Positional Moves the Yankees Will Likely Make This Offseason
by Cary Greene
October 30, 2022
Brian Cashman’s top-priority is clearly to sign Aaron Judge and so many dominoes will perhaps begin falling once the Judge situation is resolved. Cashman may succeed here and he may not. Depending on how long it takes for Judge’s free agent process to unfold, many other top free agents, depending on the positions they play, and the teams who are courting them, will begin coming off the board.
Last season, Cashman fully committed to what I characterized as a stopgap type of plan that may be a precursor to a significant Yankees youth movement. However, Cashman traded away several of the players I thought might be a part of that movement. Still, a number of top prospects remain on track for potential MLB debuts in 2023 and beyond. It appears that this season, Cashman will implement leg-two of the plan he embarked upon last offseason.
Figuring out what they’re doing positionally will be the first prong of the Yankees this year's offseason strategy. Questions surround who’s playing right field, left field, shortstop, first base and third base.
Two key personnel decisions will also likely be revealed fairly early on - will 33-year-old Anthony Rizzo opt out of his deal and will the Yankees look for a creative way to move on from soon to be 38-year-old Josh Donaldson?
Unfortunately, Josh Donaldson is owed $25 million this coming season and unless the Yankees can find a way to move him, which is highly unlikely, he’ll be back for next season. This season, Donaldson earned $20-million and performed significantly below expectations offensively. FanGraphs lists Donaldson’s value this past season at $12.9 million, which illustrates that the Yankees are receiving $8.1 million in performance and if Donaldson’s decline at the plate continues, the performance for the spend will likely get even worse. Donaldson’s MTV is listed at negative $22.1 million by Baseball Trade Values, which makes Donaldson even less tradeable than Aaron Hicks, who actually provided $1.1 million in performance value this season, by the same metrics, but who’s MTV is still a whopping minus $20.6 million.
More-than-likely, Anthony Rizzo may opt out of his deal and ask the Yankees for an extension. Rizzo provided the Yankees with $3.3 million in performance value based on his contract but I’m not sure that the Yankees will view him as a candidate they will want to offer an even richer deal to.
Though the Yankees might be projecting that Double-A catching prospect Austin Wells could wind up moving to first base, they’ll need coverage for one or two more seasons at the position and Rizzo is a good fit - but at what price?
Rizzo’s market should be pretty solid as there aren’t a slew of star free agent first basemen in this year’s class. Rizzo would be seen as the top available player at this position, with the Padres 30-year-old Josh Bell perhaps second.
Rizzo is a better overall defensive first baseman than Bell is, but believe it or not, Rizzo really isn’t rated that strongly by most defensive metrics. He had a -3 DRS, a 0.5 UZR/150 and a -3 Outs-Above-Average. What accomplished offensively likely provides the onus for him opting out as he hit 32 home runs with 75 RBI’s, with a wOBA of .352, a wRC+ of 132 and an f-WAR of +2.4.
The younger Bell, a switch-hitter, is clearly a tic below Rizzo offensively (17 HR, 71 RBI, .349 wOBA, 123 wRC+ and a 2.0 f-WAR) and defensively as well (-1 DRS, -4.5 UZR/150 and 0 OAA). Per MLB.COM's Joel Rueter, Bell is projected to receive a 4-year, $60-million contract.
Rizzo will want a 4-year deal also and if he can get that on the open market, I think the Yankees might have to pass and instead use DJ LeMahieu at first base, even though they’d love to have the left-handed hitting Rizzo back for 2022. I’m just not sure the Yankees can afford a 4-year $60-plus-million contract considering what else they have to accomplish this offseason. Rizzo’s age may work against him and perhaps a two or three-year deal is in the cards instead - in which case, that might work for both sides. However, paying Rizzo $20 million a season seems like a bad idea for the Yankees as it’s unlikely his performance will be worth the money spent.
Because the Yankees farm system really doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of nearly ready big league talent at first base, with the club’s top option at first base probably being Austin Wells presently (who’s still experimenting with being a catcher and will likely start the season in Double-A), Cashman will have to come up with a plan for first base because if Rizzo does opt out, I think Cashman will chose to avoid yet another positional overspend.
I hate to lump Rizzo at $20-plus million AAV in with the dead wood that already exists in the Yankees lineup with Giancarlo Stanton, who was a waste of $22.3-million AAV last year and the aforementioned Josh Donaldson, but I can virtually guarantee that Rizzo’s performance will decline over the length of the next contract he receives. Would the thrifty Cashman, who generally does a remarkably good job at acquiring overperformance-value based on what he spends, really knowingly sign-up for that? I honestly think it’s doubtful at best.
Therefore, who’s on first then? I’ll go ahead and forecast that Cashman will pencil in a combination of DJ LeMahieu and Matt Carpenter, the latter of whom will probably be re-signed.
It also appears that Cashman feels very comfortable with shortstop options he has in-house, as Jim Bowden of the Athletic is reporting that the Yankees likely will not pursue a top shortstop this offseason.
Even though the shortstop position had become a debilitating issue for the Yankees in the playoffs, Cashman will apparently use Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Oswald Peraza, with perhaps some Oswaldo Cabrera mixed in as well, to bridge the length of time it takes for Anthony Vople to finish mastering Triple-A.
Both Trea Turner, who is a best available shortstop and Xander Bogarts, who may very likely opt out of the three-remaining-years on his contract, will likely head yet another bumper-crop of shortstops. This offseason represents Cashman’s last chance to bag a free agent star shortstop and I must admit, his willingness to pass yet again simply reinforces that Hal Steinbrenner simply won’t spend to keep the Yankees World Series window open.
Imagine how a star shortstop would solidify what has become a glaring team weakness and instead turn that deficiency into a strength for years to come. Imagine two years into the future, how a Yankees infield would look if Trea Turner was at shortstop, Peraza was at third base and Vople was at second base? The Yankees might also have Austin Wells splitting time between catcher and first base by then, with Trey Sweeney also playing the corners.
Imagine the depth and think about the championships an infield like that could win. Remember also that Mickey Mantle started his career as a shortstop. What precludes Peraza from learning center field? Paired with a utility player like Oswaldo Cabrera, I think the Yankees outfield would be in fantastically good shape, especially when we consider that Everson Pereira and Jasson Dominguez are also poised to be Major Leaguers.
While I personally believe, and have believed for three seasons now, that a star shortstop would do wonders for the Yankees lineup and impact the ball club far more than stopgaps like Kiner-Falefa or rookies like Peraza and Cabrera will, Cashman has other ideas and its likely because he’s under direct orders from Hal Steinbrenner to sign Aaron Judge at all costs and do very little else. This thing called a budget is driven by a desire to drop back below the Luxury Tax Threshold, which for next season is $233 million.
That means Cashman is sacrificing oodles of WAR by passing on this year’s free agent shortstops. Cashman appears to be confident that the Yankees can figure things out at the position eventually.
Which brings us to the final positional need and that’s left field. If Cashman can resign Judge, he’d have Harrison Bader, in the final year of his contract, slated in as the every-day center fielder and that leaves left field as the final item on the offseason positional to-do list.
Judge will likely command, best case scenario for him, $44 million and 10-years. Per Sportac, the Yankees presently sit at roughly $151 million in Active Payroll as they prepare to head into the offseason and if we add whatever Judge winds up getting to that number (assuming Judge indeed chooses to sign the Yankees), that will leave Cashman with between $38 million (if Judge winds up truly costing $44 million AAV) or possibly a bit more, say $43 million to work with.
Spending more than this amount ($38m to $43m) would make the Yankees two-time threshold offenders and it’s unlikely that Steinbrenner will approve doing that. Cashman will need to decide between signing Anthony Rizzo, perhaps signing Andrew Benintendi or leaving left-field to the untradable Aaron Hicks, the seemingly unplayable Giancarlo Stanton, or the shaky but intriguing Oswaldo Peraza.
Let’s contemplate signing the player Cashman traded for at the deadline, Andrew Benintendi, so that he might be paired with Judge and Bader to solidify the Yankees outfield. Benintendi hit .304 with a .342 wOBA, a 122 wRC+ and had an f-War of 2.8 while making the All-Star team. Is the juice worth the squeeze with Benintendi?
When considering the 29-year-old Benintendi’s StatCast numbers, he’s basically a strong contact hitter who doesn’t strike out much and plays average to slightly above average defense. According to Statcast, Benintendi is a slightly below average route-runner defensively with slightly below average reaction times and slightly below average foot speed, which he makes up for with an exceptionally strong throwing arm and a 90% Actual Catch percentage.
Meanwhile, Fangraphs looks at Benintendi a bit more favorably defensively, rating him a +2 DRS and a +8.5 UZR/150, which tells us that he’s an above average left fielder, all things considered.
Benintendi’s market this offseason is expected to be very strong as any team needing a solid left fielder with a plus hit-tool and a plus arm, who has a contact oriented approach, will likely be in on Benintendi. Thanks to his contact oriented approach and his plus defense in left field, I project Andrew Benintendi’s 2022 performance will likely parlay into an offseason deal with an AAV easily north of $16 million.
Averaging these three all-time greats career lengths and f-WAR’s, it appears that Benintendi, still only 28-years old, who has played 7 seasons thus far in his career, could easily play 17 seasons total, which means he will probably play for at least 10 more seasons.
The f-WAR comps for Benintendi vary greatly, but if we look at each comp player’s f-WAR from year 8 of their career to year 13, the average per season f-WAR is 3.74, which is important for two reasons. The first is that Benintendi was trending towards producing 3.75ish f-WAR prior to going out with the unfortunate season ending wrist injury. The second thing these comps mean is that Benintendi will likely produce around 4 f-WAR per season going forward, for the next several seasons.
If Benintendi plays at or near PECOTA’s comp-levels, he could easily be seen as a very worthwhile investment. He’s a former Gold-Glove winner, a World Series champion and as mentioned, he became an All-Star this season as well.
MLB Trade Rumors contributor Darragh McDonald did a piece this past January that Benintendi was likely in line for a 4 year, $79 million deal that parallels the contract Kyle Schwarber inked with the Phillies this past offseason.
Based on the season Benintendi had and considering he’s still only 29 years-old and factoring in how in demand he was at this year’s deadline, I think it’s quite possible for Benintendi to command a 5-year deal in the neighborhood of $100 million, which falls in line exactly with what Bleacher Report's Joel Reuters projects. The AAV on a deal like that would be $20 million. Ask yourselves, will Cashman do that, will he go there?
I’ll speculate that there’s very little chance that Cashman will sign Benintendi. I just don’t see Cashman handing out a five year contract, even if the player not named Judge most likely is worth it. More likely, Cashman will consider left field all set with Aaron Hicks returning along with Stanton and Cabrera.
Cashman isn’t very good at signing quality free agents and he’s been prone in the past to short change the game plan with regards to starting pitching and the outfield. I look for him to repeat his past planning-related mistakes and pass on signing Benintendi.
Joc Pederson’s name will also come up this offseason, as will Brandon Nimmo’s possibly. None will likely become Yankees, though Cashman may fake interest as he often does, to drive all of their prices up.