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This time last year, it was hard to imagine a New York Yankees future that didn’t include Clint Frazier.
But now the future has become the present, and he’s practically invisible.
When the Yankees entered the 2017-18 offseason fresh off a run to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, general manager Brian Cashman viewed Frazier, a 23-year-old outfielder, as depth behind reigning AL Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, fellow 2017 breakout star Aaron Hicks, ol’ standby Brett Gardner and ol’ albatross Jacoby Ellsbury.
Then in December, another roadblock was put in Frazier’s way when the Yankees shocked the baseball world with a blockbuster trade for Giancarlo Stanton. He’s otherwise known as the reigning NL MVP and the richest player in MLB history.
All this leaves Frazier an injury or two away from substantial playing time in the majors. That, in turn, raises the question of whether he serves the Yankees best as a spare part or trade chip.
“I like to trade from an area of depth. I think anybody would,” Cashman said in January, per Brendan Kuty of NJ.com. “The outfield happens to be an area of depth right now. Clearly, Clint Frazier is a very valuable, attractive asset from our perspective, but [for] other organizations as well.”
For now, though, the trade ship may have sailed.
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Although Frazier was often mentioned as a possible centerpiece in a deal for right-hander Gerrit Cole, the Pittsburgh Pirates instead dealt him to the Houston Astros for a package that didn’t include any current or former elite prospects.
As a guy whose prospect rank peaked at No. 16 for Baseball Prospectus just last year, Frazier would have fit the latter bill. The only reason he’s not still a top prospect is because he saw enough major league action in 2017 to lose his rookie eligibility. Even still, he’s under club control through 2023.
Thus, the big question: Why does it seem like nobody wants Frazier?
Well, it’s not for lack of talent.
Frazier went into the 2013 draft as one of the hottest prospects available and only lasted until the Cleveland Indians picked him at No. 5. The main draw was bat speed that, upon acquiring Frazier in the Andrew Miller trade in July 2016, Cashman referred to as “legendary.”
That bat speed allows Frazier to generate enormous power. As Exhibit A, consider this 455-foot blast he hit for the Yankees last July:
Frazier isn’t just some lumbering oaf who can hit the ball a long way. He was the third-fastest sprinter on the 2017 Yankees, and he proved capable of making nifty plays (see here and here) on defense.
What will determine whether he has a future as a major league regular is the consistency of his hit tool. As of now, it isn’t there. He owns a modest .248/.323/.446 slash line in 104 games at Triple-A. He wrapped up his stint in the majors last year with a .231/.268/.448 line in 39 games.
Regarding the latter, an especially big concern was how much more often Frazier struck out (30.3 K%) than he walked (4.9 BB%). Getting him to swing and miss was often as simple as throwing him a fastball up or a breaking ball away:
Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.
Obviously, this isn’t a bat-speed problem. Nor is it a plate-discipline problem, as Frazier swung outside the strike zone less often than the average hitter.
It’s more so a timing problem. In this case, one related to the many moving parts in his swing (e.g. his leg kick and active hands) mechanics and a tendency to downplay his lower half.
To his credit, Frazier showed a willingness to listen to feedback and to try to adjust accordingly. According to MLB.com’s Matthew Martell, he was quick to take pointers from Yankees hitting coaches Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames. Per Billy Witz of the New York Times, he also went to video of Adam Jones and Jose Bautista for inspiration.
On the work went this offseason. Frazier told Dan Martin of the New York Post that he spent the winter working on his mobility, flexibility and strength, and now has the idea in mind to adjust his swing so his bat stays in the zone longer.
“I think I’ll surprise some people when spring [training] starts,” Frazier said. “I did a lot of work this offseason, and I’ll show I’m ready to contribute to this team if given the opportunity.”
Of course, the progression of Frazier’s rookie year is proof that being willing to adjust is not the same as making adjustments stick. He had a .908 OPS and a 28.6 K% through his first 16 games. Over his next 23, he had a .556 OPS and a 31.6 K%.
Nonetheless, the spot that Frazier is in now isn’t too dissimilar to the one Judge was in after 2016.
He was a mess in the 27 major league games he played in that year, posting a .608 OPS and whiffing 42 times. He spent the offseason working on his swing (his March 2017 interview with FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik has the details), made the team out of spring training and then went and reset the rookie home run record with 52 bombs.
With so many good players standing in his way in New York, Frazier’s best avenue to a similar breakout in 2018 may be in another city. However, that would require the Yankees to sell low on him. And if his low value wasn’t worthy of a good-not-great pitcher like Cole, what it is worth might be underwhelming.
The more attractive alternative is for the Yankees to hold on to Frazier for the sake of making a play in 2019. There will be an opening for him in left field if they choose not to pick up Gardner’s $12.5 million option. In the meantime, the Yankees can hope that regular at-bats at Triple-A help line up Frazier’s ability with his potential.
Ultimately, it’s far too soon for anyone to be giving up on him. Just because he’s invisible doesn’t mean he won’t be heard from again.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.