By now, we should know Brian Cashman always has one more surprise in store at the trade deadline. It seemed like the Yankees were mostly finished with major moves after adding Scott Effross, Frankie Montas, and Lou Trivino, then mercifully jettisoning Joey Gallo. Right at the buzzer, he shocked everyone and dealt Jordan Montgomery to the Cardinals for Harrison Bader.
Meet Harrison Bader
Bader was born in Bronxville, N.Y., attended high school in Riverdale, and grew up a Yankees fan. That’s all sunshine and rainbows, but you won’t see him in pinstripes for a little while. He’s been on the Injured List since the end of June with plantar fasciitis. His salary is only a little lower than Montgomery’s and both players are eligible for one more year of arbitration before reaching free agency. So why would the Yankees trade a key member of the starting rotation for an injured outfielder?
When healthy — an important qualifier — Bader isn’t just any ordinary outfielder. He’s arguably the best defensive center fielder in all of baseball. He earned the 2021 Gold Glove and both Defensive Runs Saved (47) and Outs Above Average (54) have held him in high esteem since his debut in 2017. His DRS is -2 this season, but that can likely be attributed to his foot injury.
Offensively, he’s usually above average as well. He has a .258/.327/.457 slash line across 2020 and 2021 with matching 114 OPS+ in both seasons. This year, he hasn’t hit for as much power, driving his overall production below average (but still higher than Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s, for reference). Again, the plantar fasciitis could have caused his power loss.
If he returns to health, he dramatically improves the Yankees’ outfield defense, as does Andrew Benintendi. Putting the two newcomers out there with Aaron Judge in right field gives the team the absolute best defensive outfield in MLB. Aaron Hicks would move into a fourth outfielder role. Where does that leave Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Carpenter? It’s too early to tell, nor can we assume everyone will be healthy and producing at the same time, but it’s a very good problem to have.
Obviously, Bader’s acquisition comes at the expense of the pitching staff. The Yankees needed to add a starting pitcher, then did so with Montas, only to trade away Montgomery. Montas is a net improvement if you want to look at it that way, but they’re just as thin as they were before.
Clearly, the deal makes the team worse in August — though they have an 11-game lead in the AL East at present — but if all goes according to plan could make them stronger in October. Assuming Bader returns to form, he provides an upgrade in the outfield. Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, and Montas will front the postseason rotation. They have a lot of options for the fourth spot: Luis Severino, Jameson Taillon, maybe even Germán figures things out (don’t hold your breath), or possibly a Clarke Schmidt/bullpenosaurus game. Mongomery would’ve been in that mix, but he simply isn’t as valuable in the playoffs as he is in April-September.
The above paragraph only holds true if everything goes according to plan. What if one of the big three starters gets hurt, or no one seizes the the fourth spot, or Severino doesn’t come back in time? They will greatly miss Montgomery in any of those scenarios. There’s no guarantee that Bader comes back 100% healthy either. Plantar Fasciitis is a tricky injury for which the return timetable is more of an estimate than a certainty.
In the end, this is a risky trade. It could either pay dividends or come back to bite the Yankees. It definitely doesn’t help them right now, but this season won’t be measured by what happens in August anyway.