Enough with the Stopgap Approach
Early November Thoughts by Cary Greene
November 9, 2023
With Thanksgiving approaching and another World Series minus the Yankees in the books, Yankees fans have commenced with the typical fall fun by simmering cinnamon potpourri on the Baseball Hot-Stove as they enjoy various free agency and trade rumors that this time of year that are in full bloom! Yankees fans everywhere are also wondering what the Yankees plan going forward will be and the big question is: Can the Yankees reopen the championship window that was slammed shut after the Yankees dismal 2023 season?
Meanwhile, per the Athletics' Brendan Kuty, Hal Steinbrenner has employed Zelus Analytics, a firm founded by former Dodgers front office members Doug Fearing (founder of LA’s research and development department) and Dan Cervone (principal data scientist). Zelus’s mission involves “building models” to better contextualize historical performance while evaluating players.
Basically, the Yankees are simply observing another analytics company and comparing notes. There will be no front office examination, instead Steinbrenner is content to watch how another analytics firm operates, while comparing notes. Steinbrenner, speaking at Sortico’s recent “Invest in Sports” conference while sitting beside longtime team president Randy Levine, gave a vague explanation as to what the goal of the analytics audit was.
Steinbrenner said, “We’re going to make some changes. Some may be more subtle than others.” When pressed by a reporter as to what changes the Yankees would make, Steinbrenner responded with, “Possibly personnel but not necessarily personnel.” It certainly looks as if Yankees fans are in for more doses of Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone and this being the case, I’ll lead with the topic of today’s article: The Stopgap Approach Isn’t Working!
It's time that Cashman planned for a championship in the offseason and it’s also time that Steinbrenner backed him up with the necessary payroll to assemble a roster capable of winning big in the postseason.
While spending big doesn’t guarantee a World Series championship, doing so could help reshape a primarily right-handed lineup and bullpen, both of which I’d wager that even the most casual of Yankees fans would agree is a needed course of action.
Perhaps Cashman’s biggest problem is that he’s become so firmly entrenched in using a stopgap approach that he’s been relegated to a scrap heap scouring mongrel who fills in the gaps in his roster with below league average players. He’s surrounded the likes of Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole with waves of players who have no business wearing pinstripes and it shouldn’t take an analytics audit to understand that the current approach is simply not working. In fact, the faithful here on SSTN kind of runs through all of this stuff annually, in what seems like a very repetitive endeavor these days.
Focusing on the two most important positions on the diamond yields a case in point - shortstop and center field. Mainly because of Cashman’s allocation of payroll and Steinbrenner’s annual pumping of the financial brakes, the Yankees have failed to lock down the two most critical positions for some time now. While it’s true that Anthony Volpe just won a Gold Glove at shortstop this season, it’s important to note that he had a dreadful season offensively, posting an 84 wRC+/.290 wOBA, the latter of which ranked in the 26th percentile in the League. Granted, he clocked 21 home runs, but Volpe doesn’t remotely compare to a premium hitter like the once available shortstop like Corey Seager for example (169 wRC+/.419 wOBA).
While it’s clear the Yankees think Volpe will one day be an above average offensive player, if Cashman is looking himself in the mirror, it’s imperative that he (or someone? anyone?) holds him accountable for building a 2023 lineup that only featured two above average players this past season - Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres. Obviously, the Yankees can’t win with Cashman’s current approach and Steinbrenner’s unwillingness to field a team worthy of playing for a championship. If the Yankees are truly assessing the processes they’ve used to make player personnel decisions, they surely should examine how foolish it was to enter Spring Training with stop gap players like Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Josh Donaldson both slated to compete for vitally important positions in the Yankees infield. Why did it happen and how on earth is that indicative of using a sound process?
Likewise, the Yankees also entered Spring Training with the often injured Harrison Bader being the only viable center fielder on the team and that’s because they planned to have Aaron Judge play a lot of left field at Yankee Stadium. The plan of course imploded and once again, if we are examining the Yankees thinking process, how could the Yankees possibly have thought that entering the season without a bona fide left fielder or back up center fielder was a good idea?
Folks, there’s simply too much money riding on things to plan in such a negligent manner. With all of the high-end contracts that the Yankees have, it makes little to no sense not to build a better, more reliable, more durable roster. I think the Yankees obviously did a very poor job of filling in the gaps as they built their team last offseason and if the same sort of shortsighted planning happens again this offseason, the Yankees could wind up being a dumpster fire by the All-Star break. Take a look around the American League East, the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Rays are all very good teams, so like it or not - the Yankees need to step it up.
With that in mind, why would the Yankees even be remotely considering Kevin Kiermaier to be yet another stopgap player, why would Brian Cashman want to add a .320 wOBA/104 wRC+ bat to the lineup. The guy hit 8 home runs last season with only 21 doubles. Yes he bats left handed, but he happens to have reverse splits, which means struggles more against right-handed pitching and furthermore, he’s mostly a ground ball type hitter.
Kiermaier’s StatCast numbers are likewise cause for concern. He’s in the bottom seventh to 11th percentile in the League in most important batting metrics.
Compared to Cody Bellinger, who is fresh off a .370 wOBA/134 wRC+ season in which he hit 26 home runs and drove in 97 runs, how could Steinbrenner justify signing Kiermaier instead? Bellinger didn’t exactly rock StatCast numbers either, but he’s a productive offensive player with a dead pull profile and there’s no denying that he’s a step up offensively from Kiermaier to be sure. If the Yankees want to win a World Series, they’re going to need to upgrade the middle of their lineup and signing Bellinger does that.
Do the Yankees need another light hitting stopgap player in the bottom third of their lineup or do they need a solution in center field that could also slot in behind Aaron Judge in the lineup? Isn’t it time for the Yankees to start planning big instead of playing the budget restricting stopgap game?
While Jasson Dominguez looked terrific in a minute sample size, signing Bellinger allows Dominguez to come back at his own pace and then, more than likely, Dominguez plays mostly corner outfield while also backing up Bellinger, which is a long range plan that allows Judge to mostly play right field.
Are there other outfield options? Yes, a name that Yankees fans should get familiar with is that of Jung Hoo Lee, a 25-year old left-hand hitting outfielder from South Korea with a promising swing. Should the Yankees look to get younger and more left-handed, it might behoove Cashman to sign both Bellinger and Lee. Lee is a quintessential batsman who has posted a wOBA over .400 in three of the past four seasons in the KBO and as we know, very few Yankees actually hit for average from the left side of the plate.
There’s also the potential that Cashman could pull off a trade with the Padres for Juan Soto, though I’m personally not holding breath in anticipation as I think Padres GM AJ Preller is notoriously difficult to negotiate with as it his he who prefers to do the fleecing and not the other way around. Still, at this early stage of the offseason, anything is possible until it isn’t.
Shifting our attention to shortstop and third base, will these positions provide valuable offensive contributions or are we looking at using light hitting utility type players to once again sandbag the bottom third of the lineup? Cashman basically committed to Volpe, but is he seriously going to use Oswald Peraza (.246 wOBA/53 wRC+) or DJ LeMahieu (.315 wOBA/101 wRC+) to form the left side of the infield and pair them with the still learning/adjusting Volpe? If that’s the plan, it doesn’t sound like a World Series is in the cards for the Yankees.
Not with Matt Chapman (.328 wOBA/.310 wRC+) available via free agency this winter, who is a slugger who loves to pull the ball and was tops in the League in Hard-Hit percentage last year, while also being top two percent in Barrel Percentage and Exit Velocity. I’m pretty sure any analytics department would fully endorse signing Chapman as there is simply too much to like about his offensive profile.
Currently, the Yankees 40-man roster has 21 pitchers on it and 17 position players, with a number of them potentially not in the plans going forward. Suffice it to say, there will be numerous openings to fill but what’s really intriguing is the number of anticipated openings there will likely be on the active roster. Cashman will have the luxury of not only shopping for starters and relievers, but he’ll easily be able to create space on the active roster for difference-making position players.
A number of big questions remain, but with Giancarlo Stanton clogging the DH position at this point, the Yankees would be wise to add Bellinger, Lee and Chapman. If by some miracle the Yankees were able to trade Stanton, then why not also trade for Juan Soto? Achieving all of this would be very costly, there is no doubt, but considering the Yankees offense bottomed out last year with a 91 OPS+, its clear that Cashman absolutely has to make some big changes with his underperforming, poorly constructed positional roster. I’m imagining a lineup that looks like the below, mainly because it’s that time of year. It’s time to dream of championships and pinstriped glory yet to come.
1. Bellinger CF
2. Judge RF
3. Soto DH
4. Chapman 3B
5. Torres 2B
6. Rizzo 1B
7. Volpe SS
8. Lee LF
9. Trevino C
Bench: LeMahieu UIF / Peraza UIF / Wells C-1B / Florial UOF