Yankees: Who will be the starting left fielder on Opening Day?
Injuries sidelined Jacoby Ellsbury for the entire 2018 season and caused Clint Frazier to miss most of it as well. This season they’re both expected to be healthy and ready to go for spring training which should create a competition for the Yankees starting job in left field. Between Ellsbury, Frazier and the returning Brett Gardner who has the edge to win the job?
The Yankees outfield as a whole last season was a strength of the club mostly because of the contributions they got from RF Aaron Judge and CF Aaron Hicks. Brett Gardner was the primary left fielder for most of the season but he really struggled in the second half and eventually lost his starting job to September trade deadline acquisition Andrew McCutchen.
Giancarlo Stanton was solid filling in at the corner outfield spots when he wasn’t the DH but the expectation is that he’ll continue to get the majority of his at-bats at DH in 2019 and beyond. When the Yankees re-signed Gardner earlier this offseason I wasn’t surprised considering he’s the longest tenured player on the team and a great clubhouse leader but I was surprised at how much he was signed for.
A one-year deal worth $7.5 million doesn’t seem like much especially for a big market club like the Yankees. However, it is a nice payday for a player who is on the decline and one who might not be worthy of a starting outfield job anymore at this point in his career.
I love Gardner and all he’s done for the Yankees organization over his 11-year career in pinstripes, but if this team is going to win a championship in 2019 I don’t think he should be the everyday LF. That’s not to say he will be but the fact that he was paid that much tells me that’s the plan, at least to begin the season.
With the health concerns of Ellsbury and Frazier, I understand why the Yankees brought Gardner back, but that doesn’t mean he should be handed the starting job out of spring training. As much as the Yanks would love to get rid of Ellsbury and his terrible contract he’s still on the roster and if he can stay healthy they might as well give him a chance to compete for the starting job in left.
The same goes for Frazier who has more upside than both Ellsbury and Gardner and still projects to be the team’s long term starter in left field. Frazier suffered a concussion last February and his symptoms lingered throughout the year which prevented him from making a big impact on the big league roster. Had he been healthy he would’ve had plenty of opportunities to play due to the injury to Judge and the struggles of Gardner. Who knows, if he never got hurt he could’ve taken Gardner’s job for good and then we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion today.
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In 2017, Frazier showed flashes off what made him one of the Yankees top prospects, despite appearing in only 39 games. He batted .231 in 134 at-bats but he picked up 17 extra-base hits and slugged .448. Every time he took the field he brought a ton of energy and showed an aggressive style of play on defense and on the base paths.
Yankee fans have been waiting to see what Frazier can do over the course of a full, healthy season and the hope is he’ll have that opportunity in 2019. Obviously, the key for him is health and if he doesn’t have a strong spring training the odds of him winning the job are highly unlikely because he still has minor league options. Although if he comes into camp and shows that the concussion is behind him and he plays to his capabilities the Yankees are going to have a very tough decision to make when they put together their final 25-man roster.
Even though Ellsbury and Gardner are well past their primes and look more like fourth outfielders they’re pretty much guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster if they don’t get hurt. Gardner should be regardless of whether he starts or not, but Ellsbury will be on it mostly because he’s due to make a little over $21 million next season. He’s probably the weakest link of the three options but unless the Yankees can find a way to trade him they can’t just exclude him from the big league roster if he’s healthy enough to play.
If it were up to me I’d give Frazier the job and see what he can do with 500 at-bats because of his upside but I get the feeling Gardner will be the starting left fielder on Opening Day. If Ellsbury can make it through camp healthy he’ll be the backup in left and in center while Stanton will continue to see time at both corner spots when he’s not the DH.
I don’t like it but that’s the way it’s probably going to go until somebody from the outfield goes down with an injury. Once that happens Frazier will be the first guy called upon to fill in and hopefully, he’ll get enough chances to show that he belongs and that he should be a part of the starting outfield for years to come.