While much of the off-season talk surrounding the New York Yankees will be about their bullpen, rotation, and Brian McCann, the Yankees have a seemingly bigger problem: their outfield. As you’ll recall, the Yankees traded away their biggest assets during the 2016 trade deadline which left a hole in right field and the back end of the bullpen. Delin Betances, Tyler Clippard, and others at times served as the closer and setup man and rookies Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin saw the majority of the time in right field, the outfield still remains a priority despite the presence of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury occupying left and center respectively. Let’s start with Gardner. The left fielder is a life-long Yankee having spent his entire professional career with the organization, but despite the loyalty that the team and player have for each other, it’s time for this marriage to reach a divorce. Since 2014, Gardner has seen his production decline; his wRC+has dropped from 112 in 2014 to 97 in 2016 and his wOBA has also declined from .331 in 2014 to .317 in 2016. His speed, which was his calling card upon his promotion to the majors, has also declined from a career and league high of 49 in 2011 to a career low 16 in 2016 (he swiped 13 bases in 2008 but he was not a regular at that time and he also stole 2 in an injury shortened 2012 season). Ellsbury also promotes a problem for the 2017 Yankees.
Ellsbury joined the Yankees on a massive free agent contract in in 2014 and has disappointed from his first season. Since his first season with the Yankees, he has failed to produce as a typical leadoff hitter would. His wOBA has dropped from .327 in 2014 to .308 in 2016 and his stolen bases has fallen from 39 to 20. To make matters worse, Joe Girardi has lost faith in Ellsbury’s ability to hit against left handed pitchers starting with the much publicized benching against Dallas Keuchel in the 2015 AL Wild Card game and has only gathered 196 plate appearances against same handed pitching since that game. Of course the Yankees would love to unload Ellsbury and his contract onto a team willing to take on his contract and excess baggage, but a match would be quite hard unless the Yankees take on much of the money remaining on his contract.
There are really no easy answers with what the team can do with Gardner and Ellsbury, but if they were to trade one, Gardner would be the most likely to be moved. Teams have interest in him (as report in previous off-seasons) and his contract is more team friendly than Ellsbury’s so a match is more likely. But in either case, trading one would allow the Yankees to deploy Judge/Austin in right and Gardner/Ellsbury in left with perhaps Mason Williams, whom the Yankees really like, or Aaron Hicks in center. The team has made a conscious effort to get younger and with young players slated to take over the starting jobs at catcher, first base, and right field, starting another young player at another primer position does not seem out of the question. Additionally, the Yankees have a lot of outfield depth in their system and will likely see more high ranking prospects make their debut in 2017, so clearing the way for them would surely help with their development and, if August and September this season was any indication, help with a playoff push.
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