SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Sanchez/Urshela Trade, LeMahieu’s Role, A Path Forward At 1B, And Rizzo&#
By Andy Singer
Wow, what a busy week. I knew that the first full week of Spring Training would be crazy with a flurry of transactions around baseball, but it’s taken a lot of work to keep up with all of the player movement around the league, not to mention sorting through the rumor mill. It’s great to finally have the focus back on the field after months of talking about everything but what happens on the field in an MLB game. While later than usual, I did finally get to play “Centerfield” by John Fogerty when players reported to camp on Sunday. Baseball will feel all the more real when I play it again on the morning of Opening Day in April. The Yankees may not be quite finished in their roster building efforts just yet, but this year’s roster already looks better and more well-rounded than the one that was fielded for much of last summer. I still think it made sense to acquire one of Story or Correa (I preferred Story) and figure out the positions later when/if the kids are ready, but I think this roster is competitive with the best in the league. I’ll reserve final judgement until the roster is finalized to begin the season, but I like this roster even without a shiny new free agent toy.
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 the trade that sent Sanchez and Urshela to Minnesota, DJ LeMahieu’s role, a path forward at first base, and Anthony Rizzo’s splits! Let’s get at it:
Tom asks: Knee-jerk reaction – do you like the Sanchez/Urshela deal?
My knee jerk reaction was one of shock. When the Yankees didn’t acquire any of the readily available catching on the market prior to the lockout, I was sure that Sanchez would stick around in his final season of team control. In the immediacy of the morning after the trade, I really didn’t like taking on Donaldson’s contract, and the thought of a Higgy/Rortvedt defensive platoon at catcher conjured images of the season Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli, and a not-so-lovable band of transient catchers formed a hodgepodge at the position prior to Brian McCann’s arrival. While Urshela is a replaceable third baseman, especially now that he will begin to get more expensive, I loved his energy and smile around the ballpark. Some of the pieces also seemed to be a strange fit. Initially, I noted in the SSTN Comments Section that I was underwhelmed by the deal, noting that the Yankees have more to accomplish.
However, by the end of that first morning, I liked the deal the more I thought about it. Isiah Kiner-Falefa was my first choice as a stopgap shortstop this season, and Donaldson still has tons of bat speed and pop while playing solid defense at the hot corner. Both are likely significant upgrades on the left side of the infield over 2021 while improving the team defensively. There may even be more to Rortvedt as well…so yes, I think without getting into any of my usual statistical analysis, I like the deal.
Fuster asks: try thinking of this as no more than the Yankees deciding that Sanchez had failed and had to be dealt.
did they get a good return for him?
Fuster did his best to talk me off of the ledge that first morning after Sanchez and Urshela were dealt. I recognize that I too often viewed Gary Sanchez’s potential contributions in the last season or two through rose colored glasses, but his offensive potential remains. The reality is that his value had diminished significantly given his defensive struggles that leave his career as a catcher in question, and his stunning decline in making consistently hard contact. 2021 was possibly his worst season in all of those departments, because at least we could discount some of his struggles in 2020 to the oddities that came from a pandemic-shortened season. Even despite all of that, I maintain that Gary Sanchez will perform significantly better away from the incessant pressure brought by the New York media, and completely expect him to put together a powerful offensive performance in Minnesota. I’ll happily root for him from afar.
However, the Yankees did a fantastic job in this deal. Sanchez is in his Free Agent walk year while Urshela is about to get more expensive through his arbitration years just as he likely hits his decline phase. Steamer has their projected combined contribution in 2022 pegged at 2.7 fWAR while ZiPS is a little more bullish at 3.6 fWAR. Steamer projects the combination of Donaldson, Kiner-Falefa, and Rortvedt to be worth 6.8 fWAR, while ZiPS has their total value at 7.0 fWAR. Given the short-term nature of this deal for both sides, I think the advantage swings far enough in favor of the Yankees in year 1 that any return in year 2 on paper doesn’t make up for that first year. The Yankees extracted more value for Sanchez and Urshela than I thought possible (though taking on all of Donaldson’s contract likely helped in that regard).
To sum it all up: Cashman did a great job here.
Michael S. asks: Can you help me understand why DJ LeMahieu is the odd man out? He’s better offensively than Gleyber Torres, even in a down year playing injured. Better defensively than Torres. Yet DJL is likely to start the season on the bench. What am I not getting here?
First off, I don’t think that DJ LeMahieu is going to wind up being an odd man out. I think what we are going to find is that the Yankees have a significantly more flexible, variable lineup than the Yankees of our recent past had. DJ LeMahieu can still be an excellent player, and I expect some rebound from last season. That being said, I think there is a ton of value in letting DJ LeMahieu play all over the infield as a super utility player that plays 4+ days per week, rotating between 1B (against left-handed starting pitchers), 3B, 2B, and DH. The Yankees are going to work harder to rest guys and keep them fresh and healthy in 2022, so there will be plenty of at-bats for DJ LeMahieu. In fact, between the standard rotation and inevitable injury fill-ins, I expect DJ LeMahieu to get 500+ at-bats this season.
DJ LeMahieu is a versatile puzzle piece that doesn’t need to be chained to a single position. Gleyber Torres is a full-time second baseman, and should only play the left side of the infield in an emergency scenario, so he’s a poor fit for an expanded utility role. Beyond that, I think there is good reason to expect some bounce-back from Gleyber. I noted it a few times last year, but Torres’ offensive numbers were climbing out of the cellar even prior to his move off of shortstop, and he quietly put together a sold second half offensively, batting .289/.338/.456. The projection systems illustrate the fact that DJ and Gleyber project to be pretty close in total value at this point as well:
DJLM: Steamer – 113 wRC+/2.1 fWAR; ZiPS – 107 wRC+/3.4 fWAR
Torres: Steamer – 117 wRC+/3.5 fWAR; ZiPS – 108 wRC+/2.6 fWAR
I think Torres still has enough upside that the Yankees owe it to themselves and Torres to see if he can come around as a full-time second baseman, particularly when LeMahieu has such value to the team as a jack-of-all-trades, as intended when he was originally signed.
Fuster asks: my question concerns first base…. if we assume that Freeman is going to require $30+M/season for 6 or 7 seasons, and that the Yankees don’t pony up, will the team be best served by signing Rizzo or by trying to trade for Votto and his two year contract?
Well, it didn’t cost that much for Freeman, but the whispers around the league are that he didn’t want to play in New York. Given that Rizzo has an opt-out after this year, I’m going to hope that he’s motivated enough to have a dead cat bounce and put up a year closer to his early career numbers. I’m not sure that Votto’s changes at the plate to regain value are sustainable, and I prefer Rizzo’s defensive profile at this point. Signing Rizzo gives the Yanks more flexibility, so as much as I would have preferred Freeman, I’ll settle for Rizzo.
A Concerned Yankee Fan asks: Anthony Rizzo hits .273 for his career vs righties and .256 against lefties. Last year, he hit .214 vs righties and .325 vs lefties. What happened? Should we expect more of the same or a return to the norm? Last year, Rizzo was awful against righties.
Nothing more than small sample size noise…I hope. I didn’t see anything mechanically that looked different in reviewing video against lefties in 2021 versus previous seasons, so I think it’s just random weirdness.
If it continues again, we have a problem, because Rizzo’s usefulness goes out the window if he can’t hit righties.