Two days after making his first ever opening day roster at age 25, Clint Frazier was demoted. The Yankees removed him from their active roster and sent to their alternate site in Pennsylvania, a new feature for the 2020 season for reserve players to stay fresh.
General Manager Brian Cashman and Manager Aaron Boone delivered the news after a July 25 game in Washington in a 15-minute conversation that Boone called “very honest, direct and mature.” Frazier, whose brash nature has caused a few headaches in the past, said they hashed it out “like grown-ups.”
Still, the young outfielder had some questions. In particular, he wanted to know this from his bosses: “Where is my place on this team?”
“It’s a really good team and I feel like I’m ready,” Frazier said this week. “I feel like there’s a lot of people that feel that way, too, but there’s a lot of guys in front of me. It’s been frustrating. That’s the one way to sum it up.”
But now Frazier has another chance. It might only last three or four weeks, roughly the expected recovery time for slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s hamstring strain. And Aaron Judge, the Yankees’ star outfielder, is also out for an undetermined amount of time with what Boone called “lower body tightness.”
So for now, there is some playing time available in the Yankees’ lineup for a tantalizing hitter like Frazier.
He said on Wednesday that he felt like he was “the best player right now that I’ve ever been,” and he showed it in his first game of the season, smashing three hits, including a home run in his first at-bat of 2020.
“He can be an impact player in this league right now,” Boone has said repeatedly about Frazier.
If the Yankees feel that way about Frazier, why has he only seen sporadic playing time in the majors the last three seasons? As it has been with Frazier for years now, the answer is complicated.
The Frazier dilemma for the Yankees is this: He is more flawed than many of the players ahead of him in the pecking order, but his talent is too enticing to trade away just yet. The latter is particularly true given the Yankees’ history of injuries and the cloudy future of the 36-year-old outfielder Brett Gardner, who is not guaranteed to return next season. (The Yankees hold a $10-million option for him for 2021.)
Acquired in the Andrew Miller trade with the Cleveland Indians in 2016, Frazier was a highly touted prospect but was inconsistent during his first taste of the majors in 2017. A concussion wiped out nearly all of his 2018 season. And while Frazier’s bat helped the Yankees withstand a slew of injuries, including to Judge and Stanton, in 2019, his fielding misadventures led to a two-and-a-half-month stint in the minors leagues. There were also some questions about Frazier’s professionalism.
Entering 2020, he said, he had a renewed focus.
“I’ve obviously been faced with a lot of situations, whether it was warranted or unwarranted, but I just wanted to show up to spring training this year and really only give people one thing to talk about — and that my performance,” said Frazier, who hit .267 with 12 home runs in 69 games last season.
Frazier did just that. As the season was approaching in March, he was expected to play a prominent role in the Yankees’ offense because Aaron Hicks, Judge and Stanton were recovering from other injuries.
But when the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of the Major League Baseball season until late July, Judge, Hicks and Stanton had extra time to heal. Frazier still made the opening day roster because M.L.B. expanded them for this 60-game season, but even he understood that it might not last. He has repeatedly said he wants to earn his spot in the majors outright, not simply when his teammates get hurt.
Unfortunately for Frazier, the Yankees’ outfield depth chart ahead of him is crowded: Gardner, Hicks, Judge, Stanton and Mike Tauchman are all ahead of him — and all are more reliable defenders and/or more established hitters.
“I’m still trying to find my role,” Frazier said this week. “I’m a human and I look at a couple weeks from now, whenever Stanton does come back, where that puts me. I, at least, have time between now and then to possible establish a role. I would hope I make the most of it and I, at least, get a couple chances to go out there and do my best because that’s really all I’m asking for now.”
While playing in simulated games at the Yankees’ alternate site, Frazier said, he wondered a few times if he would get a chance to do just that. It was understandable: Stanton, Judge and Tauchman were off to strong starts, the Yankees were in first place without him, and Frazier’s name surfaced repeatedly in trade rumors last summer and winter.
Now, Frazier said he is thrilled to be back, and he sounded calmer, insisting he did not want to be a distraction like in the past. He said he was excited to show off the work he had put in to become a better hitter and fielder. Boone agreed, adding that he was happy with Frazier’s physical state and frame of mind.
“I don’t want to be trite, but I’m really proud of how he’s handled things and the pro that he’s been,” Boone said. “He’s put himself in a great position to earn this opportunity again here and I’m looking forward to seeing him go out and contribute.”