When the postseason arrives, the Yankees will have a choice to make among their five outfielders.
For most clubs this type of decision would be somewhat easy as the fourth and fifth outfielders are typically clear bench types. That's not that case for the Yankees, who sport one current All-Star, three former All-Stars and another player in the midst of a breakout season.
One thing is certain -- if healthy, Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge will man center field and right field, respectively. Hicks is the aforementioned breakout player, who owns an .814 OPS (124 wRC+ in 551 plate appearances) with 24 home runs, 72 RBI, 83 runs and 11 stolen bases, plus an above-average defensive presence. As for Judge (.933 OPS, 153 wRC+, 26 HR and 61 RBI in 455 PA), you might know about him and the mammoth home runs, great eye at the plate, and above-average defense.
Let's review the qualifications of the three options remaining to man left field (in alphabetical order)...
The Yankees' elder statesman among position players, Gardner might be playing his last days in New York as the club will have to determine whether or not to pick up his $12.5 million option for the 2019 season this winter. Gardner, who just turned 35, is in the throes of a severe slump and an all-around rough season.
Despite another fine defensive season in left field, he is nursing a .689 OPS (.567 in his last 30 games). The one thing that used to keep Gardner in the lineup -- his ability to get on base -- is also well off his career norm in the same span (.264).
As a result, Gardner has lost time to the Yankees' most recent acquisition...
The Yankees took a long time to go out and get another outfielder while Judge was on the DL. And the way McCutchen has performed so far, they might be wishing they could have made a deal earlier (McCutchen wasn't available until close to the waiver deadline).
McCutchen is hitting just .216 since coming to the Yankees, but his .414 OBP and 147 wRC+ in that span has him batting leadoff virtually everyday regardless of the handedness of the pitcher on the mound. McCutchen has already manufactured a couple of big hits for the Yankees and has shown flashes of power, with four homers among his 11 hits.
The biggest issue with McCutchen might be the fact that he has played all of 23 innings in left field in his career. That could be of concern in a game where the Yankees might choose to sacrifice a small boost in offensive production for what could be exceptional defense.
Of the three, Stanton looks the worst at the plate and it couldn't be coming at a less opportune time. The difference of course is that for as cold as Stanton is at the plate since Sept. 1 -- .136 AVG, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 25 K in 66 PA -- he is fully capable of turning it around and then going on an explosive hot streak.
Despite the cold spell, Stanton has 34 home runs and 89 RBI on the season and played through a lengthy hamstring issue this summer while Judge was on the DL. Whenever he steps to the plate, Stanton has a chance to do some damage.
Stanton has played 306 innings in left field this season and while it was an adventure for a better part of the early going, he's measured well in defensive metrics at the position (+3 defensive runs saved).
Simply based on the structure throughout much of the season, the only chance Stanton is not penciled into the lineup as the designated hitter (beyond an unforeseen injury) is if the Yanks become skittish about putting Gary Sanchez behind the plate. I don't see that happening.
In a one-game, winner-take-all affair, the Yankees will use everything in their analytical tool box to determine whether Gardner or McCutchen mans left field. If there's a right-hander on the mound -- regardless of whether the game is in the Bronx or in Oakland (left field is cavernous in both parks) -- Gardner might be the choice.
The Yankees could also roll with McCutchen in the early part of the game since he's been an offensive factor, and use Gardner late as a defensive replacement. Further, it would seem that Gardner is a better bet coming off the bench -- a role he is more used to than McCutchen.
With those factors in mind, my bet would be Gardner being on the bench for the Wild Card game -- at least at the start.