The Yankees added Harrison Bader in a surprising deadline deal last summer, sending starter Jordan Montgomery to the Cardinals for their new center fielder. Bader was on the injured list due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot at the time and didn’t make his team debut until late September.
Bader only appeared in 14 regular season games with New York and struggled, not surprising for a player who’d had only six Double-A outings to get back to game speed amidst a three-month layoff. He picked things up in the postseason, connecting on five home runs in only 35 plate appearances to help the Yankees to the American League Championship Series.
While he’s still relatively new to the organization, the Bronxville native indicated he’d be happy to discuss a potential long-term pact. In the absence of an extension, he’d hit the open market for the first time in his career next winter. He’d do so with youth mostly on his side, as he’ll be headed into his age-30 season in 2024.
“Being born and raised in New York, it’s always been one of my goals to play in a Yankee uniform,” Bader told Jon Heyman of the New York Post. “Now that I crossed off playing in a Yankees uniform, of course I want to be a Yankee as long as I can be. But I realize, especially being traded last year, that it’s not really up to me. The only thing I can do is go out there and be the best version of myself for this team and every other team.”
To that end, Heyman reports that the Yankees have yet to discuss contract terms with Bader’s representatives at Vayner Sports. That’s not too surprising considering his lack of experience in pinstripes, though the Yankees clearly felt strongly enough about Bader to part with a member of their MLB rotation to bring him in last summer. He’s set for regular work in center field during the upcoming season, with Aaron Judge flanking him in one corner outfield spot. The other corner position is more in flux, with players like Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Cabrera, Giancarlo Stanton and perhaps Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the mix for reps.
When healthy, Bader has shown the makings of an above-average center fielder. He played consistently excellent defense throughout his time in St. Louis. In a little more than 3500 career innings at the position, he’s rated as 38 runs better than average by measure of Defensive Runs Saved and 45 runs above par according to Statcast. Bader draws strong marks from Statcast for all his defensive tools, with plus grades for his speed, arm strength and reactions off the bat. He secured the National League’s Gold Glove award in 2021 after posting a +15 DRS in 886 2/3 innings.
While there’s little question about the University of Florida product’s glove, his offensive productivity has been more hit-or-miss. He’s a career .245/.317/.405 hitter in 1764 plate appearances. That’s just shy of league average work. Bader seemed to take a step forward at the plate in 2020, combining for a .258/.327/.457 mark with 20 homers across 526 plate appearances between 2020-21. His power production took a step back last year, as he managed only five round-trippers and 18 extra-base hits in 86 regular season games. Last year’s 26.3% hard contact percentage was easily the worst of his career.
It’s possible playing through pain in his foot sapped his ability to drive the ball early in the season. Bader’s power returned in his brief playoff run. He also made contact on a personal-best 79.2% of his swings last year and struck out in fewer than 20% of his plate appearances for the first time in his career. If Bader can pair those improved contact skills with the above-average power he’s shown at times, he could be a quality hitter.
Matching that kind of offense with elite defense and quality baserunning would make him one of the sport’s more valuable all-around players on a rate basis, but Bader has yet to put everything together over a full season. That’s in large part due to health. He’s reached 100 games in a season three times but never topped the 140-game mark or tallied even 450 trips to the plate. In addition to last year’s plantar fasciitis, Bader has missed time due to a hairline fracture in his rib and a right hamstring strain at the big league level.
That all makes him one of the higher-variance players who’s slated to reach the open market. Brandon Nimmo, for instance, only had one season of 140+ games before last year’s excellent platform campaign allowed him to cash in on an eight-year, $162MM free agent deal with the Mets. Nimmo’s career offensive track record is far better than Bader’s, making it hard to envision any way Bader gets to those heights, though he serves as a broad example of the kind of health risk teams are willing to take for an up-the-middle defender with offensive upside. With a strong season, Bader could at least put himself alongside the likes of Starling Marte (four years, $78MM) and Andrew Benintendi (five years, $75MM) in terms of earning power.
On the other hand, another injury-riddled season or one marred by inconsistency at the dish could leave him looking for something more closely resembling a pillow contract. Players like Jackie Bradley Jr., Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto have all signed two to three-year guarantees between $24MM and $43.5MM with opt-out opportunities over the past couple offseasons. Bradley had a similar track record of defensive excellence paired with inconsistency at the dish, while Haniger and Conforto had shown All-Star caliber upside at their best but had concerns about their injury histories.
Next year’s free agent class seems very light on position player talent beyond two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani. Bader might be the top center fielder available — that’s largely dependent on whether Cody Bellinger can bounce back with the Cubs — while players like Conforto, Matt Chapman, Teoscar Hernández, Ian Happ and Rhys Hoskins look to be some of the best non-Ohtani hitters. The market will obviously be shaped in large part by how those hitters perform over the next six months. Few players could gain or lose more based on their upcoming season than Bader, making him a tricky player for the Yankees to value this spring and an interesting one to monitor if the sides don’t come to an agreement over the coming months.