Examining the A.L. East at Third Base
by Cary Greene
January 22, 2022
With this installment, my examination of the Yankee infield and how it stacks up to each Division rival is complete. I’ve studied not only how each team presently sits for the coming season, but I’ve compared organizational depth as well.
The Yankees have the fourth best infield in the Division. They also have the worst minor league infield depth in the Division. We read about Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza. They are more pieces that could put the Yankees over the top at some point.
That said, the rest of the division is a lot better off in the infield than the Yankees are. For example – Tampa has 22 year old Wander Franco providing a projected 5+ WAR for the next decade. The Yankees have Anthony Vope in Double-A. Toronto is busy working on extending Vlad Jr and will enjoy more power than Niagara Falls emits as a result, meanwhile, the Yankees have Austin Wells in Double-A. The Red Sox have Raphael Devers roping homers and doubles at third base while the Yankees have? Gio Urshela? Never Fear, Trey Sweeney is in Low A this season! The Yankees have Gary Sanchez to count on behind the plate this year, while the Orioles will bring up MLB’s #1 prospect, Adley Rutschman who will likely become a perennial All-Star catcher. On and on it goes. Tampa is loaded with speedy, high-skill infielders. Toronto’s shortstop is Bo Bichette! No, the Yankee infield, both at the major league level and considering the farm system, is not even in the same class as their Division rivals. Yankee fans surely must realize this?
My goal in this running series is to examine how each American League East Division rival has positioned their rosters up to this point in the offseason. Obviously, rosters aren’t fully sculpted yet, as the CBA lockout has put a deep-freeze on both free agent signings and trades. We will hopefully see a squall of activity once a new labor agreement is ratified by both the MLB Player’s Union and MLB Ownership.
In my first four installments, I examined how each team is set at catcher, first base, second base and shortstop.
Up to this point in my analysis, the Blue Jays have by far the best infield in the American League East Infield. With one position left to scrutinize – third base! Keep in mind that Tampa is a close second, followed by the Yankees and the Red Sox who are neck and neck. The Orioles lag far behind.
*** Let’s get to the hot corner!
Third base in the American League is dominated by the Red Sox, who feature the reigning All-Star starter Rafael Devers and who is fresh off another amazing season. The 25 year-old, left hand hitting Devers slashed .278/.346/.354/.880 while lacing 37 doubles, 38 home runs and driving in 113 runs. He’s an offensive force in the Boston lineup and is a fearless, clutch hitter with lightning fast hands who hits right handed left handed pitching almost as well as he hits righties. Devers punishes shifts and hits to all fields, featuring one of the best overall hitting approaches in the game today with a swing that is brimming with raw power. The highly-durable Devers made 664 plate appearances last season for Boston and he was a big reason the Red Sox were as good as they were last year, especially against the Yankees as Devers feasted on Yankee meatballs, corking 21 home runs against Yankee chefs, er – I mean, pitchers.
In terms of organizational depth at third base, the Red Sox have nothing to speak of in their system, so when we consider that Devers is only under team control for two more years, all eyes in Boston will be on Chaim Bloom as he contemplates doing a mega-extension with Devers, who would absolutely be a candidate for a ten year contract – given his young age and his tremendous production. Speaking of production, Devers is projected to once again hover around 5 WAR this season.
The next best situated team at third base in the Division is surprisingly the Rays and I say surprisingly because this November, they traded their All-Star third baseman Joey Wendle to the Marlins for outfield prospect Kameron Misner, who was the Marlins number 21 prospect. Wendle was set to earn $4.5 million and in typical position player fashion, the frugal Rays decided to focus the resources elsewhere as after trading Wendle, they promptly agreed to sign Corey Kluber and then they re-upped with Ji-Man Choi on a one year deal. Trading Wendle was painful for the Rays as Wendle was a huge contributor to the Rays success over the past several seasons.
Trading Wendle made a little more room in the infield for versatile youngsters Taylor Walls and Vidal Bruján and the Rays are excited about Misner, an athletic outfielder who fits well in their system and should be in the mix to start next season in Double-A. Tampa’s minor league system keeps producing viable minor league talent and the importance of this talent pipeline allows the Rays to run lean and mean. Tampa has become “the model team” for all MLB franchises to take note of.
No pun intended, but the Yankees are a distant third in the American League East at third base. It looks presently as if Aaron Boone will use DJ LeMahieu for the lion’s share of the innings at third base this season. This could change if the Yankees make a trade or sign a shortstop, but as it stands, Gio Urshela is the team’s starting shortstop and it looks like he’ll also play a solid amount of third base as well, when LeMahieu flexes to other positions.
Urshela’s performance has declined steadily since his breakout 2019 season and at this point, he’s looking more like a utility player than a starting shortstop for the New York Yankees. Offensively, the production is just not there and though Steamers is looking for a bit of a bounce back season for Gio and even if that happens, he’s only a tick above an average player. With Urshela set to make $6.55 million this season, the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze for the Yankees and it’s quite possible that Urshela’s time with the Yankees is coming to a close as he’s only under control for two more years.
It’s a fair question to pose, so I’ll ask, is DJ LeMahieu going to become more and more a fixture at third base for the Yankees as the years go on, or do the Yankees have some internal options that could free DJ to be more of a utility man? That rhetorical question is best answered by glancing through the Yankees organization and the anwer really appears to be, “not really.” The Yankees best hope for the future probably rests with their 2021 draft pick, shortstop Trey Sweeney, who the Yankees selected 20th overall. Sweeney is already familiar with the position and though he takes great routes to balls and has a very strong throwing arm, he’s a LeMahieuesque 6’4” and as he fills out, the big lefty may be better off moving to third base. In fact, our own fuster suggested this recently and he may be right.
Another possibility for the Yankees is that they could potentially move prospect Anthony Volpe to third base and shift Sweeney to first base, electing to use the nearly ready Oswald Peraza as the shortstop of the future. Of course, Volpe could also be shifted to second base in a scenario where Sweeney plays third base. New York actually does have some options, but certainly for the upcoming season, Yankee fans will see a lot of LeMahieu and Urshela at third base.
Slotting in behind Boston, Tampa and the Yankees, the fourth best positioned team at third base in the Division is the Blue Jays. It’s no secret that Ross Atkins is one blockbuster deal away from creating one of the best infields baseball has ever seen. Toronto was hard at work trying to strike a deal with the Guardians for three time All-Star Jose Ramirez. Imagine an infield of Gurerro Jr, Bichette and Ramirez? That would be very bad news for Yankee fans. Personally, I’ve long thought that the one position player the Yankees should make the hardest push to trade for is not Matt Olson, but instead, Jose Ramirez. Both are great fits for NY, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that Olson is coming off the best offensive season of his life, whereas Ramirez has had absolute monster seasons. Ramirez is 29, Olson is 27, I’m sure Yankee fans would be happy with either player. Needless to say, Toronto isn’t a great fit for Olson but they are an ideal match for Ramirez. I shudder imagining a playoff game where the Blue Jays bat Ramirez, a switch hitter, behind Vald Jr. That would be reminiscent of Big Papi protecting Manny. No thanks!
Fortunately, Cleveland being Cleveland, the Guardians appear intent on holding onto Ramirez and meanwhile, the Blue Jays media has made multiple trade rumors linking the Blue Jays to Oakland’s Matt Chapman – another player Yankee fans wouldn’t like to see matriculate north of the border, unless Chapman was simply going Northern Pike fishing in Canada, in which case that would be fine!
Remaining free agent Kris Bryant is another player Toronto is interested in and the 30 year old four time All-Star would certainly represent a massive upgrade for the Blue Jays at third base.
Which brings us to Jordan Groshans, Toronto’s number three overall prospect. Many scouts outside the Blue Jays organization think Groshans, a shortstop by trade, projects more as a third baseman due to his size and Toronto will start Groshans at Triple-A this year so he won’t be far off.
If the Blue Jays hold off on a blockbuster trade for an All-Star level third baseman, they’ll likely feature Santiago Espinal as the everyday third baseman with Kevin Smith backing him up. While Santiago projects more as a super utility player, he’s more than capable of providing plus defense at the hot corner for the Blue Jays. Considering how affordable it would be to use Espinal and Smith, Toronto may elect to use their resources elsewhere but make no mistake, Toronto is knocking on the door and an American League Championship is in the sights. Before the last drop of snow melts in Toronto this offseason and forms a classic Canadian slush puddle, I expect Toronto to make a move or two and they likely will be pretty big, messy splashes that may cause the rest of the Division to have to use their wipers just to stay on the road. In case you haven’t noticed Yankee fans, Toronto is going for it!
Lastly, I’d like to remind our readers that the Orioles also play in the American League East. Unfortunately, they are not in very good shape compared to their Division rivals and I’m not really sure what the Orioles plan is at third base. Between Kelvin Gutierrez and our pal Rougned Odor, Baltimore is looking at abysmal production from the position. Gunnar Henderson, the Bird’s number four overall prospect, is the hope for the future and he’ll be starting the season at Double-A Bowie this year. Henderson is the real-deal and offensively he’s drawn Corey Seager type comps. Henderson is highly athletic and at 6’3” he can also play third base and center field, so the jury is out as to what position he’ll play at the highest level. This is a hugely important year for the Orioles farm system because they certainly don’t appear to be actively improving the team through free agency.
Baltimore’s strategy appears to be to solely focus on their robust farm system and they recently added 24 International Amateur’s to their system under the direction of newly hired Orioles GM Mike Elias. Traditionally, Baltimore has shown little to no interest in International Amateurs, but Elias is putting a quantity over quality full court press on the Latin-American talent pipeline in hopes of making the Orioles system even better than it currently is, keeping in mind mlb.com already ranks Baltimore’s system number one in all of baseball.
I’ve finished exploring how the Yankees stack up each of their American League East Divisions Rival’s infields. Regarding anticipated production this coming season the Yankee infield is a distant fourth place in the Division, though Brian Cashman is paying four to five times more to get the inadequate performance, compared to what most of the Yankees rivals are shelling out, with Boston being the lone exception.
Looking at both the Yankees big league active infield roster and comparing the Yankee’s entire infield system to their Division rival’s systems, the Yankees also have the absolute least desirable trade chips and it’s not even close. Cashman has precious few infield trade chips compared to his rival’s infield assets.
The Yankee infield is a distant fourth in the Division. It’s clearly the team’s biggest weakness. Yankee fans know the infield isn’t a team strength. Rival GM’s know it. Cashman is grossly overpaying for the production he’s getting out of his infield. Toronto and Tampa are clearly the class of the Division. They pay a fraction of what the Yankees pay and they get far more production.
I’ve never been one to gripe without offering a solution. Here is a plan formed out of dire need. I offer it as a solution and will send Brian Cashman a memo <chuckling.>
If Brian Cashman wants to fix the Yankees infield problems and field a more competitive team for the coming season and also for the foreseeable future, he needs to do three things in order to overtake the rest of the Division. The infield is currently a curse. Fixing it is also a tremendous opportunity to gain lost ground.
The Yankees currently have Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks under contract as the only two left-handed hitters on the roster, which means Cashman is precariously close to heading down the path of having a lineup that is too right-handed and too easy to game plan against. Fans have been down this road before. It’s time for Brian Cashman to remember the Yankee way. It’s time to put a real power hitter in the middle of the lineup.
Stop depleting the Farm System. He’s been robbing Peter to pay Paul for years. It has to stop! Then, Cashman needs to start strengthening the Yankee system. The Yankee Draft strategy is not producing translatable talent – compared to Division rivals – the Yankees are shooting themselves in the foot, year in and year out. Trading prospects is not the way to fix the Yankees problems.
Stop signing Free Agents who rejected qualifying offers and therefore have Supplemental Draft penalties attached. Anybody remember how the Yankees got Aaron Judge?
Spend even more money! The Yankees need to go all out once the CBA is ratified. The Yankees need help in the infield, it can no longer be ignored. Bargain-bin signings aren’t going to cut it. Trading for more AAAA players isn’t the answer. The Yankees need needle moving players. They need to catch up with their rivals. Hal Steinbrenner needs to open the wallet. Here’s who the Yankees need:
Sign a first baseman. Anthony Rizzo barely moves the needle, he’s not worth the spend. Freddie Freeman at age 32 is not the answer either, though he’d help for the next year or two, he’s not worth the spend either. A Kyle Schwarber (entering the prime of his career at age 28) / Luke Voit platoon is the best option. The Yankees would move the needle with this strategy. NY would finally have a left-hand threat in the cleanup spot, in between Judge and Stanton. This move balances the lineup. Schwarber is a below average first baseman. I get it. He wouldn’t be here to charge bunts. His purpose is to mash the ball and mash the ball he does.
Hang on to Luke Voit as part of this plan.
Play Stanton in the OF even more. His bat needs to be in the lineup as much as possible. If he can stay on the field, he could be a hidden source of offense. The overly cautious approach with Stanton has literally killed the Yankees. It needs to stop. Last year was a step in the right direction. Stanton’s production immediately ticked up, coinciding with him playing in the field. He’s a good right fielder too. We all saw this. Need more of it!
Sign a shortstop. The Yankee infield lags far behind their rivals. Cashman needs to do something. Hal Steinbrenner needs to recognize this. The Yankees need to sign Carlos Correa. He moves the needle. With him and Schwarber under contract, the Yankee infield becomes even better than the Blue Jays (7.6 WAR added). Trevor Story doesn’t make enough of an impact. Hard pass.
Trade Gio Urshela while he still has value. Look for a bullpen piece or a lower level, high upside prospect in return. He’d be hard to trade, he makes way too much, but there are teams in need of shortstops and third basemen. While Urshela has value defensively, his offense just isn’t there. He’s a net negative. Enough with the AAAA players.
Utilize DJ Lemaheiu primarily at third base this season. Look to sign a third baseman next offseason.
Keep Gleyber Torres and hope he bounces back a bit, as Steamers feels he will. If he does, he has two years of team control remaining. It would be a good problem to have.
Fear not, Yankee fans, I still have the designated hitter, all three outfield positions, bench strength, starting rotations and bullpens to examine, analyze and scrutinize. In my next article, I’ll cover designated hitters. I’ll also keep the running chart above, so it will be easy to compare how the Yankees stack up to their rivals.