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How The Yankees Can Fix Their Problems (Continuing A Series)

How The Yankees Can Fix Their Problems (Pt. 5)

By Cary Greene

March 26, 2022

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This series of articles are meant to be part of an outside the box piece intended to present some solutions to Yankee problems that might not cost Hal Steinbrenner much money at all, yet wind up providing some phenomenal solutions for Aaron Boone and company. I call it How the Yankees Can Fix Their Problems!

My first call out was to go to a six-man rotation, using Jonathan Loaisiga as an uber opener, trading Jameson Taillon for a high leverage reliever and then trading for the A’s Sean Manaea. These moves make the Yankee rotation more left handed and more playoff worthy and also fortify the Yankee bullpen.

Coupled with trading Taillon, the Yankees would become decidedly left handed in the starting pitching department and with all the right handed relievers currently in the fold, the Yankees would have become much harder to deal with for visiting teams eyeing to win a series on the road, at Yankee Stadium.

Long-time reader fuster suggested that instead of trading for Manaea only, that the trade should be expanded to include Manaea and Oakland’s A.J. Puk, which I think is a brilliant solution on two fronts. Manaea is a powerful lefty and he eats innings and Puk is a high-upside lefty reliever with a blazing fastball, who is only 27 and would come with 5 years of team control.

The biggest drawback to Puk is that he’s had some major health related issues, which have caused him to miss 118 games since 2020. Previously, I noted that trading for PUK would be a big gamble for sure, but it’s one the Yankees can and probably should consider doing. If the goal is to win a World Series, the Yankees will need to take a few calculated risks that of course would need to pan out.

The trade I proposed would like this:

Yankees Get: LHSP Sean Manaea, 1-year of Team Control +10.2 Million and LHRP A.J. Puk, 2-years of Options remaining with 5-years Team Control

A’s Get: RHSP Clarke Schmidt, Triple-A with 2 years of Options remaining with 5 years of Team Control, SS Alexander Vargas Rookie Level Prospect (eligible for Rule 5 Draft after the season) and RHSP Hayden Wesneski (eligible for Rule 5 Draft after the season)

Executing all of these moves gives the Yankees a vastly improved starting rotation and it would be a rotation that could wreak havoc in the playoffs. I’ve described these moves as “Reverse Engineering” a Championship. A starting rotation with a strong 1-2-3 would be very hard for playoff opponents to contend with. Cole-Severino-Loaisiga would form as formidable a trio as exists in all of baseball. That is the desired “End.” The “Means” used to get there would involve eating innings and being a very left-handed rotation otherwise. That’s where Manaea, Montgomery and Cortes Jr all factor in, fortified by Mike King.

Protecting Loaisiga and Severino would be a big factor if this plan were implemented and the move to a six-man rotation facilitates this. Severino will be on an innings limit and Loaisiga would never pitch more than 3 to 5 innings during the regular season. Any game where Loaisiga pitched two or more innings, opposed to just one, puts the Yankees much further ahead during the regular season and doing this gradually builds him up without over-taxing him as was done in the past – when he was much more vulnerable having had a few fairly recent injuries that he had rehabbed from at the time. Replacing Loaisiga’s high leverage role in the bullpen would be easily done by trading Taillon, who as I’ve pointed out previously, probably doesn’t factor into the team’s long term plans anyways and who also has a pretty strong trade value in what is a pitching deprived market. There is a ton more demand currently than there is supply. My next order of business was to offer an internal solution that would fix center field and cement the outfield without spending a nickel. In this plan, Joey Gallo became the de facto center fielder, while Aaron Judge moved from right field to left field and Giancarlo Stanton could be used much more in right field. This unit would be buttressed by Aaron Hicks, who would be the teams 4th outfielder and see time at all three outfield positions.

With the starting rotation and the outfield taken care of, the next order of business I explored was balancing the lineup by adding Kyle Schwarber, who would have slotted in between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup. That option is now off the table as the Phillies announced this week that they’ve signed Schwarber for 4-years and $79 million. Cashman meanwhile elected to sign the declining Anthony Rizzo in order to address the lack of left-handedness in the team he has built and also provide adequate defense at first base.

In many respects Rizzo is a decent solution for the time being and historically, he does hit right handed pitching very well, tallying a .273 average across 3,691 career at-bats spanning a career of 11-years to date. I have noted in past articles however, that Rizzo was awful at it last year for some reason against righties, posting by far a career-low .214 mark against them, while simultaneously crushing left-handed pitching to the tune of a .325 average.

Isiah Kiner Felefa, a right-handed slap-hitter, fares pretty well against right-handed pitching so he’s a classic Brian Cashman type pick up. For his career, he’s hit .266 against righties and last year, he bumped that mark up to .289.

What is nice about Rizzo is that he is historically a dead-pull hitter, unless he needs to take the ball the other way versus a shift or perhaps with men on base in a key spot where advancing a runner is crucial to the situational at-bat. For his career, Rizzo’s batted balls wind up being pulled 44.2% of the time and 33.7% of his batted balls are of the hard-hit variety. These numbers are similar in fact to Matt Olson by the way, for those that think Rizzo’s profile is inferior, I’d point out that he is in fact very similar to Olson.

Rizzo is a good candidate to take advantage of the short porch in the Bronx over the course of a full season and his defense, while declining, is still fairly acceptable. He posted an UZR/150 of .1 last season, which means he’s decent, but no longer elite around the bag at first base. Perhaps he just had an off year though because, normally, he’s an excellent defensive first baseman, in fact he’s very comparable to Olson defensively as well, if we look at Rizzo’s year over year Defensive results. Rizzo could very well return to normal this season and that would be very good news for the Yankees.

Assuming Rizzo and Gallo serve to balance the lineup a bit, the Yankees will need more help than just this tandem to achieve actual balance. Against right-handed pitching, well balanced teams can bring four to five left-handed hitters into the mix at any given time and seeing as how the Yankees do play in a stadium with a very short fence in right field, it sure would make a ton of sense for Cashman to continue shaping the roster to ensure more left-handed presence is available to Aaron Boone, who absolutely likes to alternate righties and lefties when he makes out his lineup cards.

Perhaps Aaron Hicks will be able to contribute meaningful innings this season, though he’s only once in his career ever had more than 400 at-bats (480 in 2018). His numbers against right-handed pitching are alarmingly bad, he only hit .173 against righties last year, from the left-side of the plate. That’s not going to help with balance and in fact, if this trend continues, Aaron Hicks will do the opposite, he’ll make the Yankees worse against right-handed pitching.

The Yankees made a relatively quiet move earlier this month, giving a non-roster invite to 33 year-old switch-hitting utility infielder-outfielder Marwin Gonzalez. Gonzalez has proven to be effective over his career against right-handed pitching, posting a .254 average, but he’s struggled the past few seasons so Yankees will probably see him as a depth piece and there is a chance Gonzalez could earn a roster spot coming out of Spring Training.

The Yankees also acquired left-hand hitting catcher Ben Rortvedt in the Josh Donaldson, Isaiah Kiner-Falefel trade, so there is a potential that the Yankees might open the season with Gallo, Rizzo, Hicks and Gonzalez, then mix Rortvedt in when he heals from his oblique injury. This would mean, once the season is rolling along, the Yankees could have 5 left-handed bats to call on when balance is needed.

No team in baseball would benefit more from quality left-handed hitting. Is this collection of left-handed bats going to create enough balance over the course of a full season, to help the Yankees win a World Series? I think the clear answer here is that this group, while better than what the team had brought to bare last year, could absolutely use additional help. If we turn our gaze internally, there are potentially some other solutions that could help the Yankees not only early in the season, but in the bigger, long-term picture as well.

The first intriguing player is one that might provide more immediate help. 31 year-old left-hand hitting center fielder Ender Inciarte is also in camp this spring on a non-roster invite. It is possible he too could open the season with the big league team. Inciarte gives the Yankees what they badly lack, which is speed and he is an excellent defensive center fielder who can also play both corner outfield positions. In 2018, Inciarte – then with the Braves – posted a 16 DRS and a 7.4 UZR/150. Obviously he’s fallen off substantially offensively since then but he can still pick it with the best of them and he’s an incredibly good base runner. With 118 career stolen bases while only getting 45 caught times, Inciarte represents a base running dynamic that could pare nicely with the next player I’ll mention.

Another possible option is that the Yankees have 30 year-old right-hand hitting corner outfielder Tim Locastro signed for this season. If Cashman decides to add him based on speed, that could add a component that the team badly needs as well. Locastro is possibly the fastest player in baseball.

Rosters are expanded for the beginning of the season to account for the lockout shortened Spring Training. The Yankees likely will carry 15 pitchers and 13 position players. This means a four-man bench might be in play. The Yankees will surely carry a backup catcher, probably Rob Brantley, who is also in camp on a non-roster invite. Brantley makes a lot of sense because he hits left-handed so Aaron Boone can platoon him with Kyle Higashioka depending on pitching matchups. Tim Locastro would project to be the 4th Outfielder and then the Yankees might carry Marwin Gonzalez as the Utility player and add Inciarte as a 5th outfielder for times when Aaron Boone needs more left-handed hitting.

Heading into the offseason, Brain Cashman had an opportunity to improve on what was a very underwhelming offense last season. Not only did the Yankees have the worst left-handed hitting in all of baseball prior to the Trade Deadline last year, but the Yankees finished last in baseball at avoiding hitting into Double-Plays, posting a league worst -11.4 wGDP.

Yankee fans knew that players like Freddie Freeman or Kyle Schwarber would have helped in numerous ways and a byproduct would have been their ability to avoid hitting into Double-Plays. Unfortunately, the price tags were deemed too steep so Cashman went other directions and though he offloaded some rally-killing players like Gio Urshela and Gary Sanchez, what he got back was even worse in this department.

Cashman took the more fiscally responsible route and as we discussed, he added Anthony Rizzo, despite his age and recently his declining stats. Besides the declining production, a red flag that goes up related to this signing is that Rizzo is also a hitter who is prone to bouncing into Double-Plays (-1.3 GDP last year). Cashman also traded for Josh Donaldson (-3.2 wGDP), Isaiah Kiner-Falefa (-0.1wGDP) and Ben Rortvedt (-0.3 wGDP). The net result is that Rizzo and Donaldson, two players who absolutely hit into too many Double-Plays, will both combine to pick up where Gio Urshela (-1.9 wGDP last season) and Gary Sanchez (-1.2 wGDP) left off.

Many of the teams the Yankees compete against regularly in the American League East have taken to game planning against the Yankees by stacking right-handed relievers. This has been going on for 5 years now. One would hope that Cashman is aware of this, but it does appear that he still doesn’t quite grasp the concept. There are however some things to like about Rizzo, signing him wasn’t a terrible move. It also just might work out given that the Yankees have a number of fast, left-handed depth pieces who they could call up when needed to piece together effective lineups for difficult to navigate stretches of the schedule.

Shifts will also be banned in 2023! However, this dastardly defensive tactic appears to still be in play for the coming season. Rizzo is at least shift-proof and for a lumbering lefty, that’s a good thing. He hits .285 against the shift throughout his career. Meanwhile, Donaldson is also shift proof. He has hit .302 for his career against shifts. This represents a bit of an upgrade in the success against shifts department. Urshela was also good against shifts, as any Yankee fan would know, he has hit .288 against shifts throughout his career. Sanchez only hit .245 against shifts for his career, but given that his career average is only .230, I suppose we could say he’s better against shifts than he is when defenses play him straight-away. It does look like the Yankees will be a bit better off in this department for the coming season.

Add in Kiner-Felafa’s ability to destroy shifts (.330 career average against shifts) and the makings are there for a team that is still very comfortable when shifted against, for the most part.

Fans that lament that the Yankees strike out too much will be happy to hear that Josh Donaldson has a career 20% K-Rate which is on par with Urshela’s 19.5% and far better than Sanchez’s 26.5%, which isn’t that horrendous by the way. When we factor in Kiner-Falefa’s excellent 15.5% K-Rate and Rortvedt’s way-too-high 29.6% rate, we can say that overall, the Yankees may be a bit better off here as well.

Avoiding strikeouts is one of Rizzo’s best offensive attributes. He often chokes up and makes contact when the chips are down and the team needs runners advanced. He usually walks a lot as well and has excellent awareness of the strike zone. Last year his walk rate dipped but all projections indicate a return to his normal 10.2%-ish stat line.

Is Rizzo Kyle Schwarber? Nope, but remember, Schwarber was pretty expensive and he can’t play the field worth a bean. Is he Freddie Freeman? Uh, no, he is not. What Rizzo is – is a good fit for the Yankees at first base. Many Yankee fans wanted more here, but Cashman did his due diligence and Rizzo is the player he settled on.

Rizzo can bat third, between Judge and Stanton in the lineup. Because of his negative splits against right handed pitchers last year, he might not be an ideal fit for this task, but if he returns to career norms, he can more than handle the job. Joey Gallo is a poor fit for this task due to his high strikeout rate (34%) and his .198 average against righties. Thankfully, the Yankees were able to sign Rizzo and my friends, this might turn out to be a massively important pickup if the Yankees are to win a World Series championship.

Cashman decided to sell low on Luke Voit, believing he got an undervalued prospect, minor league power-pitcher Justin Lange and perhaps the real reason for the trade, the Yankees basically got $5.5 million in salary relief as well. Many Yankee fans were dreaming of splashy free agents but the reality was, the Yankees were gasping for payroll relief and dumping a skilled offensive player for what amounts to a lottery concern.

It was an ugly end to Luke Voit’s tenure with the Yankees, one many Luke Voit fans will be forever disappointed with. That said, Voit now has a chance to carry on with the Padres, who are truly starving for offensive production. I think the Padres won this trade easily, but time will tell.

Yankee fans know very well that Voit gets on base with the best of them and his .307 average against shifts might have come in quite handy this season out of the DH spot for the Yankees. Voit takes the ball the other way naturally as a byproduct of his swing. He has a 27% career strikeout rate and he’s an on base machine. (.357 Career OBP). Obviously, to get Voit’s bat into the lineup, the Yankees would have needed play Stanton in the outfield a lot more than perhaps is in the cards. Rather than sell low out of desperation, I had hoped that the Yankees would let Voit’s market self-correct. Projections seem to think it will. There would have been plenty of National League teams starved for a good DH come the trade Deadline, so the decision to trade him was more a byproduct of the Yankees philosophy regarding Giancarlo Stanton. They view him as a super expensive DH who they plan to use sparingly in the outfield.

The plan the Yankees are executing is starting to take shape. The team may carry 4 bench players and 15 pitchers. DJ LeMahieu will be the first Yankee I can ever remember who might be a starter without an actual everyday position. I expect Boone to flex him all over the place and this is not limited to the start of games. LeMahieu may very well change positions multiple times during the course of games. Let’s assume DJ is a starter, because he’s a high OBP% player when healthy, though the Yankees lack a prototypical leadoff hitter with speed, he’s the best option the Yankees have to pencil into the leadoff spot.

What then does the lineup look like? Will the team have enough left-handed hitting to get them through the season and into the playoffs? The Jumbo Package lineup would look like this:

1. LeMahieu 2B-3B-1B

2. Judge LF

3. Rizzo 1B

4. Stanton RF-DH

5. Donaldson 3B (possibly hitting 6th)

6. Gallo CF/LF (possibly hitting 5th)

7. Torres DH/Hicks CF

8. Higgy/Rortvedt C platoon

9. Falefa SS

BENCH: Locastro or Inciarte, 4th OF, Rortvedt C, Hicks UOF, Gonzalez UIF/UOF

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