Once Aaron Judge returns, the Yankees will have a very crowded outfield picture, so how will they deal with the situation?
The Yankees have a problem on the horizon. It comes hand in hand with what would be a massive upgrade for a team that desperately needs one, but it’s a problem nonetheless. When Aaron Judge fractured his wrist on July 26, the Yankees were thrust into a rotation of mediocre right fielders highlighted by usual infielder Neil Walker and journeyman Shane Robinson. Walker had his moments with the bat, but his defense was often quite shaky. Robinson hit .143 in 49 games and quickly became one of Yankees Twitter’s favorite punching bags. An upgrade was clearly needed.
On August 30, right before the waiver trade deadline, Yankees GM Brian Cashman worked his magic, dealing prospects Abiatal Avelino and Juan De Paula to the Giants for Andrew McCutchen. Many questioned why a deal wasn’t made sooner and why the team stuck with Walker and Robinson for so long, though it was widely agreed upon that the deal was a great pickup for the Yankees. McCutchen struggled a bit in his first few games with the Yankees, going 1-for-16 in his first five games, though his defense was great in right field, as expected. However, McCutchen showed a lot of improvement over the next few games, homering in each of the Yankees’ next two games in Seattle against the Mariners.
Meanwhile, Aaron Hicks has continued to enjoy a career season, already setting career highs in hits, home runs, RBI’s, runs and walks. He has also established himself as one of baseball’s best center fielders, utilizing both his speed and his cannon of an arm to coax runners back to their bases instead of tagging up on fly balls.
Brett Gardner has been mired in a slump, hovering around the Mendoza line for much of August and September, leading to manager Aaron Boone often dropping Gardner down to the ninth spot in the lineup and using Hicks or McCutchen at leadoff instead. Nevertheless, Gardner’s stellar defense in left field has remained among the best in the league, and he hit .313 in May after hitting just .210 in March and April, proving that he can bust out of slumps by continuing to grind out at-bats and make pitchers work.
Earlier this year, Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank’s entrepreneur Mark Cuban joined CC Sabathia and Ryan Ruocco’s R2C2 podcast. Cuban discussed how he is fascinated by new technology that allows hitters to determine a pitch’s path to the plate and where it ends up. Sabathia highlighted Gardner as a player whose pitch recognition and ability to determine where the ball would dip at the plate has remained great throughout his career, even with his year in its closing stages. And Giancarlo Stanton, despite also being in a bit of a slump, has been among the most key players down the stretch, stepping up to carry the load when Judge got injured. He has cemented himself as the team’s everyday designated hitter, with his hamstring still troubling him enough that Boone has decided not to risk running him out in an outfield position.
So with each of the three outfield positions and the designated hitter all vacated, the Yankees will likely have an issue on their hands when Judge returns regarding where he should play. Though there were rumors at the start of the year that Judge could play some left field, it is clear that he is the team’s right fielder. This puts McCutchen’s role in jeopardy. McCutchen was primarily a center fielder in his heyday with the Pirates, and though his speed has diminished, the team could entertain playing him in center.
However, Hicks has the surefire best arm of the team’s outfielders, so he would seem to be the ideal choice to remain in centerfield. McCutchen has never played a game of left field at the major league level, so left field doesn’t seem to be the best option in play. However, Boone could definitely consider the move if Gardner continues to struggle and if McCutchen continues to ride his mini-hot streak. The team could also entertain playing Judge in left field like they considered at the start of the year, but his defense would likely be highly suspect, especially in comparison to Gardner’s.
There is no perfect answer about what to do- nearly every solution would result in a player playing out of his usual position, and/or in a usual starter sitting on the bench rather than helping the team in the lineup.
What the team could end up doing is a rotation of outfielders. Hicks can play all three outfield positions, though center field would be ideal. Gardner could play center field in addition to his usual starting position of left field. McCutchen can play both center and right field. Stanton has established himself as the team’s everyday DH and that will not change, barring multiple outfield injuries.
Judge could need some easing back into the lineup- this is his first severe injury of his career and he has discussed potentially returning before his wrist is entirely healed. But if the AL East race is tightened towards the end of September, expect to see Judge as an everyday player in the lineup. I’d imagine McCutchen and Gardner will platoon in some way, likely with Gardner starting against righties and McCutchen against lefties. Perhaps this could mean we see Hicks playing some left field with McCutchen in center, since Hicks has more experience in left field (47 combined games in 2016 and 2017, though he has yet to play there in 2018) than McCutchen does. If Gardner’s cold streak continues, he could eventually become strictly a pinch-runner and defensive substitute off the bench.
It wouldn’t be an ideal ending to perhaps his last season as a Yankee (if you listen closely you can hear the “BRYCE HARPER IS COMING” chants from Yankees Twitter), with the 11-year career Yankee’s contract expiring after this year. But it’s a possibility nonetheless.
In summary, Aaron Judge’s return from injury will lead to someone losing playing time, either entirely relegated to a bench role or through a platoon with to (or more) players. Which players will be affected remains to be seen. It could even lead to certain players being left off the playoff roster. This is the downside to having an abundance of solid outfielders, I guess.