Despite Brett Gardner return, Aaron Boone still says he expects Clint Frazier to be starting left fielder

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Kristie Ackert, New York Daily News
·3 min read
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TAMPA — The morning after the Yankees reached a deal to bring back veteran outfielder Brett Gardner, Aaron Boone made it clear he still expects Clint Frazier to be his starting left fielder. The Yankees manager, limited to what he can officially say by the fact that the deal has not been deemed official by MLB, insinuated he expected Gardner to get a lot of playing time off the bench.

“I expect Clint to be our left fielder and to be in that starting lineup. ... Obviously, a guy like Gardy is a guy that would play a lot, as do a lot of our guys that will, quote unquote, be bench players or whatever,” Boone said after the Yankees’ third official workout for pitchers and catchers. “But Clint is going to be a regular player for us going into the season.”

Gardner, 37, will be playing his 14th major league season with the Yankees. Frazier is looking to make just his second Opening Day roster.

Gardner started out slow, hitting .183 the first month of a basically three-month season in 2020. He also saw a decline in his defense. Rated as a great outfielder by Baseball Savant in the 2019 season, Gardner was average to below average last season.

Gardner’s decline came at the same time Frazier is seeming to mature as a player and a person.

Frazier, who made 27 starts in right field, mostly while Aaron Judge was out with a calf injury, transformed himself from a player who cost the Yankees eight runs in 2019 with his defense, to a plus-2 in defensive runs saved last season. In Statcasts’ Outs Above Average, Frazier is in the top 69th percentile. In 51 chances in right field in 2020, Frazier made one error.

As Frazier faded a bit in September, however, Gardner stepped in to take a bigger role. Frazier had just seven at-bats in the 2020 postseason, while Gardner had 19.

In part that is because Gardner is a lefty bat to put in a lineup full of right-handed power hitters. Also, while Frazier improved as an outfielder last season, he is not an option in center field, while Gardner is. Mike Tauchman, who is the other option to back up Aaron Hicks in center, had an awful offensive season in 2020.

So, Gardner’s return is an insurance policy and a comfort to Boone.

FACE OF THE FUTURE

Austin Wells, the Yankees’ first-round pick in the 2020 amateur draft, has impressed so far with his bat.

“I mean, he can hit. And we really like his swing. I think one of the things that stands out to me is that I didn’t necessarily know how strong he is. He’s as strong as anyone in camp,” Boone said of the 21-year-old catcher out of Arizona. “Especially when you test them and everything, he’s a really strong person.

“I was talking with [ass’t hitting coach] P.J. Pilittere the other day, and talking about some of the conversations that he’s having that are pretty advanced from a hitting standpoint. This is a guy that loves hitting, that understands it a little bit. So I know [hitting coach] Marcus Thames is very excited to work with him and has really liked what he’s seen, just in batting practice. This is a guy that came with a really strong offensive reputation and our early eyes on him confirm that.”