The Yankees have a loaded outfield. Overloaded, in fact.
New York's 25-man roster will consist of five outfielders, all of whom have been above-average to elite players at varying points during their careers. Two of those outfielders are Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner - both 35 years old and on the wrong side of their production curves. And they are potentially blocking 24-year-old Clint Frazier, who some believe can become an above-average outfielder himself.
The Yankees' plans for Frazier appear hazy from the outside at this point. Frazier has plenty of potential and we have seen the electricity he can bring to the lineup. However, his 2018 season was wrought with the after-effects of a concussion that he simply could not shake. Frazier has been deemed healthy and according to his social media remarks, he is ready to fight for the starting job in left field.
Frazier's attitude as a go-getter tends to irritate some, while it enlivens others. Whichever side one falls on the debate, it is difficult to suggest that Frazier is not driven to be a major league ballplayer.
In my mind, the question with Frazier and the Yankees is will the club actually allow Gardner and Ellsbury to block his path to the 25-man roster?
Putting aside the chance that the Yankees might want Giancarlo Stanton to play in left field more often than not (I'm not certain that's the case), if healthy, Gardner and Ellsbury would take reps in left field before Frazier. That might be fine in the beginning of the season as an effort to determine if Frazier has truly put his concussion issues to rest.
Gardner has been mostly healthy as a Yankee, but last season he endured a strong decline in his offensive numbers. The drop in productivity (86 OPS+ in 2018) was so pronounced that Gardner lost playing time toward the end of the season to Andrew McCutchen, who was acquired in an August trade. Gardner remains one of the better defenders in left field and that has some value, especially in Yankee Stadium. The Yankees obviously believe so as they inked Gardner to a $7.5 million deal for 2019; well in advance of when they had to.
As for Ellsbury, the Yankees are paying -- literally and figuratively -- for the seven-year, $153 million contract the club handed him before the 2014 season. If the Yankees could get out from under most of Ellsbury's salary, it's difficult to believe they wouldn't try. But after missing all of 2018, what team would take that chance? Besides Ellsbury's ongoing injury history, he's been a shell of the player the Yankees signed (he's failed to eclipse an OPS+ of 100 since his inaugural season in the Bronx).
However, Frazier would seemingly have to not only be sensational in spring training, but have a path to a role on the 25-man roster opened by injury. That's pretty disturbing, but based on the roster construction, that's what is in front of the boisterous youngster.
Despite a solid chance that Ellsbury will aid Frazier based on his inability to stay on the field for extended periods, there's just as good an expectation that Gardner will be healthy and roaming left field on most days.
That's fine if Frazier looks lost at the plate or is still dealing with concussion syndrome. But, if Frazier is once again tattooing baseballs at Triple-A (.963 OPS in 213 plate appearances in 2018), how can the Yankees allow him to languish and wait for an injury to happen? My answer: They cannot.
Frazier is at a stage in his career that the next step needs to be made. Whether that is in New York or elsewhere is up in the air, but Frazier has to demonstrate that he can be a major league contributor for an extended period rather that pummel Triple-A pitchers. Testing Frazier at the beginning of the season makes all the sense in the world, but if Ellsbury and Gardner are under-producing - even in the slightest - or unable to perform due to injury as early as late April, Frazier has to take over; for good.
Frazier can be a difference maker for the Yankees, while Ellsbury is unreliable and Gardner appears to be better used as a part-time piece at this stage in his career. Frazier might maintain some trade value if he simply proves to be healthy, but his worth would climb considerably if he's raking in the big leagues. MLB success for Frazier provides the Yankees options -- they can ride him if he's helping the Yankees on the field or they can utilize him as a trade piece if necessary knowing the club can play Stanton in left field.
Even if Stanton is regarded as the regular left fielder this season, I would argue that it should not prevent Frazier from having an important role. Again, presuming Ellsbury and Gardner do not all of a sudden rise to playing levels necessary to be full time outfielders (a reasonable assumption), Frazier should be the focus of the now and the future.
Frazier has done everything he can in the minor leagues and shown he can handle MLB pitching in small sample sizes over the last couple of seasons. Holding Frazier in the minors while waiting for Ellsbury and Gardner to both succumb to injury makes little sense. The Yankees can and probably should walk away from Ellsbury as soon as possible and Gardner should be immediately reduced to the part-time outfielder if Frazier comes back strong.
The path is clear for Frazier, but it's up to the Yankees to not intentionally clutter it with lesser players.