How Do the Yankees Address Its First Base Gap?
By Derek McAdam
November 11, 2022
The start of free agency began yesterday, as several Yankees including Aaron Judge, Jameson Taillon and Aroldis Chapman, among others, became free agents and are free to negotiate contracts with any of the 30 teams. Among that list includes Anthony Rizzo, who declined his $16 million player option for 2023 and has decided to test the free agency waters. Rizzo’s potential departure leaves the Yankees with a big question mark over who will play first base for next season and beyond.
While Rizzo declined his option, the Yankees have extended him the Qualifying Offer worth $19.65 million for the 2023 season. For a player to have a batting average of .224, some may see this as a high number for such a player. However, Rizzo’s value with the Yankees has been very under-appreciated, as the 33-year-old has not only brought a left-handed at-bat to the Yankee lineup that can work a pitcher’s count. Rizzo was the best defensive first baseman the Yankees have had since Mark Teixeira, and his glove at first base helped dramatically improve the infield’s defense compared to 2021.
Regarding the Qualifying Offer, it seems unlikely that Rizzo will accept the offer, considering he may finally be looking for a longer-term extension around three years or so. However, if Rizzo wants to remain a Yankee, he has a definite offer on the table, and the Yankees may even be willing to discuss a longer extension if they feel as if Judge won’t be returning.
But let's say for the sake of this argument that Rizzo decides not to return to the Yankees. He declines the Qualifying Offer and signs a contract with another team (hopefully not an AL East team). How will the Yankees fill in the hole at first base? First, let’s look at what the Yankees currently have to work with.
After the Yankees announced that Josh Donaldson will be the third baseman for the Yankees in 2023, this leaves some possibilities open as to what happens in the infield. Just a reminder, this is not exactly how I want things to look, but this is what a realistic scenario could look like. On Opening Day, the Yankees will have Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa at third base and shortstop, while Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu could take over at second base and first base, respectively.
Even if the Yankees decide to trade Torres, whose name has appeared on the trade market rumors yet again, Oswald Peraza could be a player that could shift Kiner-Falefa to second base, even though he has not played that position since 2018. Oswaldo Cabrera also played all four infield positions for the Yankees and could be an option to fill in for Rizzo at first, or be the backup to LeMahieu. Nonetheless, the Yankees have options if they decide to trade Torres.
If the Yankees are unable to re-sign Rizzo, the move that looks the most ideal would be to start LeMahieu at first base. LeMahieu’s biggest concern coming into the 2023 season is whether or not that right foot/toe injury has healed. He missed some time down the stretch and did not appear in the post-season for the Yankees, and did not seem to suggest that surgery was going to be the correct method to heal the injury.
Regardless of the injury, LeMahieu is entering his age-35 season and still has four years remaining on his contract. He can still be an extremely reliable fielder for the Yankees, and will also be the best option at first base. Just remember, this is only based on what the Yankees currently have for next season and does not include free agents.
Jose Abreu and Josh Bell top the list of the best free agent first basemen, while Trey Mancini also is looking for a new team after winning a World Series ring with the Astros. Abreu continues to put up excellent numbers entering his age-36 season, but he will likely command a short-term contract with a high AAV, which the Yankees may not be in play for.
Bell is an intriguing option for several reasons, given he is a younger player that is a switch-hitter. It seems as if the Padres are going to attempt to keep the first baseman they acquired at the Trade Deadline last season along with Juan Soto, even though he struggled in the second half of the season. However, he has shown that he can be a good hitter in this league.
Mancini struggled in the second half of the season with the Astros, but managed to finish his season with a World Series ring. While Mancini may not be a full-time first baseman, he is a player that can play several positions very well. In 264 career games at first base, he has committed only seven errors and has continued to improve at first base over the years. While Mancini has not been the same player he was before missing the 2020 season due to colon cancer, he can still be a valuable player on many teams.
While there are still a few options for free agent first basemen, the Yankees still may decide to stay internally and start LeMahieu at first base if they cannot agree to terms with Rizzo. While it would be tough to watch Rizzo sign with another team, the Yankees are already prepared in case that day does come. Hopefully, the Yankees can keep Rizzo, but in case they cannot, they should already be prepared with how the approach the hole that will be created.