New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner said he expects Aaron Judge to be the team's starting right fielder to open the 2017 season.
"He's got some work to do; he knows that," Steinbrenner told YES Network, according to the New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand. "We're going to figure out exactly what we think is wrong. My expectations are he's going to be my starting right fielder this year. That's a big deal and a big opportunity. I know he's going to make the most of it."
Judge, a top outfield prospect, made his MLB debut last season in early August, but struggled to a .179/.263/.345 batting line with four home runs, 10 RBIs and 42 strikeouts in 27 games. He will still retain rookie status because he only had 95 plate appearances.
With Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Judge hit .270 with 19 home runs and 65 RBIs in 93 games. Prior to 2016, Judge was ranked Baseball Prospectus' No. 18 prospect, MLB.com's No. 31 prospect and Baseball America's No. 76 prospect.
The Yankees currently have Brett Gardner in left field and Jacoby Ellsbury in center field, with Aaron Hicks, Tyler Austin and potentially Clint Frazier on the bench. New York has also been linked to several free-agent outfielders, including Jose Bautista and Yoenis Cespedes.
The Yankees continue to profess that Judge will be their right fielder, and while he might win the job out of spring training, the question becomes how long of a rope they will allow him.
The Yankees sit in an interesting part of a transition process in which they hope for success from young prospects, but also want to remain competitive enough to garner a playoff appearance. There is a good deal of pressure on the organization to continue to develop prospects, but also to show that the thought process of getting younger will bear fruit.
Should Judge falter in spring training, it would not be surprising to see the Yankees start him back in Triple-A and hope he makes a marked improvement, much like they saw with Gary Sanchez last season after he was left behind when the regular season commenced. If Judge makes the club out of spring training but gets off to another slow start and becomes an issue, the Yankees might make a switch considering the outfield depth the organization possesses. Judge has taken some time to adjust at each level, so last season's brief stint could go a long way toward softening the blow of any continued learning at the major league level.
There is a fine line with handling Judge and other prospects. Do the Yankees truly believe they will be a playoff team, or does it make more sense to allow prospects like Judge a lengthy stay in the big leagues regardless of the individual and team results?