It was another chapter in what proved to be a magical season.
It was the first of July, and the Yankees had just called up one of the more promising prospects in their system. Clint Frazier, the Georgia-born outfielder known for his red locks and lightning-quick bat, was in the midst of his first major league game. He had already doubled to left field, a sinking line drive that got under the glove of the Astros’ left fielder when he stepped up to the plate in the top half of the seventh inning.
And on a 1-2 count, he sent a hanging breaking ball into the left-field stands for his first career home run.
It was the third time in a full calendar year that a highly touted Yankees’ prospect homered in his first game (both Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin did in their first at-bats in August 2016). If fans were entertaining wild thoughts about Frazier’s future in pinstripes, they can’t be blamed. The choice to go with number 77, opposite Judge’s 99 in right field, seemed to be the making of an auspicious tribute to a time when Mantle and Maris patrolled the outfield all those years ago.
Fast forward to Spring Training 2018, and Frazier’s future in pinstripes seem a little less certain. During the offseason, his name was floating in the ether of trade rumors, and it was thought he would’ve been a centerpiece of a deal with Pittsburgh that would bring back Gerrit Cole, but the rumor proved to be only that. Now, 19 days from Opening Day, the Frazier is trying to recover from a concussion sustained when falling backwards into the outfield fence.
He’s on the outside looking in. The Yankees’ starting outfielders are set, and one really wonders if Frazier will start the year either as the Yankees’ fourth (or even fifth) outfield option or if he’ll start 2018 at Triple-A.
Which begs the question: should the Yankees’ trade Clint Frazier?
Operating from a place of strength…
When it comes to talented young prospects, the Yankees have an embarrassment of riches.
MLB Pipeline ranked the Yankees’ farm system as sixth best in all of baseball. It may seem like a drastic drop off considering last year they were ranked at number two, but the promotions of Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Luis Severino, coupled with savvy deadline trades to bolster a deep playoff run, explains the lower rank heading into 2018.
There are still the likes of Estevan Florial (if you don’t know the name, get to know it soon) who are racing up the prospect lists. Florial has already showcased an easy left-handed swing that’s produced three triples in the Spring, and the speed, agility, and arm strength to project as a premier center fielder while being only 20 years old. Tyler Wade has showcased his jack-of-all-trades skillset (predicated on his speed) that gives him greater versatility and thus greater value to the current team over Frazier.
Frazier’s small sample size from 2017 does not fully reveal what type of player he’ll be over the course of a full career. At 23 years-old, his potential remains lofty for a former fifth overall draft pick in 2013, but where would the Yankees’ play him?
Brett Gardner, a 10 year veteran with a career .265 average and a de facto leader amongst position players, patrols left field. Aaron Hicks has seemed to revitalize his career to take over at center field, and the reigning American League Rookie of the Year in the hulking form of Aaron Judge has put a stranglehold on right field.
Not to mention the Yankees just acquired reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton, a right fielder by trade who’s seeking the versatility to play left field when necessary.
If Frazier could stay healthy throughout the Grapefruit League, while putting up respectable numbers, he may have been able to supplant Jacoby Ellsbury as the fourth outfielder. But Frazier sustained his concussion on February 24th and has yet to step foot back out onto the field, and he lacks both the pedigree and track record to have a guaranteed roster spot.
…to fill a weakness
You can never have too much pitching depth.
Ask the Houston Astros. Do they win the World Series if they didn’t acquire Justin Verlander at the trade deadline? Was it necessary for them to go out and get Gerrit Cole from the Pirates in the offseason?
Championships are built on pitching. The Yankees’ rotation heading into 2018 isn’t a “weakness,” per se, but it has room for improvement. Another full year of development from Luis Severino has Yankee fans salivating as does Jordan Montgomery building on what was a very under-appreciated rookie campaign. Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia, and Masahiro Tanaka provide the veteran experience that could help navigate this rotation through a long and grueling season.
It’s important to remember, however, just how long and grueling a baseball season can be. Injuries are bound to happen, and while the Yankees’ have promising names waiting in the lower levels, the unpredictability of pitching is not something that should be baptized in fire.
Even Hal Steinbrenner understands the risks of entering a season without a backup plan or two, and if the Yankees find themselves in the heart of a pennant race in the dog days of August and September, you best believe they’ll be testing the market for pitching.
This is where Clint Frazier’s true value comes into play. His skillset is major league ready even if his moments of brilliance are often accompanied by his moments of youthful recklessness. The Yankees have to walk a fine line with Frazier’s development; too much time spent at the Triple-A level could hinder that development.
And if the name of the game is to give the Yankees the best chance at winning a 28th World Series championship, does retaining Frazier over getting another pitcher really give them a better chance?
This is probably the biggest risk with Frazier’s future: the Yankees hold on to him.
Brett Gardner’s contract expires at the end of the year, and a realistic assumption is that, in the Yankees’ quest to save money and get younger, they won’t bring him back. That leaves left field vacant and gives Frazier the opportunity to man it every day.
There are a lot of variables that will come into play with this option. If 2018 is a year where Frazier is shuttled back and forth from the minors and the majors will he still develop into the player that thought he would? He deserves everyday at-bats, but will those at-bats come in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre or in Yankee stadium?
If the Yankees are banking on him to be the starting left fielder in the 2019 season that all but removes them from the Bryce Harper sweepstakes. To have Aaron Judge is one thing. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton is something else entirely.
Judge, Stanton, and Bryce Harper? That might be too much from a financial and an organizational depth standpoint.
But if the Yankees can trust Frazier’s development won’t take a hit in the upcoming year, then the Harper sweepstakes can turn into the Manny Machado sweepstakes, but that’s an article for another time.
If the Yankees plan on holding onto Frazier, they need to do right by him. The concussion is a major setback that will probably result in him starting the year at Triple-A, but if he proves to be far too skilled for that level they need to give him a fair opportunity at the major league level.
For the moment that opportunity doesn’t appear to be in Yankee pinstripes.
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