SSTN Mailbag: Left Field Malaise, Luxury Tax Implications, And Austin Wells (Again)!
Last week, I was full of positivity and light as I awaited the coming of baseball and recognized that pitchers and catchers would report in less than a month. Since last week, we've seen multiple news reports about Yankees' ownership pulling the strings again on the payroll despite the fact that Cashman sounds relatively desperate about wanting to upgrade in the outfield. We have a question about it in the Mailbag below, but consistent discussion about the Yankees' adherence to the Luxury Tax just puts a complete damper on my personal enjoyment of the game. I think I will always root for the Yankees (after all, I was dressed in pinstripes almost immediately after my birth, as was my daughter when she was born), but ownership's false narratives about the economics of the game combined with MLB's anti-trust exemption that gives them absurd amounts of latitude in their financial maneuverings really puts a damper on my enjoyment of the Major League game sometimes.
As much as I follow and love the product on the field at the Major League level, it occurred to me the other day that I haven't been to a game at Yankee Stadium since 2018. While owners cry poverty, it's easily a $200 trip all-in for my wife and I to go to a game crossing over the river from the Jersey side if we bought the cheapest seats in the park. I'm not likely to find ways to justify further enriching Yankees' ownership by purchasing seats in the near future. In recent years, I find myself gravitating far more to the minor leagues (both affiliated and independent) and premium amateur summer ball. I'll happily spend $20-$30 in ticket prices or donation fees to sit behind home plate and enjoy the game played well by people chasing their dream. In fact, I think I'm every bit as excited to watch the New Jersey Jackals play in their new home at Hinchcliffe Stadium (a recently restored former Negro League ballpark in Paterson, NJ) as I am to watch the Yankees on TV this summer.
Sentiments like mine fall on deaf ears in MLB ownership circles, and they don't particularly care whether diehards like me pay to come to a game as long as they maintain their lucrative corporate sponsorships, regional TV deals, and corporate season ticket holders. But, the commissioner consistently talks about MLB's struggles to grow the game, and even (stupidly and callously) blamed the game's biggest star, in part, for that struggle. He only needs to look to the 30 fat cats on behalf of whom he slavishly lobbies for why MLB can't grow the game...unless you're a gambler; the commissioner and team owners have worked tirelessly and effectively to grow the game on that side of the aisle.
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 left field in it's current state, the implications of the Luxury Tax thresholds on the 2023 Yankees, and revisit last week's discussion about Austin Wells. Let's get at it:
Ray asks: At this point, let's assume the Yankees don't acquire another option to start in left field on opening day. Of the current options, what makes the most sense? Florial, Hicks, or Cabrera? Or one of the other minor league signings? Cashman indicated Hicks...
I've often reiterated that there was a time when Brian Cashman confidently stated that Bubba Crosby would be the starting centerfielder for the New York Yankees on Opening Day. As we all recall, Johnny Damon was plucked from the Boston Red Sox and we really never heard much about Bubba Crosby ever again.
I will admit that maybe I've been too optimistic that Brian Cashman would be able to create some space beneath the final luxury tax tier this offseason ($293 million, and the Yankees are less than $1 million away from it by most calculations), which is clearly key in the Yankees' ability to add a left fielder before the start of the season. Now, it is possible for something to shake loose between now and Opening Day, just as it's possible that maybe someone will watch one of Aaron Hicks and Josh Donaldson in Spring Training and believe that a modest bounce-back is on the way which would enable a trade to move at least a little bit of salary off of the books, but we are reaching the place where that is probably not likely in the next two months. That doesn't mean something won't happen during the season, and I'd argue that it's far more important for the Yankees to make moves at the Trade Deadline as they hunt a World Series championship this year than it is to have a complete team at the beginning of the year. The Yankees have enough to be one of the best teams in MLB during the regular season; they'll need a bit more come playoff time.
You and everyone else will likely hate this answer: of the guys currently on the roster and in the pipeline, one of Aaron Hicks or Oswaldo Cabrera likely makes the most sense in left field. From a matchup standpoint, both Cabrera and Hicks are switch hitters who have histories of producing from the left side. I am personally intrigued by Cabrera, as I believe that he can be a plus defensive outfielder in both outfield corners with reps, and I've always been the high man on his offensive profile dating back to his time in A-ball. I'd love for Cabrera to show up to Spring Training and just force the Yankees' hand into finding him everyday reps.
I have also always been the high man on Aaron Hicks, and that obviously failed spectacularly last season. His performance was awful overall, and though his defense in left field was largely an asset, his frustrations got the best of him and effort was an issue in spectacular fashion in the late summer in 2022.
Despite all of that, that doesn't mean Hicks can't be part of the early season solution in left field in 2023, or as a fourth outfielder should someone better (internally or externally) come along. How would you feel about someone with these numbers manning left field while playing average or better defense:
Player A: .306/.426/.367, .794 OPS, 16.1% BB%, 14.5% K%
Player B: .247/.356/.364, .719 OPS, 12.2% BB%, 23.3% K%
Player C: .275/.412/.478, .890 OPS, 18.8% BB%, 17.5% K%
We'd all sign up for Player A or C, and given the current options, we'd be over the moon if that player batted left-handed. All of the above get on-base at decent clips and they all exhibit elite plate discipline. Player C is clearly the best of all worlds, but we'd settle for any of them.
Player A is Aaron Hicks in April 2022; Player B is Aaron Hicks in June 2022; Player C is Aaron Hicks in July 2022. We forget that Aaron Hicks was actually a key part of the Yankees' early season offensive success, and it wasn't because he was hitting for power. He was getting on-base, working at-bats, and doing basically what the Yankees traded for Andrew Benintendi to do. The problem was Hicks was in centerfield much of the time, where he wasn't very good defensively, which tanked his overall value.
I can't pretend that May and August didn't exist in 2022; they did. But Hicks is also one more year removed from a serious wrist injury that players always say takes more than a year to rebuild wrist and hand strength. If Hicks maintains plate discipline and shows a bit more pop (think an ISO of .130-.160), then he's a nice left-handed bat for the bottom of the lineup against right-handed pitching.
Maybe I'm nuts, but the combination of a hopefully improved Oswaldo Cabrera and Aaron Hicks might not be that bad in left field, at least to start the season. In fact, numbers like what I listed above are exactly what the Yankees have been hunting all offseason (and by the way, would justify Hicks' salary over a full season).
Brian asks: How do you feel about the fact that the Yankees again are allowing the luxury tax to negatively affect their quest for a championship? There's no room now for a left fielder, but will it also mean that the team can't acquire a necessary piece to the puzzle at the deadline?
Brian, you are 100% right on with how you feel. Hal Steinbrenner told us it would be different this time, and maybe his idea of different is paying a bit more tax again by signing one additional big time player. I really wonder what the internal budget discussions look like; Brian Cashman has said in the past that he isn't given a specific budget, and if that's still the case, that's a serious problem, because it hamstrings the GM's ability to do his job.
I have serious doubts the Yankees can make significant additions to the roster as needed if $293 million is really the budget. Will Hal relent in the event that the right piece frees up? Will he require Cashman to deal salary, good or bad, to make the numbers work? I have no idea. I want to believe that Hal's adherence to artificial barriers won't hinder the Yankees, but I can't help but think that's a lie.
The Yankees have already had their 1st round draft pick in this year's draft moved back by 10; all it costs is money to move past this next luxury tax tier. It's ridiculous that hasn't happened yet.
JMan asks: After your mailbag post about Austin Wells, he was interviewed and seemed determined to remain a catcher. What do you think about that?
The best difference Wells can make is with his bat, and this team desperately needs left-handed pop, and is firmly inside a championship window. The Yankees should do everything they can to expedite the process of getting Wells' bat to the Majors. Keeping him at catcher, where Wells will never be more than below-average even in a world with an electronic strike zone, is antithetical to the Yankees' championship goals and expediting Wells' development with the bat. I stand by what I said last week.