TAMPA, Fla. — Barring the unforeseen, in the 2021 season, Clint Frazier finally will get what he’s long dreamed of: a starting job in the big leagues.
Frazier, who made his major-league debut in 2017, experienced more than a few ups and downs in his four previous years with the Yankees. The downs occasionally involved maturity issues that at times angered teammates and the club hierarchy. But in addressing the media via Zoom for the first time in spring training Thursday afternoon, Frazier, 26, sounded and carried himself very much like a big-leaguer.
"I learned to make it a little more of a mild version [of myself] rather than like a Tabasco hot sauce hot," Frazier said with a smile. "I'm still having fun, I'm still me behind the scenes, but I'm just trying to be a grown-up and the best teammate that I can."
That especially showed in his comments about Brett Gardner, who last week was brought back on a one-year deal with a player option for 2022.
The move bothered some Yankees fans, who believed the move might negatively impact playing time for Frazier, a favorite of the fan base since he was acquired from Cleveland before the 2016 trade deadline as the centerpiece of the Andrew Miller deal.
But general manager Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone made it clear in the weeks leading up to spring training that Frazier is the starting leftfielder. Period.
"Look, I expect Clint to be our leftfielder and to be in that starting lineup [regardless of] whoever we bring in here," Boone said last week.
While acknowledging his excitement about hearing that kind of comment, Frazier said no one pulled harder than he did for the return of Gardner, 37, who has been a consistent mentor to Frazier.
Gardner, chosen in the third round of the 2005 draft, is entering his 14th major-league season. "He makes you feel comfortable, he makes everyone around him better," Frazier said. "I don't think there was one person that wasn't excited when they saw that Brett was coming back. And I think I was probably at the top of the list because there are still things he can teach me as a player, teach me as a man moving forward that I can incorporate in my everyday life and into baseball."
That included early in spring training 2018, when Frazier publicly declared his desire to essentially take Gardner’s job, comments that didn’t go over well in all corners of the clubhouse at the time.
Gardner never batted an eye.
"I think where the first thought goes with Brett is how he handled a young guy coming in that plays the same position as him and was vocal about wanting to win that job and just how he treated me," Frazier said. "He went about it in such a positive way that I felt like it was like a big-brother, little-brother relationship."
Much of the big-brothering came when Frazier found himself in the news for the wrong reasons.
"There were times when he pulled me over into his room just to put his arm around me and just to talk to me, because he knew that I was going through some tough times with some distractions that I had caused," Frazier said. "Brett's just been a light that keeps shining really bright for me. And I'd love to, I'd selfishly like to have this guy around until he's like 50, just so I could finish my career with him."
Frazier had a .306/.422/.595 slash line with eight games remaining in the 2020 regular season, and though he finished the year in a 1-for-20 slide, he finished the year hitting .267 with eight homers in 131 at-bats and a solid .905 OPS. The fielding troubles that were so glaring in 2019 disappeared, to the point that Frazier was named a finalist for the American League Gold Glove in rightfield (Joey Gallo of the Rangers won).
Among those proudest of Frazier?
"Clint is willing to work, he's willing to learn, he's willing to listen and he's willing to put in the time, and obviously when you have all those, you can't help but get better over time," Gardner said. "So he's been great. It's been a lot of fun for me to watch him grow, not just as a player but as a person. And again, he's one of those guys that I expect to continue to grow, continue to get better, and I look forward to seeing it firsthand."