When the Yankees traded Jordan Montgomery to the St. Louis Cardinals for Harrison Bader — at the buzzer on trade deadline day — it raised eyebrows across baseball and warranted some explaining.
For starters, their newly acquired center fielder was in a walking boot due to plantar fasciitis and wouldn’t be able to play until toward the end of the regular season. In addition to his inability to play right away, the pitching-needy Bombers shipped out one of their most consistent starters to get him.
“St. Louis obviously needs starting pitching, and Harrison Bader is one of the elite center field defenders in the game,” Brian Cashman said after the trade deadline. “And so, he provides a lot of lanes for us I think, for our manager — when he’s healthy, which, certainly, we did a deep dive into his medicals and there’s a lot of optimism and belief that some time September wise we’ll be able to unpack that present and deploy him as a choice for our manager.
“And unfortunately, it cost us one of our homegrown players, in Jordan Montgomery, that we’ve relied on a lot, too. So I’m sorry to see Montgomery go. He’s obviously a really good pitcher, he’s a really good person and he’s one of our own, so that makes it that much more difficult. But it’s a tough world that I live in and a tough world that this business operates in.”
Fast forward to today and it is much easier to explain why the Yankees made the move. The question now is does Bader help get the Yankees across the finish line (a first World Series appearance since 2009)?
The 28-year-old made a strong first impression when he was finally able to put on his pinstripes. While his elite defense — 91st percentile in Outs Above Average in 2022 — became apparent immediately, his ability at the plate took a little longer to shine through.
The gold glover in 2021 hit .217/.245/.283 with just three extra-base hits (all doubles) in his 14-game regular-season stint with the Bombers. However, his postseason coming out party has opened the conversation of how much more can be expected of a player thought to be a defensive specialist.
Bader posted .333/.429/.833 with a team-leading five homers in nine postseason games. His performance was so eye-opening — combined with how anemic the rest of the Yankees offense was in the ALCS — that he eventually made his way up to the lead-off spot in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros.
As a club that is searching for more offense entering the 2023 season with limited outside options available, Aaron Boone has no choice but to hope for the best with what he has in-house.
Bader’s postseason performance warrants legitimate discussion on if he can be a reliable offensive performer. The Bronxville native’s career line of .245/.317/.406 is acceptable for a player with his defensive ability, however, he did show upside at the dish with the Redbirds in 2021.
The defensive wizard slashed .267/.324/.460 with 16 homers and 50 RBI in 2021. Cashman and company would sign up for that production without hesitation as Bader was arguably the best defensive center fielder in the National League while posting above-league-average numbers.
There are also discussions to be had about Bader’s availability with just 103 games played in 2021 and 86 in 2022 due to injury. As a club that is awfully too familiar with the injury bug, the thought of Aaron Judge — who just inked a long-term mega-deal — having to patrol center field because of Bader missing time is likely not something the Bombers want to see again.
The center fielder does present a curious case, however, with money being thrown around like it’s going out of style this offseason, the outfielder’s services will likely be highly sought after when he is a free agent following this season, especially with how thin the talent is at center field across baseball — outside of Mike Trout.
Baders’ 110 WRC+ would have ranked sixth amongst center fielders in 2021 should he have qualified with the minimum plate appearances, along with compiling the sixth most defensive runs saved since 2017. His competition in the 2024 free agency class isn’t exactly stiff as utility man Kike Hernandez, Kevin Kiermaier and Michael A. Taylor are among the other options.
Should he perform closer to the version of himself displayed in the postseason, Bader could cement himself in the Bombers’ future plans with potential contract extension negotiations soon to follow. However, if the 14-game sample in the regular season is the player the Yanks acquired, top prospect Jasson Dominguez is waiting in the wings and figures to be MLB-ready at some point in 2024.
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