When rookie Aaron Judge was promoted to the Bronx on August 13th, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman made it clear that he was the team’s starting right fielder and would play every day.
Judge had hit .270/.366/.489 with 19 home runs and 65 RBI in 410 plate appearances for Scranton Wilkes-Barre, made the International League All-Star team, and been named the league’s player of the month after a monster June. There was little doubt the former first rounder had earned an extended shot.
One month later, when announcing that the 24-year-old would not play again in 2016 because of a strained right oblique, Cashman was considerably more reserved when discussing Judge, saying he would need to earn his spot on the team like anyone else.
In Cashman’s 2016 season-in-review press conference, he confirmed what many analysts had speculated, that the Yankees would likely fill their open starting jobs in right field and first base internally, revealing that the team would several candidates for both positions next March.
You’ll have some competitions taking place, mostly in right field and first base with the return of a hopefully healthy Greg Bird in combination with Tyler Austin at first base and seeing how the competition in right field with Judge, Austin, Refsnyder, and Hicks, not in any particular order…how that transpires.
Bird seems like the clear favorite to be the starting first baseman assuming he’s healthy, although Austin could earn himself a platoon role with a strong showing. Right field, on the other hand, seems like more of an open field. Cashman names four competitors, and there are at least two to three players in-house more with some chance to win the job. Let’s take a look at the field.
Clearly the best case scenario for the Yankees is that Aaron Judge shows up to spring training and absolutely destroys the Grapefruit League. None of the guys he’ll be competing with come close to his ceiling. This team was built around the idea of Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Judge establishing themselves as a formidable 3-4-5 in the middle of the lineup for years to come.
While Judge showed off his inhuman strength during his first month in the big leagues, he also really struggled to make enough contact to make effective use of that power, hitting just .179/.263/.345 (61 OPS+) with four home runs in 95 plate appearances, striking out in an incredible 44.2% of his trips to the batter’s box.
Cashman more or less brushed off Judge’s issues in September, telling reporters:
Obviously he’s struggled with strikeouts but part of the process is to get him up here and get these growing pains out of the way to speed up the adjustment process.
The Yankees GM also noted that there had been signs of improvement from the big man before being sidelined, however slight they may have been.
The strikeout rate declined considerably recently and I think he’s got some plate discipline. I think he’s had some tremendous paths at the ball and he’s got some good swings and he’s just been missing and he’s just been off a little bit. But I think that he was improving and getting better.
It is far too early to give up on a potential elite player like Judge after one bad month. He’s shown the ability to make adjustments in his climb up the minor league ladder, and there is no reason to think he can’t bounce back next March and take the job that should rightfully be his.
The Yankees front office stuck with outfielder Aaron Hicks in 2016 long after the majority of their fan base had written him off as a bust. They were rewarded for their patience with a strong final two months of the season where Hicks hit .271/.333/.424 with five home runs in 129 plate appearances to finish the year.
Even with his decent end to 2016, Hicks’s overall numbers are pretty ugly. He finished with a .217/.281/.336 (65 OPS+) slash line in 361 plate appearances, seeing a lot more action than your typical fourth outfielder even before the team dealt Carlos Beltran. His often excellent work in the field helps his case a little, but the final package was still sub-replacement level (-0.3 rWAR) according to Baseball-Reference.
If Judge racks up a ton of strikeouts next spring, it seems likely that Hicks would be next in line to take the job, at least in the short term. Cashman has made it clear he’s a big fan of the former first rounders tools, at one point comparing him to Red Sox breakout star Jackie Bradley Jr. last summer.
At 27, Hicks is no longer a kid. 2017 will probably be his last chance, at least in New York, to prove he’s anything more than a bench guy. If he can put up even league average numbers at the plate, as he did in the last two months of the season, he’d make a useful stop gap in right because of his plus glove work and cannon arm.
While a shoulder injury has sidelined former top prospect Mason Williams for the majority of the last two seasons, he has been fairly impressive during his first two big league cups of coffee, and seems to be a contender for a bench role going into next season at the very least.
A starting job for Williams becomes much more likely if New York trades veteran left fielder Brett Gardner this offseason. If they don’t, it might not appealing to the club to play three speedy, lefty, defense-first guys in the same outfield. Ideally, at least one of your outfielders should be a potential source of pop.
Although Cashman named Tyler Austin and Rob Refsnyder as candidates for the job, I would guess that in reality they are actually not serious contenders, and would be behind Williams on the depth chart if it really came down to those three. Austin is pretty rough in the field no matter where you put him, and Refsnyder just doesn’t have the bat for a corner outfield spot.
Between the last two seasons, Williams has now hit .292/.320/.438 (102 OPS+) in 51 plate appearances. That’s not a big enough sample size to base major decisions on, but it’s encouraging. He also has a case for being the best defensive outfielder on the 40-man roster.
It would probably take an injury or two to make this choice feasible, but the Yankees have shown recently that when Williams is healthy, they will play him. There was a reason that he was so highly regarded a few years back. Yes, he’s lacking in the power department, but many other aspects of his game are electric.
In all reality, there is a very small chance that the Yankees break camp with any of these guys as their starting right fielder. If one of them is out there, then something went very, very wrong during the Grapefruit League.
Still, it’s not impossible, and it at least tells you something about the respect they’ve earned within the organization that Cashman singled out Austin and Refsnyder as possibilities for the job. At the same time, Refsnyder has been passed over so often for starting gigs in the past few years that it seems inevitable he’ll eventually get his shot with another club.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi was also hesitant to give Austin playing time down the stretch, starting scrap-heap pickup Billy Butler and the husk of Mark Teixeira over the promising youngster the majority of September.
In his press conference, Brian Cashman made it pretty clear that top prospect Clint Frazier would be starting in the minors, although he did leave the door open a tiny crack by comparing him to other players like Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang, and Alfonso Soriano who forced their way into the big leagues ahead of schedule with strong performances.
Jake Cave probably won’t even be in the organization when March rolls around, but if he is, he will be on the fringes of consideration for a big league job after an OK year in Triple-A. If he isn’t added to the 40-man roster before December he seems like a lock to be selected in the Rule 5 draft for the second straight year.
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