Clint Frazier era shows Yankees couldn’t make up their minds

In a recent episode of the Yanks Go Yard podcast, hosts Adam Weinrib and Thomas Carannante bemoaned how the New York Yankees had failed in regard to “asset management” when it came to Clint Frazier and his tenure in the Bronx.

I would take it a step further. The Yankees’ failure to make anything of Frazier (before releasing him from their overcrowded roster last week) amounts to a lack of vision.

Let me clarify. The Yankees don’t lack a vision. Rather, the team had at least two visions, and couldn’t figure out which one to commit to.

One was that they are a team that doesn’t just use their money to sign big free agents — they also ensure that their most iconic players remain Yankees for life (think Gehrig, Rizzuto, DiMaggio, Ford, Mantle, Guidry, Mattingly and the Core Four). This vision is a key reason why the Yankees have clung onto Brett Gardner for so long.

Another vision (that dates back to the decision in 2008 to rely on Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy instead of trading for Johan Santana), is that the modern day Yankees are a team that can develop talent of their own. Perhaps Hal Steinbrenner is more of a penny-pincher than his father. Perhaps Brian Cashman doesn’t like the reputation that he only “buys championships” and wants to show the baseball world that he can beat them at their own game. Regardless, this vision explains why the team didn’t get rid of Frazier much earlier.

Part of what it means to have a vision is to commit. Visions are not fly-by-night ideas to be abandoned at the drop of a hat; they’re long-term plans. Therefore, the Yankees’ vision for Frazier kept the team from acquiring a proven outfield talent, even as names like Bryce Harper, George Springer and Michael Brantley came and went from the free agent market.

But while the Yankees were committed enough to their Frazier “vision” to keep him on their roster, they weren’t committed enough to give him the playing time he needed.

(Not) developing a star: The Yankees’ problem with Clint Frazier

Back in 2019, the Yankees could’ve made one of two choices regarding Frazier: trade him while his value was still high or truly commit to developing him as a starting outfielder. Alas, the Yankees took neither approach.

That season, Frazier got off to a hot start, hitting .324 while clobbering six home runs over eighteen April games. But once Frazier’s bat cooled a bit, the team focused in on his subpar defense. Before long, he had been demoted in favor of Gardner.

If the Yankees truly believed in Frazier, one might think they would have allowed him to play through his struggles. Miguel Andújar, Didi Gregorius, Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Canó all went through defensive woes in their early seasons, but were allowed to play full-time because the Yankees hoped to develop their already-promising offensive skills.

Instead, Frazier constantly had a Yankees legend in Gardner lurking behind him. There’s no way that could’ve helped him in a positive manner.

Clint Frazier vs Brett Gardner

The Yankees were hell-bent on developing minor leaguers into stars in the middle of the last decade, hence the “Baby Bombers.” But they also had a vision of maintaining Gardner’s status as the last remaining piece from the 2009 World Series … so Frazier was among that group of minor leaguers who clearly wasn’t given a clear path to the MLB level. One vision kept the Yankees from trading Frazier. The other vision kept them from benching Gardner and instead giving Frazier a meaningful chance to play through his shortcomings.

It can be tempting from the outside to assume professional sports teams are fully rational actors; that every decision made is highly informed, and solely serves the purpose of winning (or making money). But baseball teams are run by humans, and these humans are just as capable as the rest of us of developing biases that keep them from seeing the obvious.

In a way, I don’t disagree with the Yankees’ outfield decisions of the last few years. Gardner’s career was a great story. He was an average-sized human who snuck his way onto a college baseball team that didn’t scout him. He then snuck his way to a 14-year-career with baseball’s most iconic team. He’s also apparently a wonderful teammate, unless you lack a sense of humor.

Frazier, meanwhile, brought flashes of offensive brilliance to the Yankees. He was also open about his feelings in a way that may have offended baseball’s traditionalists, but made him seem far more relatable than his “better behaved” teammates.

But from a purely pragmatic perspective, the Yankees handling of the Frazier-Gardner situation was a real head-scratcher. Now he’ll be on another team in 2022. And Yankees fans will have to hope for two things: that Frazier doesn’t make them regret everything they’ve done, and that this one foot in, one foot out approach with a top prospect never happens again under this regime.