SSTN Mailbag: Left Field, Bullpen, and Top Prospects!
The Winter Meetings in recent years have been something of a snooze fest. Sure, the Rule 5 Draft happens, we get tons of rumors, and there is usually a trade or two, but the big free agents generally wait to sign until the calendar turns to the New Year. Well, that didn't happen in 2022. Not only did the top free agent, Aaron Judge, sign his own record-breaking deal, but many of the top free agents signed as well. Judge aside, I think most reasonable prognosticators have been light on the number of years and contract totals for most of the big free agents this offseason. The relative rapid pace of the Winter Meetings and the high contract totals are a function of what I've been saying for years: baseball's owners are flush with cash, and have been using the luxury tax thresholds as incredibly arbitrary ceilings for player payrolls for years. It proves that players were right to push for a significant raise in those luxury tax thresholds, as teams have shown eagerness to jump up to each new stratosphere. With more money under their caps, teams do not view $250+ million contracts (that will surely be problematic on the back end) as albatrosses anymore given how high baseball payrolls will likely rise by the time those contracts look bad. Revenue splits had clearly shifted out of alignment, and as fans, we're reaping the benefits of the adjustment back to a state of stasis.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll talk about budget options for left field, the bullpen, and the timeline for some top prospects! Let's get at it:
Sean asks: If the Yankees sign Aaron Judge to a contract that will likely carry an average annual value of $35 to $40 million dollars, it doesn't seem like there will be enough money in the budget to get both a frontline starter and a premium left fielder without a costly trade. Which would you prefer to see the Yankees find a diamond in the rough, left field or starting pitcher, that would be cost effective?
For me, the top free agent remaining that makes the most realistic sense for the Yankees if we assume the budget is $293 million is Carlos Rodon. I loved him when he was non-tendered by the White Sox a couple of seasons ago, and he's done nothing but be an elite left-handed starter who has finally put together two relatively full seasons of health. Rodon is a bulldog on the mound who reportedly wants to pitch for the Yankees, with a wicked fastball-slider combination that will keep him effective even if he has to shift to the bullpen eventually due to durability. He's the missing piece to the rotation puzzle, and I think he'd give the Yankees the best top-bottom rotation in baseball. So, I'm going budget in left field.
I don't want to get into it too much here (as I'll answer in greater depth with a question below), but I don't think the Yankees should tie up the outfield for too many years. I think Benintendi is going to get 3+ years in this market, and I think he's due for negative BABIP-fueled regression offensively, so I'd pass there. Bryan Reynolds comes with multiple years of team control and will likely be very expensive, costing one of the Yankees' top prospects as a centerpiece, in all likelihood, so I don't know that Reynolds is realistic either.
That whittles it down to two options for me: Michael Brantley and Michael Conforto.
Brantley is an easy one. He's not a great defender anymore, but he does one important thing at an elite level: the man just flat out rakes. He lasers line drives all over the field while batting left handed, and nothing in his profiles suggests this will change any time soon, despite his age. Brantley is coming off of season-ending shoulder surgery, so I have a hunch his market will be a bit depressed. The Yankees need a left-handed contact bat to hit in front of Judge and Stanton, so I'd be willing to go 1-2 years for Brantley at $12-14 million.
Conforto is the more exciting case, in my opinion. Conforto missed all of the 2022 season recovering from shoulder surgery, which I actually take as a positive. There were whispers that Conforto would try to return at mid-season, but coming back early from shoulder surgery can be the kiss of death for a hitter (see: Bird, Greg). Prior to 2022, Conforto had one of his worst seasons at the plate in his career, but even despite that, he was still an above-average hitter in the aggregate while playing through multiple nagging injuries.
From his rookie season in 2015-2020, Conforto produced a 128 OPS+ with consistently high walk rates and significant power from the left side. Additionally, both DRS and OAA have been very positive about his limited work in LF. Conforto was miscast as a centerfielder for much of his time with the Mets, but he profiles very well LF, with good jumps, routes, and a strong arm to boot. Even with injury issues in 2021 and 2022, I'd be willing to take a chance on Conforto in 2023, as the commitment will likely be relatively light and short-term.
Mike asks: How do you feel about the bullpen right now and do the Yankees need more back there?
I wanted a bullpen arm prior to the Kahnle signing. Originally, I would have loved to see Rafael Montero come to town, but the Astros locked him up long-term during the exclusive negotiating window after the World Series. I think it's been lost in the shuffle since Judge re-signed, but Kahnle was just about unhittable with the Dodgers in an admittedly limited sample size of 13 appearances. However, his stuff, particularly his change-up, was as good as it has ever been, even with slightly diminished fastball velocity. Even his velocity might tick up a bit with a regular offseason to build without surgical recovery to deal with.
As long as Holmes and Loaisiga get back to form, and Michael King returns to health, I think this is as good a bullpen as there is in baseball. The Yankees badly needed to replace Chad Green. Signing Kahnle does that effectively, I think.
David asks: I've been following the comments section and it seems like you're in favor of a short-term option in left field. Who do you see coming on the farm in 2024-2025?
Jasson Dominguez went from being over-hyped to almost certainly under-hyped. I think it is difficult to overstate just how good his 2022 season was as a 19 year old prospect. He continued to get better as the year went on, batting .306/.397/.510 with 6 HR and 17 stolen bases in 18 attempts in just 157 ABs. He even earned a late season promotion to AA, where he was almost 5 years younger than the competition around him. I would not be surprised to see Dominguez in the top-25 prospects in baseball on some lists this offseason. Dominguez showed a more toned, baseball body in 2022, and he was noticeably improved in the outfield and on the bases, where his raw tools became game tools. He made significantly more contact in the air, which allowed his raw power to show up in games. Dominguez is likely to begin the year in AA, and if he reaches AAA in 2023, he is on the radar to arrive in 2024.
Everson Pereira is another guy who fell under the radar after a slow start to the season, but his loud tools remained. After a poor May, Pereira just continued to get better, finishing his season at AA with a .283/.342/.504 batting line with 5 homers. He strikes out a bit too much, but his power, arm from an outfield corner, and feel to make contact are real. Like Dominguez, he is also on the radar for an arrival in 2024.