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The Deep and Talented Outfield [2021 Season Preview]

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The Unquestioned Left Fielder

I hope that it feels as good to read that as it did to write it.

After three years of bouncing between the majors, the minors, and the injured list, Clint Frazier became a fixture in the middle of the Yankees lineup last August. It may have only happened because of injuries and under-performance by others — but it happened nevertheless, and it was fantastic. Frazier hit .267/.394/.511 (149 wRC+) with 8 home runs in 160 PA and played elite defense in right field. What more could you ask for?

Sure, there are caveats aplenty given the very nature of the 2020 season. There were bizarre performances throughout the majors, good and bad and everything in between, and that wasn’t solely the result of a significantly shortened season. That said, Frazier was a top prospect for several years for a reason, and he’ll be 26 for the vast majority of this season; that means there are plenty of reasons to buy in, too.

So what’re the projections thinking?

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)DefenseWAR
PECOTA50720.234/.321/.429 (104 DRC+)0.71.5
ZiPS47421.242/.325/.463 (106 wRC+)-8.21.2
Steamer52522.246/.324/.449 (103 wRC+)-9.71.0

PECOTA seems to think that Frazier’s a good defender now, that’s pretty neat. The rest? Not so much.

I find it rather interesting that all three systems are essentially ignoring 2020 entirely. His career slash line heading into 2020 was .254/.308/.463 (100 wRC+) with 16 HR in 429 PA. With the exception of an elevated walk rate, that’s really not that far off from the above chart. And I’m not buying it.

In my decidedly non-algorithmic opinion, I think a reasonable baseline for Frazier would essentially match his career to-date (which is conveniently exactly 162 games). That line? .258/.331/.475 (113 wRC+) with 24 HR in 589 PA. And I’d bet the over.

Now here’s hoping he stops running into walls.

The Frustrating Center Fielder

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It feels mildly disingenuous to call Aaron Hicks frustrating, considering he’s the 10th best center fielder in baseball over the last four seasons by fWAR (and here’s your semi-regular reminder that WAR is a counting stat, and he missed over 200 games in that span). The 31-year-old is really good when he’s on the field, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise.

That said, it always feels as though Hicks is capable of more. Ana laid out the quandary that is his production last week, and I recommend checking that out. The bottom line of it all, though, may well be that he’s a .247/.362/.457 (123 wRC+) hitter since the beginning of 2017, with an average of about 28 HR per 650 PA.

Onto the projections:

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)DefenseWAR
PECOTA57121.238/.352/.422 (114 DRC+)-1.82.7
ZiPS45916.239/.359/.430 (112 wRC+)1.72.4
Steamer58323.236/.356/.432 (111 wRC+)-1.22.8

All three are eerily similar to what happens if we average out 2019 and 2020: .231/.350/.431 (111 wRC+). That feels a bit unfair, considering 2020 was quite similar to 2017 and 2018 (at least in terms of wRC+) and 2019 was his most injury-riddled season. Hicks will spend most of 2021 at the age of 31, so there may be a bit of age-based regression baked in there, but that still feels a bit conservative for my tastes.

I’m taking the over here, too.

The Franchise Player … When Healthy

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When Aaron Judge is on the field, he’s one of the best players in all of baseball. I’m not sure that there’s any disputing that. 2020 was his worst season and he still slashed .257/.336/.554 (139 wRC+), and he was on a 5+ WAR pace. Unfortunately, Judge hasn’t quite been healthy since he reached the big leagues, with nagging injuries plaguing him in 2017 and a litany of maladies landing him on the injured list several times over the following three years. He has missed 142 games since the beginning of 2018.

And it appears that the projection systems might think those injuries have taken their toll on Judge:

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)DefenseWAR
PECOTA58936.255/.365/.522 (139 DRC+)6.44.7
ZiPS49933.255/.367/.536 (135 wRC+)3.54.1
Steamer60135.249/.371/.506 (130 wRC+)-1.94.2

ZiPS and Steamer are both projecting the worst season of Judge’s career by wRC+ and WAR (on a prorated basis). PECOTA does see Judge improving in terms of DRC+ (which is more predictive/input-based than wRC+), but the bottom line would still be below career norms.

At the same time, though, projections are inherently somewhat skeptical. For comparison’s sake, they see Mookie Betts and Juan Soto regressing, however slightly, as astronomical production is simply difficult to expect. Heck, Mike Trout is projected to more or less duplicate 2020, which was his “worst” season, instead of bouncing back to his career norms. So it may not be doom and gloom.

As was the case with Frazier and Hicks, I would take the over here, too. To be frank, however, I’d be happy with those lines if they meant we got 140+ games of Judge in the lineup.

The Designated Masher

Much of what I said about Judge can also be applied to Giancarlo Stanton. The 31-year-old has raked in pinstripes, but he has also missed 181 games over the last two seasons. He’s a .266/.353/.507 (131 wRC+) hitter with the Yankees, and he took his game to another level in the postseason last year, batting .308/.387/1.038 with 6 HR in 7 games (31 PA). Stanton has not been the MVP-level hitter that many (most?) expected — but the bat still packs a wallop.

In short, I have the utmost faith in Stanton’s bat. He’s going to hit. He has to stay healthy to do it often enough, though. Do the projections agree?

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)DefenseWAR
PECOTA52128.232/.335/.469 (117 DRC+)-0.51.9
ZiPS52738.250/.347/.558 (132 wRC+)-13.62.5
Steamer58239.250/.346/.530 (127 wRC+)-15.72.3

PECOTA is predicting that Stanton is going to have the worst season of his career. It’s difficult for me to accept that. It is worth noting that his average exit velocity was down, and Matt addressed his increased groundball percentage – but it was a small sample size, and much of his batted ball profile remained elite. ZiPS and Steamer are relatively close to his time in pinstripes as a whole, and that feels more reasonable to me.

The Fourth Outfielder

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Brett Gardner is back, and he is destined for a prominent bench role. He’s probably slightly overqualified for the role, given that he can still hit and play a more than adequate center field – but that’s little more than a plus for the Yankees. He’s 37 and entering his 14th season with the team, and I find myself surprisingly misty eyed at the thought of him walking off into the sunset with another ring.

In a perfect world, Gardner should probably get about 50 or 60 starts this year, covering in left and center with other moving pieces to give the starters rest. I would expect him to continue to produce league-average-ish slash lines, which is right in-line with the projection systems, and strong defense at both positions. If he does end up starting a ton of games, something undoubtedly went wrong … but he’s nevertheless a far better options than most fourth outfielders in the league.

The Battle for the Fifth Outfield Spot

At this juncture, it might as well be guaranteed that one of Mike Tauchman, Jay Bruce, or Derek Dietrich is going to make the team. Tauchman offers plus defense and (maybe) tantalizing offensive potential; Bruce offers dingers aplenty; and Dietrich brings some dingers, some on-base skills, and a modicum of versatility (as well as the least amount of outfield experience by a comfortable amount). Derek covered Tauchman’s pluses and minuses the other day, and Matt compared Bruce and Dietrich a couple of weeks ago.

The key wrinkle may well be that Tauchman is on the 40-man and out of options, so choosing Bruce or Dietrich means losing Tauchman. Yet there is definitely some trade value there, and the abilities of Bruce and Dietrich to play first makes them the tiniest bit more tenable. It’s an interesting situation, and a good problem to have.

If I had to guess, as I’ve done before with my other previews, I think Dietrich makes the most sense. The fact that Gardner is back and Stanton is expected to play a bit more defense helps, too. I can really see it going any way, though.

The Top Prospect

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwCLN3s6UCo

Jasson Dominguez is one of the best prospects in baseball. He’s been (irresponsibly) compared to Mike Trout and Mickey Mantle despite having yet to record an official professional plate appearance, and he turned 18 just over a month ago. It’s absolutely wonderful that he’s a member of the New York Yankees organization.

That said: he’s 18 and hasn’t taken an official professional at-bat yet. He might not even reach Low-A this year. We won’t see him in 2020. Or next year, I imagine. That doesn’t mean you can’t be hyped, though.

The Other Prospects

Kevin Alcantara would be the most exciting teenaged prospect in most systems, earning high marks for his power, speed, and defensive potential. He’s a gigantic young man, checking in at 6’6″ and around 200 pounds, and he won’t be 19 until July. Alcantara is at least a couple of years away – but there’s plenty to like here.

Antonio Cabello is a bit of an oddity, as a short and thick-bodied center fielder with well above-average speed. He was a catcher as an amateur, but made the transition to the outfield so that his above-average hit and power tools could more easily flourish. Injuries and a lost 2020 have hindered that development, but Cabello is nevertheless a legitimate prospect.

The 23-year-old Estevan Florial just arrived at the team’s Spring Training facility, having sorted out some visa issues. He’s on the 40-man roster and he spent 2020 at the alternate site, and he made his big league debut to boot. Florial is nevertheless still quite raw, and he hadn’t played above High-A prior to last season. He’s tantalizing, owing to above-average or better tools in the power, speed, fielding, and throwing departments – but his hit tool lags way behind. Florial still has two options left and there’s depth at the highest level, so he has time to figure it out; opinions vary wildly on the likelihood of that happening, though.

Anthony Garcia might have the most raw power in the Yankees system. He’s a high-risk, high-reward prospect, but his bat is extremely easy to dream on.

The soon-to-be 21-year-old Ryder Green was the team’s third round pick in 2018. He has well above-average power and tremendous bat speed, pulling the pall to left and left-center with serious authority. He’s a center fielder for now, but he’s no more than an average runner so he might end up in right. Green has struck out quite a bit in the minors, but much of that is due to his willingness to work the count – his approach is advanced.

Brandon Lockridge, who will turn 24 on Sunday, is one of the fastest players in the minor leagues. I almost put him in the final category on this list, but when there’s a strong consensus saying that he can be an elite defender in center and an asset on the basepaths, it’s not too difficult to see a big league bench role here. If he can tap into his average raw power even a little bit, he could be interesting.

Fidel Montero signed with the Yankees on February 6. The 17-year-old is among the rawest prospects in the system, but his power and throwing arm have both earned plus-plus grades from multiple outlets, and his speed is at least above-average. Montero’s a wait-and-see type, to be sure, but there’s a prototypical right fielder’s starter kit here.

Signed for $1.5 MM back in 2017, Everson Pereira is another quality center field prospect. He doesn’t necessarily have a standout tool, but he earns average to above-average marks across the board, and it’s worth noting that he was the youngest player in his league in both 2018 and 2019. Pereira should be ready for full season ball this year.

The Other Guys

Remember when there was the tiniest bit of concern that Greg Allen could play a major role for the Yankees this year? No? Me neither. He’s a switch hitter with plenty of speed and a reputation for strong defense (which isn’t backed up by the metrics). He’s a career .239/.298/.343 (70 wRC+) hitter in 618 major league plate appearances, so he’s little more than a fifth outfielder.

The 26-year-old Trey Amburgey was the Yankees 13th round pick way back in 2015. He’s been passed over in back-to-back Rule 5 drafts, which is kind of interesting as he is a solid defender in the corners with a little bit of speed and power. Amburgey spent the entirety of 2019 at Triple-A, where he played fairly well; he feels akin to trade bait at this point.

Socrates Brito, a non-roster invitee has one of the best names in all of baseball. He’s also a mediocre defensive outfielder with a 32 wRC+ in 218 MLB PA. As a left-handed hitter with some speed and some pop (at least in the minors), he seems likely to bounce around the majors for as long as he wants.

Pablo Olivares has the look of a guy that can hit for average, take some walks, steal some bases, and play a solid center field. His power is comfortably below-average, though, and he’s still learning how to utilize his speed. He’ll be Rule 5 eligible in December.

Josh Stowers is something of a tweener. He’s fast, but his arm profiles best in left field; he works the count and runs the bases well, but he has below-average power. I’ve seen him talked about as a right-handed Gardner, but I can’t see him as more than a poor man’s version of that just yet. He’s another potential Rule 5 guy.

Depth Chart

  • MLB: Frazier*, Hicks*, Judge*, Gardner*, Stanton*, Dietrich^/Tauchman*
  • Triple-A: Brito^, Allen^, Amburgey^
  • Double-A: Florial, Lockridge, Olivares
  • High-A: Stowers, Pereira
  • Low-A: Alcantara, Cabello, Green

*Denotes on 40-man roster, ^ denotes non-roster invitee to major league spring training.

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2 Comments

  1. Mungo

    My guess is Gardner will still start a couple games a week. He’s a lefty bat, so they’re going to want to get him playing time, not to mention he’s remained effective against righties. Although Frazier is the starting LFer, I’m still going under the belief that Gardner will take two out of every seven games in LF. Now, that doesn’t mean Frazier will always sit. Judge will get rest and most likely injured, and then Frazier shifts to RF. Hicks will have his downtime too, and Gardner will take over there then. If the last two years should have taught us, there will be plenty of playing time for the 4th (and even 5th) OFers. Having a deep OF is a good thing.

  2. stevecwang13

    1) In 2020, Brett Gardner passed Don Mattingly in career WAR. He still shows up as an above-average fielder, and he’s had positive fielding runs in every season of his career (including 58 FR in 2010-11, a phenomenal total).

    2) Clint Frazier’s stats in 162 career games played are a close match for Nick Swisher’s 162-game averages. I’d say Swisher is a reasonable expectation for the rest of Frazier’s career.

    3) I’m surprised by how poorly Stanton’s defense is projected by the various systems. He had good fielding stats in Miami, with an excellent +11 FR in his final season there, and had a solid +5 in his first season in NY.

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