The Yankees Should Extend Harrison Bader

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll level with you: We’re squarely in baseball’s dead period. That’s fine. There are plenty of other sports going on, there’s more to life than sports, the great outdoors beckons, and so on. But this is a baseball website, not a winter activities website or even a football one. I’m actually in Canada on a ski trip as I put the finishing touches on this article, having watched the NFL playoffs this weekend. But I’m not here to talk about that! I’m here to make up a contract extension for one of my favorite players, and you’ll just have to humor me. (Though if you want to banter about skiing, might I suggest my weekly chats?)

That’s right: let’s talk about Harrison Bader, the once exuberantly-coiffed Yankees outfielder. The Bronx Bombers swapped Jordan Montgomery for Bader at the trade deadline last year in a move that neither team’s fanbase was in love with. Both players then turned around and contributed exactly what their team was hoping for – quality innings for Montgomery and lol-how-did-he-catch-that defense for Bader. Now, I think the Yankees should stop thinking of Bader as a two-year commitment and put a ring on it – or at least, a multi-year contract.

The obvious reason to do so is that Bader turns the Yankees outfield from defensively adequate to significantly above average. One of the underrated aspects of Aaron Judge’s 2022 performance was plus defense in center field, but one of the properly rated aspects of his performance was that he put up the best offensive season since Barry Bonds. When someone hits like that, keeping their bat in the lineup is of the utmost importance, and giving Judge an easier defensive assignment and occasional time at DH is thus advisable.

When the Yankees had no other good options in center, running Judge out there every day was fine. With Bader in tow, though, Judge can return to being an excellent corner outfielder instead. Average defense in center is a neat skill to have, but Bader is light years beyond that. He’s a perennial Gold Glove contender, and that might be underselling it. Beginning in 2017, his first full season in the majors, Statcast has Bader as the fourth-best center fielder in the game, 46 runs above average, behind only Lorenzo Cain, Byron Buxton, and Kevin Kiermaier. Prefer other defensive metrics? DRS thinks he’s fifth-best (behind Kiermaier, Michael A. Taylor, Buxton, and Cain) and UZR thinks he’s the best, period.

That kind of defense is worth sacrificing offense over. Take Kiermaier, for example. He’s a consistently league average hitter, yet the notoriously tight-fisted Rays made him their highest-paid player for years, and he averaged more than 4 WAR per 600 plate appearances in his time there. Per our own glossary, 4 WAR is on the borderline between good player and All-Star. Reaching 600 plate appearances is far from automatic, but Kiermaier is nevertheless instructive: if you play that kind of defense, an average batting line means your overall production is borderline All-Star level.

Conveniently, Bader and Kiermaier have the exact same career wRC+ (97). Bader is four years younger, which accounts for his superior 2023 projections, but if you think of current Bader as a right-handed version of peak Kiermaier, you won’t be far off. That’s a really nice player, as I’ve repeatedly mentioned here, and there’s even room for him to be better than that. He had a poor 2022 at the plate, thanks in large part to a complete power outage, but the bones of a good hitter are undoubtedly there. He’s previously hit for power, he’s cut down on his strikeouts significantly in the past two years, and his 2022 was so interrupted by injury that it’s hardly surprising he was inconsistent. If you combine his regular- and post-season numbers, he put up a 102 wRC+ anyway, with a five-homer outburst in October matching the number he hit all year before then.

If you’re locking Bader into your plans for a while, you’ll always have to deal with the risk of injury. He’s averaged roughly 400 plate appearances per year (excluding 2020) in his career, though it’s not all due to poor health; he spent time on the Cardinals as more of a rotation outfielder than a locked-in starter. He spent the first half of his 2017 rookie season as their fourth outfielder and was briefly demoted to the minors in ’18. He’s dealt with injuries since then, but nothing career-altering.

Luckily for the Yankees, “part-time center fielder” is squarely in Judge’s repertoire. Combine those two and utilityman Oswaldo Cabrera, season to taste with Aaron Hicks, and there’s plenty of defensive capability to pick up slack for any time Bader misses. There’s no prospect-blocking issue here, either: Jasson Domínguez and Everson Pereira, the team’s top two outfield prospects, aren’t major-league ready yet and would both look better in a corner anyway. Cabrera is a natural infielder, which means that even if Pereira forces his way to the majors immediately, the team could shuffle things around and still make use of Bader’s superlative defense.

Enough beating around the bush already: How much do I think the Yankees should sign Bader for? I started by looking for comparisons, but there truly aren’t many. Bader has only one year remaining before free agency, and his 2023 salary is already locked in thanks to a two-year extension he signed with the Cardinals before the start of last season. The question, then, is what the Yankees would have to offer him from 2024 onward to convince him to forgo free agency. 2024 will be Bader’s age-30 season, though he’s young for that designation due to a June 3rd birthday. The list of similar contracts is quite short.

Maybe he could get Chris Taylor’s contract, four years and $60 million, though it’s not a perfect fit as Taylor was a better hitter and a worse, albeit more flexible, defender when he signed that deal. Jackie Bradley Jr. signed a two-year, $24 million deal in 2021, though he was older at the time (he had a career 93 wRC+ at the time he signed that deal as his offensive collapse had yet to occur). Kiermaier himself just signed a $9 million pact with the Blue Jays after playing out the balance of his contract in Tampa Bay, but he’s meaningfully older.

Would something like four years and $50 million get the job done? I assume it would, though again Bader’s case is a hard one to consider given the nature of his contributions. Defense is generally valued less than offense in free agency, particularly for players approaching 30, but then there aren’t many defenders like Bader.

With this hypothetical contract in mind, I had Dan Szymborski run ZiPS on Bader’s next five seasons. The results blew me away:

ZiPS Projection – Harrison Bader
2023 .250 .319 .419 356 52 89 17 2 13 50 30 92 13 104 13 3.2
2024 .246 .316 .408 353 50 87 17 2 12 48 30 91 12 100 13 2.9
2025 .243 .315 .398 342 48 83 16 2 11 46 30 88 10 97 13 2.7
2026 .240 .313 .392 329 45 79 16 2 10 42 29 86 9 96 12 2.4
2027 .237 .308 .385 312 41 74 15 2 9 39 27 83 8 92 11 2.1

That’s the statline of a star player with injury concerns. Despite never topping 400 PA in a season, Bader projects to play at an All-Star level when healthy; his 2023 projection is a nearly 5 WAR per 600 PA pace. ZiPS would offer him a four-year, $88 million extension, though Dan noted that he doesn’t believe Bader could actually get that in free agency, merely that ZiPS has a particularly high estimation of him.

Of note, ZiPS doesn’t think Bader’s defense will decline much at all over the next few years. That’s partially because it hasn’t yet, and partially because, as Dan put it, his defensive ability doesn’t seem to be speed-based. Bader is certainly fast, but he stands out most in reaction time and route-running. He’s consistently one of the best center fielders when it comes to initial jump. As Davy Andrews pointed out last October, that often means worse routes, but not Bader: he’s an average route runner, which is difficult when you react so quickly that you might not yet have a firm bead on the ball. If you can run an average route while breaking immediately, your defensive range will outstrip your speed. He also has an above-average arm, which certainly doesn’t hurt his defensive chops.

I don’t think the Yankees will offer Bader ZiPS’ suggested extension. I don’t think anyone would offer him that in free agency. That’s simply not the way major league teams value defense, and again, look at the (lack of) aging curve on those defensive numbers. ZiPS thinks Bader is something of a unicorn there, and it’d hardly be surprising if other systems disagreed. On a lesser contract, though, I think that the Yankees would be well-served by a Bader extension. Only last year, they traded for Andrew Benintendi at the deadline to shore up a weak outfield unit, and the 2024 free agent class doesn’t offer many alternatives unless Cody Bellinger bounces back meaningfully this year.

Maybe this is all overly speculative on my part. Maybe the Yankees view Bader as more of a one-year stopgap. I don’t think that’s the case, though. He’s too good of a roster fit. He’s too good of a player. Heck, he’s too good of a marketing coup; “the Bronxville Bomber” is a dynamite nickname, and his outfield shimmies are a delightful signature. He’s in the exact financial circumstance where an extension that trades upside for security makes sense. The whole thing is too logical not to happen.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Simple. Do what this site does for the depth charts projections and do a mashup of ZiPS and another relevant estimate:

ZiPS: 4 years/$88 million…too high

Aaron Hicks’ current deal: 7 years/$70 million plus club option…too low.

Mashup: 5 years/$75 million. Equals Benintendi’s deal, which strangely feels right even though they get to their value in totally different ways.