The 2017 Yankee season, while it has had some bumps along the road, has been an overall success for the organization. Chief among those success stories has to be the production the Yankees have gotten out of their outfield. Rookies Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier are enjoying banner campaigns, while Aaron Hicks has broken out and Brett Gardner has been his usual steady veteran self. And speedy veteran Jacoby Ellsbury is still around.
That makes five outfielders for three spots. Manager Joe Girardi will have a tough time making sure that all five of his outfielders receive enough at-bats when Hicks returns from injury in a week. And with Matt Holliday a strict DH and a prominent power bat in the lineup, the Yankees can’t just plug in one of their outfielders at DH every day, lest they lose the bat of Holliday.
It’s a tough situation, but also a good problem for Girardi to have. Let’s figure out how the Yankees can maximize production from their outfielders with the most efficient outfield rotation.
Let’s get one thing out of the way from the beginning: the Yankees will not send down Frazier or cut Ellsbury to make room for Hicks. While releasing Ellsbury would seemingly make this problem go away, it would cost too much money in making him not play that he may as well just go out there and try to earn some of his inflated salary. And while sending down Frazier would also temporarily solve the problem, the Yankees need his bat in the lineup.
So this leaves the Yankees with too many outfielders, at least four of which (Judge, Gardner, Frazier, and Hicks) should be playing every day while the fifth (Ellsbury) has the salary of an All-Star.
Let’s base this model around a stretch of 10 games at a time. It goes without saying that Judge should be starting in at least 9 of these games, as the potential AL MVP and Rookie of the Year. He can play a small handful of these games at DH, relieving the struggling Holliday here and there.
Frazier should also be playing almost every day. Let’s allot Frazier 8 out of 10 games. His ability to play both left and right field proficiently (and to fake it in center) can prove valuable as the Yankees move him around the outfield.
Gardner has been one of the Yankees’ best players this year, and only now is he getting the attention he deserves. However, Gardner has not hit well against left-handers this season. Girardi now has the ability to sit Gardner against all southpaws, given that he has three top-notch righty bats in Judge, Frazier, and Hicks at his disposal. So in this model, Gardner will be in the lineup against all righties but will sit versus all lefties. This works out to around 8 out of 10 games in the lineup.
A wild card here is Aaron Hicks. Hicks has never played a full major league season, and sure enough, he has missed over a month with an oblique strain. However, he was among the Yankees’ best hitters before his injury. He can ably play all three outfield positions and can righties and lefties equally well. Hicks may be the most tradeable of the Yankee outfielders, and could find himself somewhere else this offseason due to the numbers game that surrounds him in the outfield.
But for right now, Hicks is a great addition to the Yankee outfield coming off of the DL. He may not be considered a starter, but he will probably play around 7 out of every 10 games, rotating around all three outfield positions and coming off the bench late in games as a defensive replacement or pinch hitter.
This just leaves Ellsbury, a player with no clear link to playing time. Unlike the other Yankee outfielders, Ellsbury doesn’t really have a niche at this point: he hasn’t hit a lick against righties or lefties since being activated from the concussion DL, and is only in the lineup to field and run. This suggests a clear bench role for Ellsbury, a tough pill to swallow for a guy who has been a former All-Star, MVP runner-up, and 2-time World Series Champion who makes over $20 million yearly. At this time, he is best suited as a spot starter and late-game bench option, who may only get into 4 or 5 out of every 10 games. The Yankees will surely try to move Ellsbury this offseason, but his albatross contract will prove hard to deal.
Thanks to the recent struggles of Holliday, the Yankees may be able to fit four outfielders into their lineup more often than not. Come postseason time, the Yankees will need all five of their outfielders for various reasons, and more likely than not, at least one will be injured or slumping at any given time, allowing at-bats for someone else. It will be an odd rotation, but it is one that Joe Girardi will have to make work. Some egos will have to be checked at the door, but baseball is a total team sport. The best way for the Yankees to go forward this year is to keep the band together, then reevaluate things this offseason. In the meantime, it will be a juggling act for Girardi to figure out which outfielders to start and which to sit on any given day, a good problem for any manager to have.