. But, having Frazier in the organization seems like the safest insurance policy.

In 39 games at the Major League level, Frazier slashed .231/.268/.448 with 9 doubles, 4 triples, and 4 home runs in 134 at-bats. While his strikeout rate was 30%, Frazier showed plus bat speed as evidenced by his 40 percent hard-hit rate. The small sample size before he was injured gave a glimpse of his immense talent. You don’t get rid of a young player without getting an elite player in return.  It certainly doesn’t look like that player is available anyway. And, an argument can be made that Gerrit Cole wasn’t even that type of player either.

Even if there isn’t room on the Major League roster for Frazier, that wouldn’t necessarily hurt his development. Entering just his age 23 season, Frazier has only played a total of 134 games at the Triple-A level over the course of the past two seasons. With just 89 games at Double-A, Frazier comes with very little upper-level experience. Some time to cut down on his strikeouts, mature into his power, and refine his approach will only benefit the young outfielder. With him at the ready, the Yankees have options. If any of the outfielders gets hurt, Frazier can be inserted into the starting lineup. If Gardner and Ellsbury struggle against southpaws, Frazier can be added as a platoon player to start and with the opportunity to win more time. The Yankees don’t have that type of player in their system other than Frazier.

Of course, there is also the scenario that Frazier has a great spring and changes the Yankees’ plans. He could push one of the presumed starters into a fourth outfielder role. While unlikely, the 23-year-old does have the talent to pull that off.

Right now, there really isn’t a player available via trade that would be compelling enough to move Clint Frazier. There really isn’t a compelling reason to trade away a Major League ready player before the season begins. Instead, the Yankees should continue his development and keep a high ceiling insurance policy in case their two 34-year-old left-handed outfielders both regress. If circumstances change midseason, Brian Cashman still has the option to make a trade. If one of the outfielders gets hurt or struggles, Brian Cashman has the option to bring him up. And, if none of that happens, Clint Frazier will continue his development in the Minor Leagues.

Those options are far better for the 2018 Yankees than trading him right now.