Harrison Bader among multiple Yankees facing uncertain future

As the Mets contemplated their outfield for 2023, they wondered if Starling Marte, after double hernia surgery and at age 34, could move from right field back to center. They had internal conversations about whether Trea Turner (should he be signed to play shortstop or more likely third base) would be OK spelling Marte in center on occasion. 

Turner, though, was going to get everything he wanted — $300 million over 11 years, shortstop and an East Coast contender in the Phillies — so that was not a concept with legs. 

They considered free-agent gambles: That Cody Bellinger, snarled in a three-year offensive downturn, could rebound at the plate. Or that Adam Duvall was all the way back from wrist surgery. There also was the possibility of dealing high-end prospects for Bryan Reynolds, who — like Marte — is best suited for a corner outfield spot. 

That is why the Mets pivoted emphatically to retain Brandon Nimmo for a pile of Steve Cohen’s money greater than the average fan probably anticipated — $162 million over eight years. And that is where a little thing about supply and demand came in: notably what occurs to prices when supply is small in a category, such as talented all-around center fielders, and demand is thin. 

So much is about timing, and Nimmo stepped into a lacking center field market off his best season and secured the largest free-agent contract in total dollars ever given by the Mets. 

Which brings us to Harrison Bader. Conjure what you think he might receive next offseason in free agency. It is probably going to be more (re-check that theory on supply and demand). And it is going to be way more if those five homers that Bader hit in nine postseason games last October are reflective of offensive growth.

Harrison Bader waits to hit during Yankees spring training on Feb. 24, 2023 in Tampa, Fla.
Harrison Bader waits to hit during Yankees spring training on Feb. 24, 2023 in Tampa, Fla.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

His career-high in homers in a season is 16 in 2021. Can he hit 20? His career-high in steals in a season is 17, but that was in just 86 games last year. Bader is a terrific baserunner, and there are new rules (larger bases and fewer pickoff throws) that should make 30 steals possible. Can Bader, like Nimmo, have his best, healthiest season at age 29 and in his walk year? Can an already elite defender actually have that 20-30 campaign? And if he does, then analytic models that currently peg Bader at a floor of roughly three years at $45 million and a ceiling of four years at $72 million are going to be low.

Because the quality of the center field market again is going to revolve around whether Bellinger (Cubs) and Duvall (Red Sox), both on one-year contracts, revive their careers in 2023. Or whether a team projects Korean star Jung-Hoo Lee (expected to be posted) as a legit answer. Or do you like a mainly defense-first option such as Kevin Kiermaier and Michael Taylor? 

Of course, a season has to be played and a lot can happen in a season. Could the Angels (with Mike Trout in center), Twins (Byron Buxton) or White Sox (Luis Roberts) underachieve again and think about a renovation that includes the haul they could get for their center fielder? 

A season has to be played for Bader, as well. And like Nimmo going into his walk year in 2022, Bader has dealt with injuries and enough dubious offense to limit his playing time. He has never exceeded 427 plate appearances. Is there a 500-plus plate appearance, Gold Glove, offensive-impact season coming? If so, will the Yankees feel as beholden to Bader as the Mets were to Nimmo? 

The Yankees would want to return Aaron Judge, who will turn 32 in April 2024, to center field as much as the Mets wanted to do it with Marte this year. Estevan Florial has never fully flowered. Two of the Yankees’ better prospects, Jasson Dominguez and Everson Pereira, are center fielders, but will they be ready to play for a high-end contender next season?

Luis Severino
Luis Severino
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Po

That is why Bader is the Yankees’ most interesting walk-year player. Luis Severino is 1A. When he signed his four-year, $40 million extension in spring 2019, the right-hander was coming off two elite seasons. He has made 22 starts in four injury-devastated seasons since. Still, he is so talented that the Yankees picked up his $15 million option for this season. 

Left-hander Carlos Rodon has the combination of injury and brilliance too, with his personal blessing that he put together two injury-free brilliant seasons going into free agency. That netted him a six-year $162 million deal with the Yankees after his age-29 season. With one special season heading into free agency, what would Severino, 29, be worth? 

After that is Wandy Peralta, whom bullpen coach Mike Harkey called the Yankees’ relief MVP last year for his durability, willingness to pitch in any role and fearlessness. There are not many lefties who combine all of those traits, and have the skill to deflate exit velocity as Peralta does. If he does it all over again, he will be in demand.

Isiah Kiner-Falefa fields a ground ball during spring training at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa fields a ground ball during spring training at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The other three high-profile, walk-year Yankees are in more tenuous spots. Those who rely heavily on analytic data appreciate Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s defense more than eyeball scouts do, so perhaps between that, his speed and bat-to-ball skills, he will have admirers. How much will he even play with the Yankees, though, in 2023? 

The Yankees have a better chance of starting Chuck Cary (look him up) on Opening Day than picking up Josh Donaldson’s 2024 option. Thus, at 37, coming off a poor season at the plate and with a less-than-stellar reputation, Donaldson could be playing for his career. Can he play defense as he did last year and get back to even a 20-homer, 110 OPS-plus hitter? 

Frankie Montas will miss at least half a season following shoulder surgery. Jacob deGrom made just 12 late-season starts last year (including the playoffs) and scored a five-year, $185 million deal with the Rangers. Of course, he is Jacob deGrom. 

Here would be the twist with all the negativity around the Yankees’ acquisition of Montas: Can he pitch well enough over, say, the last two months and the playoffs that the Yankees actually would extend him the qualifying offer, raising the possibility he would return in 2024?

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