When Aaron Judge went down with a wrist injury at the end of July, the Yankees didn’t appear to be a club in dire straits. While there would be no replacing the American League’s 2017 WAR leader, the team would still be in decent shape, having entered the season with three talented outfielders beyond Judge in Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton.
Things haven’t quite worked out as expected, though. Stanton has played mostly designated hitter, while Gardner has struggled offensively. The result: a possible weakness in the lineup where one wasn’t anticipated. With the Yankees’ acquisition of Andrew McCutchen, however — a deal first reported by Buster Olney — the lineup should benefit considerably.
Joel Sherman has reported that two prospects would go back to the Giants if and when the deal is confirmed, including infielder Abiatal Avelino. The 23-year-old reached Double-A in 2016, spent some time in three levels last year, and moved back and forth between the two highest minor-league levels while destroying Double-A pitching and struggling in Triple-A.
Update: Jim Bowden is reporting the other player in the deal Juan De Paula, currently a starter in Low-A, and Jon Heyman reports that the Giants and Yankees are splitting the roughly $2.5 million remaining on McCutchen’s deal.
The Yankees have played 32 games without Aaron Judge. During that time, Shane Robinson, a 33-year-old with a career 61 wRC+ in 849 plate appearances across the last 10 seasons, has started 14 games. Robinson is a solid defender, but his career figures suggests he can’t really hit and his numbers at the plate with the Yankees have been awful. Second baseman Neil Walker has started 11 games in the outfield, the first 11 starts in the outfield of his major-league career after having played a handful of games there in the minors. Walker has hit better the last few months after a very slow start, but asking a 32-year-old with no prior MLB outfield experience to help a club en route to the postseason is hardly an ideal solution. Even with the occasional start by Giancarlo Stanton in right field, Yankees right fielders are hitting an anemic .174/.252/.303 with a 50 wRC+ since Judge’s injury.
On top of the trouble the club has endured in Judge’s vacant right-field spot, left field has also become an issue, too. The 35-year-old Brett Gardner was having a solid season up until the time Judge went down, with an average hitting line and characteristically solid defense. Since Aaron Judge went down, however, Gardner is hitting just .205/.290/.316 with a 67 wRC+. Even with solid play from Aaron Hicks in center field, Yankees outfielders have now recorded an 82 wRC+ without Judge, a mark that’s better than only those recorded by the Tigers and Royals among American League clubs in that time. What was once a strength has been a weakness. Gardner’s projections are still strong, so it’s possible he’ll have a good September just like he had a good May and July, but that still doesn’t solve right field. The team could play Stanton more out there, but then the team would have a deficiency at designated hitter.
Andrew McCutchen solves the team’s problems for the rest of the season. At 31 years old, the former MVP is actually younger than Gardner, Robinson, and Walker. He’s having a solid season, with a 115 wRC+, and he’s probably average out in right field. Having less territory to cover in Yankee Stadium relative to the spacious grounds of San Francisco’s outfield could also provide a benefit for McCutchen. The new Yankee has hit only 15 homers with a .160 ISO — well below his usual standards — but 10 of his 15 homers have come on the road, so Yankee Stadium could represent a benefit in that regard, as well.
While McCutchen will certainly make things better for the Yankees in September, the team really doesn’t need him over the course of the next month, no matter how poor the right-field situation. The team is 8.5 games behind the Red Sox, making a division comeback near impossible. Our Playoff Odds give the Yankees just a 2.7% chance at the division. The team also owns a nine-game lead over the Mariners for the last Wild Card spot, making a collapse out of the playoffs also next to impossible. If the Yankees don’t need McCutchen for September, that means they think they will need him for October. What that means is that the news on Aaron Judge can’t be too good. This is from Lindsay Adler of the Athletic a few days ago:
Aaron Judge update: Still not swinging at all.
— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) August 28, 2018
Even if Judge comes back, McCutchen would still be an asset for the Yankees in the playoffs. At worst, he could form a platoon with Brett Gardner, but if Gardner continues to struggle, McCutchen could take over in left field and provide a more consistent bat in the lineup. McCutchen isn’t at his old MVP level, but he still walks a lot and limits strikeouts. He’s put up a 122 wRC+ in the second half. He will be a tough out in what should be a solid lineup.
With any Yankees’ move this season, there is also the competitive-balance tax to consider. The team has long made plans to go under the $197 million tax threshold this season, and they should have just enough money to pay for one month of McCutchen’s salary. The team’s tax payroll before the season started looked to be around $180 million, giving the franchise some room to make additions as the season went along. The team added Zach Britton, J.A. Happ, and Lance Lynn, but those salaries only added about $11 million in payroll. McCutchen should cost less than $3 million, still placing the team under the tax limit and allowing them to spend many, many millions this offseason. McCutchen is a bit of a luxury add for the Yankees, but they are generally a luxurious team, so it fits.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.