Aaron Judge, left fielder? Assessing the Yankees’ outfield dilemma

On the night of September 9, Aaron Hicks was removed from the Yankees’ home game against the Rays after his defensive mistakes in left field led to three Tampa Bay runs. Starting in the sixth inning, Hicks watched from the bench as his team trailed by two to a division rival.

Up until that point, the Yankees had already run out of viable options to improve their inadequate left field situation. Three months earlier, they had acquired Andrew Benintendi to fill left field, only for him to play in 33 games before breaking his wrist. Rookie Oswaldo Cabrera then got the start, but the Yankees were forced to continue plugging Hicks in left despite the veteran’s unproductive offensive numbers. Hicks slashed .216/.330/.313 with an 86 OPS+, which is 14% worse than league average.

While fans wondered all winter who would be the starting left fielder on Opening Day (about 10 players filled the position for New York in 2022), the Yankees had started those conversations internally and steered toward a more flexible and economically secure solution. No, the Yankees didn’t spend money retaining Benintendi or signing free agents like Brandon Nimmo or Michael Conforto. No, the Yankees did not trade for outfielder Bryan Reynolds, who requested a trade from the Pirates in December. The solution, for now, is internal.

Enter Aaron Judge, left fielder.

Boone first talked to Judge about playing left field in the offseason, sometime after Judge’s roller-coaster free agency ended for the streaky 6-foot-7 slugger. Judge, who immediately embraced the idea, has yet to play a single game in left field in his 5,409 innings in the major leagues. He, of course, saw plenty of right field action as well as a decent amount of center field last season before Harrison Bader joined New York at the trade deadline. Judge last played left field professionally during a seven-game stint with Triple-A Scranton in 2016.

That is until Wednesday, when Judge played five innings in left field in the Yankees’ 4-0 loss to the Cardinals. Judge had a chance to make just one play on a shallow fly ball that he had no chance of catching before it landed in nobody’s ground, but he’ll get another look at left on Thursday in the exhibition of the Yankees against the Red Sox. So Judge’s first time playing lefty this spring went about as well as Boone and the Yankees would have hoped. The perennial All-Star’s athleticism combined with his proven track record on the field bodes well for his comfort at the new position.

Also, moving Judge to left field will give Giancarlo Stanton more opportunities to play right. Throughout the spring, Boone has detailed Stanton’s desire to log more defensive innings and how that can help the slugger stay off the disabled list. The idea is that if Stanton plays regularly, instead of just being the designated hitter, the increased workload will allow him to rely on a routine and stay engaged and ready on any given day. As a DH, Stanton said he spends more time inside the ballpark, hitting the cage, staying warm and watching his team on TV, rather than being more absorbed in the game.

While it’s typical for teams to try out new strategies and lineups in spring training, it’s less common for those designs to make it into regular-season games. But the Yankees seem serious about Stanton playing more right field because, on Wednesday, Boone finally put a number on how often we might see the hitter in the outfield.

“At best, we’re talking 40, 50, 60 games,” Boone told the YES Network.

That might not seem like a lot of games, but it’s a significant jump by Stanton’s recent standards. Stanton has played just 77 games combined in the outfield over his last four seasons with the Yankees. The lower end of that 40-60 range is in line with how much Stanton played in the outfield last year, when he logged 34 games in right field and four in left field. But Stanton hasn’t played more than 60 games in the outfield in a given year since his 2018 season with the Yankees, when he split time equally between right and left field for a total of 72 games.

It’s also not as if Stanton doesn’t know or have skill as a right fielder. He has played in 1,032 career games and logged 9,515 innings there, most of those appearances coming from his eight years with the Marlins. In particular, the Yankees aren’t as comfortable with Stanton playing left field in the wider Bronx. Stanton has seen playing time in left field at smaller fields like Fenway Park and Minute Maid Park. In another sign that the Yankees had moved on from Hicks last postseason, Stanton played two ALCS games in left field mostly out of necessity.

“He’s fundamentally sound out there. He makes every play. If he puts the glove on it, you’re out,” Boone said of Stanton. “Last year, man, I thought he played really well for us out there. I think it serves our team because it allows you to use that DH spot a little more strategically, but physically it serves him well when he’s out there and he has a little more work.”

Yankees and Mets spring training updates with Deesha Thosar

Yankees and Mets spring training updates with Deesha Thosar

Ben Verlander sits down with Deesha Thosar for some updates on both New York baseball teams.

A new left field will also give the Yankees more roster flexibility. With Judge in left, Stanton in right and Gold Glover Bader in center, the Yankees can get creative with their DH spot. The elephant in the room is Hicks’ remaining contract; he has signed for three more seasons for about $10 million a year. With more options in the outfield, the Yankees can continue to play Hicks at DH if needed. New York can also give Josh Donaldson the DH bat. And when Stanton needs rest, Judge can return to right field while Cabrera takes over in left.

While the Yankees aren’t saying it publicly, they have indicated that Hicks will see limited playing time in the outfield this season. While switching Judge to left is a good start, Cabrera has shown he can handle just about anything in the outfield and is expected to see significant opportunities there. That game plan can at least get the Yankees to the trade deadline, when they can possibly revisit a trade for Reynolds or other upgrades.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a reporter for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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