The Infield Logjam
Updated: Dec 25, 2022
by Cary Greene
December 24, 2022
How should the Yankees Proceed with Gleyber Torres, D.J. LeMahieu, Isaiah Kiner-Flafea, Josh Donaldson, Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe? Who should the Starting Players be? Who, if any, should be Traded? What would I do if I were the GM?
Every offseason, Yankees GM Brian Cashman works the roster to a point that winds up being very far from where I would have liked the roster to have been steered if I were the GM.
This year, it didn’t take long for things to get to this point, as I thought Cashman made his first critical blunder by allowing the Angels to get ahead of the free agent pitching disaster by signing Tyler Anderson to a perfectly reasonable three-year, $39-million contract with a delightfully low $13-million AAV - which was two-million less per year than I had projected. For those not aware of who Anderson is, he was part of what was the all-time best performing regular season pitching staff ever assembled by the Dodgers this past season.
Eating up 178.2-innings and pitching to a 2.57 ERA, a 3.31 FIP with Barrel-Percentages and Hard-Hit Percentages in the top two-percent of the league, he produced a stellar 15-5 season on the way to an 4.0 f-WAR and by the way, he’s a lefty. Cashman put himself and the Yankees in a very difficult situation as the quest to upgrade the rotation unfolded. I of course also wanted an all out pursuit of Carlos Rodon and if signed, I wanted Frankie Montas traded while he still has solid trade value.
Instead of a starting rotation with three lefties in it, Cashman delivered one built with only two, which creates a disadvantage for a team playing in the Bronx, considering the short porch in right field and how opponents load up on left-handed-heavy lineups when they face righty starters at Yankee Stadium. I wanted a plan that started with a reimagining of the Yankees starting rotation and though Cashman did target one of the two starters I absolutely was hoping for, as usual, he left me hanging and wanting something more.
Regarding the position player situation, I absolutely wanted Aaron Judge back at all costs. I had projected he’d receive a 10-year deal with an AAV between $37-million and $43-million and it appeared the Padres were willing to sign him for something in line with this amount, but Judge turned them down, because he actually did want to be a Yankee after all. With this fantastic news in mind, Cashman streaked out in front of the free agent position player market and deftly signed Anthony Rizzo, which I thought was a terrific move as it gives the Yankees a badly needed, middle of the order left-handed bat and let’s face it - “Riz” is loved in the clubhouse and fans adore him.
One of the nuances of projecting how the roster was going to shake out involved not only the lynch pin, Aaron Judge, being signed, but doing so depended heavily on whether or not Rizzo would end up being brought back. From studying the CBT from a pinstriped perspective, I highly doubted the Yankees would be able to sign both Rizzo and Judge while also signing a marquee left fielder and my thoughts on this matter have now come to the forefront as presently, the Yankees are indeed struggling to figure out a viable plan for left field.
Both of the left fielders I had on my board have signed elsewhere, with Masataka Yoshida agreeing to a rather surprising 5-year $90-million deal with the Red Sox and Andrew Benintendi opting to get the fifth-year he wanted by agreeing to terms with the White Sox for five-years and $75-million (the exact contract length and amount I had projected in an article this past summer).
Other left-field options have likewise dropped off the board as the Astros recently snagged Michael Brantley on a 1-year, $12-million deal and it appears that trading with the Pirates for Bryan Reynolds has become a dead topic due to the Pirates sky-high demands. Reynolds presently has a $59.5 MTV per Baseball Trade Values. I had written recently that a trade for Reynolds just wasn’t realistic and certainly, if I were the GM I’d never look to do it. For those curious as to what one might look like, I provided the below glimpse:
the Yankees get: All-Star OF Bryan Reynolds ($59.9 MTV)
While the Pirates get: RHSP Frankie Montas ($10.1 MTV), OF Everson Pereira ($16.8 MTV), RHSP Clarke Schmidt ($10.8 MTV), OF Spencer Jones ($10.5 MTV), SS Trey Sweeney ($7.8 MTV), RHSP and Yoendrys Gomez ($4.0 MTV).
Another component that I wrote about being tied into a “Plan-A, Life with Judge” scenario was the inevitable mandate from above, that Brian Cashman would need to work to shed payroll and plug gaps in the roster and also make use of some affordable, in-house options. Put another way, the Yankees are engaging in a partial youth movement which won’t be fully evident until at the earliest, this summer.
Writing responsibly, I can’t remotely suggest that the Yankees should have not only signed Judge, Rizzo and top-shelf starter (Rodon) while also securing a star shortstop because the Yankees payroll would have landed well into the fourth-tier of the CBT. Signing Rodon caused the Yankees payroll to balloon to a current $272.9-million, per FanGraphs. Tier-Three of the CBT happens to be at $273-million so it does appear, as I had projected all along, that Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner isn’t willing to go into Tier-Three, which has a range of $273-million to $293-million and carries with it a 74.5-percent Luxury-Tax assessment.
Staying below $273-million means that Stienbrenner pays “only” a 44-percent Luxury-Tax bill, which is 12% more than he paid last-year by the way.
Thus far, Cashman has basically sculpted the 2023 Yankees with a slightly improved starting rotation, but positionally the team is weaker than last year’s iteration, considering neither Andrew Benintendi or Matt Carpenter are on the roster. Cashman has also failed thus far to move any of the players he should be moving if the goal is to shed some payroll - I’m referring to Josh Donaldson and Aaron Hicks.
As I studied the offseason plan, I came to a relatively swift conclusion that it made more sense to trade Aaron Hicks than Josh Donaldson and I also wrote that I’d be willing to host a Twinkies and Chocolate Milk party for SSTN members if Cashman succeeded in trading both. We’ll see what Cashman is ultimately able to do here, but because Hicks has negative offensive value and also because utility man Oswaldo Cabrera can basically do anything he can do better, I’d absolutely like to see Hicks dealt and I do understand, moving him will require the team to eat a portion of his salary to make this happen.
Roster spots should be reserved for impactful players and unfortunately, Aaron Hicks just doesn’t move the needle. He’s supposed to be a very good defensive outfielder isn’t he? Statcast rated Hicks 1-OAV, which places his defense in the 63rd percentile of MLB outfielders. Oswaldo Cabrera by contrast is in the 83rd percentile. Why is Cabrera such a better defensive outfielder than Hicks then?
Well, Hicks actually still has a great throwing arm, one that rates in the 93rd-percentile. Cabrera is in the 90th percentile so the Yankees obviously love both players “cannons.” With Hicks in left field, Cabrera in right-field and Bader in center field, the Yankees would have what is called a “red-light” defensive outfield that would come in very handy late in games. From this vantage point, keeping Hicks around makes sense, but it’s the only vantage point that makes any sense at all!
Hicks gets only average overall Jumps on balls these days, while Cabrera gets better jumps than DC’s “the Flash.” The difference is night and day in this department. Hicks still has average reaction times but his burst is slow and the routes he runs are nothing special. Hicks makes up for this with pretty good overall speed (66th percentile of MLB outfielders) and because of that speed, he’s useful on the bases as well - he posted a stellar 2.5 BsR last year. Hicks is markedly faster than Cabrera, who posted a still acceptable +0.4 BsR.
While Hicks has defensive value, the case to keep him on the roster deteriorates markedly when his offensive performance is factored in. Cabrera had a wOBA of .322 last year, whereas Hicks’ wOBA was a dreadful .286. The League average wOBA was .318 so Hicks is a well-below average overall player while Cabrera is basically an average offensive player.
On the surface, Hicks isn’t really fit to be a fourth outfielder on a World Series contender because he just doesn’t hit the ball hard. His Hard-Hit-Percent last season was a 33.1%, which puts him in the lower 14th-percent of all batters.
Furthermore, Hicks’ ability to switch-hit is largely negated because he’s simply not effective from the left-side of the plate. He posted an underwhelming 92 wRC+ against right handed pitching last year. Contrast that to Oswaldo Cabrera’s 112 wRC+ against righties and a case can be made Hicks should be phased out entirely as the team’s fourth outfielder. When Cabrera bats from the left-side, he brings value to the Yankees lineup, whereas Hicks doesn’t.
Walking at a high-clip but doing little else of value offensively adds no substantial value to the roster spot Cashman allows the body of Aaron Hicks to occupy. He very clearly should be traded or DFA’d and yes, it’s not a very good look for Cashman considering he’d be wasting $29.5-million. Nonetheless, Cashman should man up and part ways with Hicks and give the reserve outfielder spot to Oswaldo Cabrera, who can even play very good defense in the infield as well - even at shortstop. If the Yankees want to be better offensively, they’ll need Hicks’ roster spot and potentially, they could use it to address left field and thereby gain a better offensive player who provides adequate defense.
Furthermore, I don’t see how, in the same offseason, Cashman could possibly do likewise with Donaldson and trade him also, as too much money would be on the books for this season and the CBT implications just wouldn’t be feasible if the Yankees tried to operate while paying both of these players to play somewhere else. I will therefore be satisfied if Aaron Hicks is dealt and a left-handed hitting left fielder was brought in to replace him.
This leaves Josh Donaldson very likely still on the roster when the Yankees begin Spring Training. With DJ LeMahieu’s injured toe situation, Donaldson could wind up being very useful to the Yankees in 2023, but even if LeMahieu is healthy, Donaldson still has positive offensive value and he’s a superb defensive player as well.
Realizing that Oswaldo Cabrera is a valuable utility player and not particularly good in left field, opposed to right field, I’d be more inclined to see Cashman look externally for help in replacing Hicks and because the Yankees will likely be on the hook for a good portion of the remaining three-years and $29.5-million that’s still owed to him per the terms of the seven-year, $70-million contract that Cashman gave him back in 2019, the Yankees will need an affordable player who would be well worth the effort and money it’s going to take/cost to move Hicks.
I’m not sure a single player presently on the free agent market is a lock to be an upgrade from Aaron Hicks. Michael Conforto might be but he hasn’t played in over a year and his market is heating up, with the Yankees reportedly having already checked in on him. Due to present payroll constraints, I’m not sure Cashman will be able to sign yet another free agent without first shedding some players who other teams might actually want and who make enough to provide some wiggle room, considering it is likely verboten for Cashman to spend more than $273-million as I laid out above.
The Yankees “trade-clout” is comprised of the below five-players who make, or are projected to make (through arbitration eligibility) a collective $27-million and who are surprisingly valued at a combined +$27 MTV per Baseball Trade Values:
● Isiah Kiner-Flaefa ($6m) / +0.8 MTV
● Frankie Montas ($7.6m*est) / +10.1 MTV
● Gleyber Torres ($9.6m*est) / +11.6 MTV
● Domingo German ($3m*est) / +2.6 MTV
● Estevan Florial ($730k) / +1.9 MTV
Other teams might be interested in these players and a few of them make enough to help Cashman stay where he needs to be with the payroll since Steinbrenner clearly has him in check on the matter. However, it appears now that Montas is being counted on by Cashman to be one of the Yankees starters and Torres is also slotted in as the starting second baseman. Even if added together, Montas and Torres don’t have enough trade value to land a quality starter who would represent an upgrade - this due to Montas only having one-year of team control attached.
Therefore, I’m resigned to simply roll with Montas in the rotation at this point. If I were the GM, Yankees fans wouldn’t even be thinking thoughts like, “Montas can’t pitch in New York” because I’d have already acted to secure a preferable fifth-starter. However, when Cashman failed to sign Tyler Anderson at the very beginning of free agency, it became clear to me that he was likely counting on Montas for 2023. It's not at all what I was hoping for, but the Adnerson ship has sailed and most of the big-name Dominoes have fallen into place at this juncture, to the point where free agency really won’t net the Yankees an upgrade over Montas.
We’re also at that point in the offseason where other teams have really addressed most of their glaring needs and this means salary dumps are less likely to happen. For example, the Mariners were interested in trading with the Yankees for Gleyber Torres, but in early December they pivoted and traded with the Brewers for Kolten Wong. Therefore, selling low on a player like Gleyber Torres, who is under control not only for 2023 but 2024 as well, makes very little sense.
Unfortunately for Cashman and the Yankees, Torres is getting a bit expensive, he’s projected to earn $9.6-million this season. Still, he was a 2.7 f-WAR player who was worth 26 RAR (runs above replacement) last season, so while the Yankees do have middle-infield prospects currently knocking on the door, are any of them really better bets than Torres in 2023?
Putting his value further in perspective, if Torres were a free agent, he would have been worth a $21.8-million contract on the open market last season. His slash line was .257/.310/.457/.761 and he put up a 115 wRC+ paired with a .328 wOBA so as far as him being a second baseman who plays fairly solid defense, rated minus-one OAA by Statcast last season, he does have redeeming and positive offensive value.
While Gleyber isn’t “Gold-Glove-LeMahieu” at second base, he’s worth having around, mainly for his bat, especially considering that Steamers is projecting an even better season for Torres in 2023 (.335 wOBA / 120 wRC+). In fact, Steamers projects Torres to be the ninth-best offensive second baseman in MLB for 2023, so he’s in no way akin to a low-budget Round Steak at the local Butcher shop. He may not be a Porterhouse or a Ribeye either, but let’s at least give him the credit that, say, a Top Sirloin deserves and these cuts aren’t just given away for nothing, so nor should the Yankees give Torres away simply to cut payroll and get a disappointing return.
Gleyber was also the third highest rated International-Amateur in his class in 2013, per MLB.COM, so not only does he have real and present significant positive value, but he has prospect pedigree. During Spring-Training, injuries can happen and second basemen have a way of quickly becoming in-demand so hanging onto Torres for now is probably the play that makes the most sense. There’s also the matter of his trade-worth which is very low presently, with Baseball Trade Values placing him at $11.6 MTV as highlighted above, so while moving him would be easy, many Yankees fans mistakenly believe that Torres would bring back a significant return, when the truth is that he simply wouldn’t.
Nonetheless, I do think Torres will be traded and due to his value being higher now than when it plummeted in 2021 (to about $4 MTV), I think Cashman will look to move him if he can find a taker and the likely return will either be a solid pitching prospect or a decent reliever. Likely trade partners include the Pirates, Cubs, Angles, Braves, Nationals, Rockies, White Sox, Cardinals, Red Sox and Royals. I’ve imagined trades with each of these teams, but the one that I found most intriguing as a potential trade partner was the White Sox, who might be open to trading closer Liam Hendricks and in this case, a straight up trade might play well for both teams.
Not only would the Yankees have a new closer with a 2024 club-option of $15-million, but the Sox would get the offensive boost they so badly need. The only problem with this trade is that the Yankees payroll would increase because Hendricks is due $14-million for the coming season. Otherwise, the trade appears to be a very even deal that might help both teams.
With Torres traded, DJ LeMahieu could slot in at his natural position and the Yankees would be just fine. This would open a little playing time for Oswald Peraza and or Oswaldo Cabrera, the two rookies slated in my plan to be the team’s utility players. I don’t believe either player is a starter on a World Series contender, but I think each could and should play vital utility roles as they continue to acclimate to the big leagues.
With all of the star-caliber shortstops now signed by other teams, the Yankees will need Oswald Peraza to do big things. Steamers laughs out loud at this notion, as they project the “Wizard of Oswald” to put up a .313 wOBA in 2023, to go along with 105 wRC+. Since they also project Isiah Kiner-Falefa to be markedly worse, pegging him to put up a 2023 .285 wOBA, and an 85 wRC+.
Neither of these two players are likely a starting shortstop on a World Series championship team. Peraza, as I said, would be best utilized as a utility player while he learns the league, but to count on him as the starter is a massive potential mistake and Kiner-Falefa has already proven to Yankees fans that he’s not even a capable stop-gap shortstop. Unfortunately, this is the pitfall of a “Plan-A, Life with Judge” scenario - there is only so much money to go around and a premium shortstop was just too much of an ask for an owner who simply won’t go into Tier-Three of the CBT.
It’s doubtful that Peraza will turn out to be a better shortstop down the road than Anthony Volpe will be, but the best the Yankees can now hope for is that a combination of the underwhelming Kiner-Falefa and Peraza can at least hold down the position until the All-Star break. The Yankees have shown an unwillingness in the past, to bring a prospect up in time to get them plenty of reps, but that’s what they’ll likely need to do with Volpe in order to fix what has really been the team’s biggest issue for a number of years now. No position is more crucially vital than shortstop, yet Cashman remains flummoxed in his endeavors to build a championship roster and this is a big reason why.
There is a chance that Peraza could be a bit better than the Steamers projections also. PECOTA’s 2023 projections don’t come out until April, but it’s not unheard of for prospects to significantly crush Steamers projections. In his limited sample size last season, Peraza put up an unsustainable .371 wOBA, with his StatCast data indicating an xwOBA .343 was more likely as he got more at-bats. His biggest problems are that he makes a lot of weak contact, not hitting the ball hard and he also struggles to barrel up the baseball.
These problems aren’t likely to magically disappear, but with the shift going away, he could be a bit more productive than Steamers thinks he’ll be as he struggled to take the ball the other way against the shifts teams were deploying against him last season, when he hit the ball on the ground way too much (58% of the time). Many scouts outside the organization, even some I’ve spoken to, like Volpe as an MLB shortstop a lot more than they like Peraza.
With all of this in mind and considering that the Yankees are presently very thin in the outfield, I do think that Brian Cashman has more work to do. Harrison Bader is an often-injured player and he’s by no means a lock to stay healthy for the bulk of the 2023 season also and of course, the team presently has Aaron Hicks as the starting left-fielder which obviously is a pretty big concern both in terms of performance issues and health related concerns. Would it be wise to gamble a bit and sign free agent Michael Conforto, who the Mets, Rangers and Cubs all appear to be in on presently (per the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal), or should the Yankees instead make a trade for a stopgap solution?
One option after trading Hicks might be to sign Conforto, then get with the Royals and inquire on Michael A. Taylor, a remarkably healthy center fielder who can “pick-it” with the best of them, as insurance for Bader. Taylor is very affordable to trade for, as Baseball Trade Values lists him with a $2.8 MTV. A Yankees outfield of Judge, Bader and Conforto, with Taylor and Peraza both in bench roles, would give the Yankees a lot of possible upside while also providing plenty of insurance.
Other more written about options have linked the Yankees to the Twins Max Kepler ($5.8 MTV) and the Diamondbacks Daulton Varsho ($74.5 MTV), who is far more expensive to trade for than even Bryan Reynolds while also showing interest in two other Diamondbacks outfielders, Jake McCarthy ($29.5 MTV) and Alek Thomas ($29.6 MTV).
Considering the cost in prospects that trading for Reynolds, the elite Varsho or the below average McCarthy would require and also looking at Thomas’s lack of ability on offense and Kepler’s lack of defensive skills, I think my plan above sounds a lot more feasible. Either Reynolds or Varsho would be wonderful fits, but the cost is simply prohibitive. 2023 is about the Yankees getting by affordably in left field, in the hopes that Jasson Dominguez or Everson Pereira will be ready to help out by 2024.