The Two Yankees Outfield Plans Going Forward (Pt. 2)
By Cary Greene
November 23, 2022
Plan-B, Life Without Judge
In my previous article, The Two Yankees Outfield Plans Going Forward, I established that it makes zero sense to clog the DH position with Giancarlo Stanton, because he doesn’t perform at a high enough level when he’s DH-ing. Since he’s not a valuable DH, the Yankees need to reimagine the position and find a way to get Stanton back to some semblance of the 2017 NL-MVP form he displayed back when they first traded for him, the reason being, he’s vastly more productive these days when he’s playing the field.
The Original Plan After Trading for Stanton
The plan Cashman presented after trading for Stanton was to have two bookends, Stanton and Aaron Judge, anchoring the corner outfield positions with Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner manning center field and providing extra coverage. This plan never really materialized, mostly fizzling due to various Stanton related injuries.
Framing the Evolution of the Yankees DH Usage
Before trading for Stanton, the Yankees were using a DH by committee type approach that worked decently during the regular season but come time for the playoffs, the DH became a Yankees Achilles-heel.
● 2017 - Enter the “DH by Committee” approach, with Gary Sanchez, Matt Holiday, Todd Frazier, and Chase Headley all getting some extra at-bats as well. In 2017 the Yankees “DH by Committee” production ranked 10th in MLB (.756 OPS) during the regular season.
● 2017 Playoffs - In the 2017 playoffs, the Yankees used a combination of Matt Holiday, Chase Headley, Gary Sanchez, and even Jacoby Ellsbury at DH. They batted .182 collectively, posting a paltry .479 OPS with no home runs and the lack of production was a big reason the Yankees couldn’t quite get past the cheating Astros. Cashman had failed to add an impact bat and he knew it.
Meanwhile, over in the National League, Giancarlo Stanton was having his historic MVP season with the Marlins. He logged 576 at-bats while playing right field for the Marlins and the results were undeniable - Stanton was pretty much a colossus, posting a 156 wRC+ as an outfielder. The man was a wrecking ball and Cashman took note, pouncing on his chance to acquire the impact bat he thought would put the Yankees lineup in a better place.
● 2018 - After Cashman acquired Stanton, it didn’t take long for the Yankees to begin DH-ing him. He wound up at DH 54% of the time in 2018, which was something he had seldom been asked to do before and to his credit, he responded exceptionally well as he posted a 152 wRC+ as a DH. The Yankees DH position produced an .853 OPS, which was sixth-best in the League. It appeared Stanton was unaffected when DH-ing during the regular season.
Of course, the Yankees began DH-ing Stanton because he was attempting to play through a hamstring injury and with Aaron Judge injured, the Yankees needed Stanton’s bat in the lineup for the second-half of the season. The Yankees were depending on Stanton to carry the offense.
● 2018 Playoffs - Stanton was the Yankees DH in the playoffs, batting .143 with a .471 OPS and one home run. The production when it mattered was disheartening. Stanton just didn’t show up when it mattered most.
● 2019 - Unfortunately, Stanton’s injury situation went from tenuous to red flag level the following season, in 2019 as he was besieged with biceps and leg injuries. He only managed to play 18-games, serving as a DH in five of them. Stanton was barraged with negative press during this time. His season was lost, but the Yankees DH by Committee approach again in 2019 produced an .820 OPS, which was eighth in the League, thanks to players like Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Ford, Luke Voit, Kendrys Morales, Miguel Andujar with only a “pinch” of Stanton added.
● 2019 Playoffs - The Yankees used Edwin Encarnacion as the DH for most all of the playoff games except for one game, when Stanton DH’d. The results weren’t good, the DH position batted .147 with a .443 OPS. Meanwhile, Stanton was playing the field (or not playing at all) as he battled injuries but he put up an .850 OPS with a home run, two RBI’s and four walks in only five games. The batting average was only .231, but he pulled his weight while playing mostly in the outfield.
● 2020 - In 2020, Stanton missed another 38 games with a hamstring issue and he wound up playing only 23 games, all as a DH. The Yankees needed his bat in the lineup and since he had a legitimate leg issue, DH-ing him made sense. Stanton still seemed fine with DH duty, he was able to post a 143 OPS+ despite the circumstances surrounding the Pandemic. On the season, the Yankees DH’s produced a .740 OPS which was 14th in the League.
● 2020 Playoffs - In the 2020 Playoffs, Stanton was absurdly good as the Yankees full-time DH, walloping 6 home runs and knocking in 13 runs while posting a 1.426 OPS in what was truly a monster performance.
● 2021 - In 2021, Stanton missed 15 games to a Quad-injury and the Yankees were very cautious regarding playing him in the field, but they did manage to get him out there for 16-games contrasted against the 108 he played DH for. It was then that a strange trend began to emerge. Stanton put up a solid 130 wRC+ as a DH, but as an outfielder, he played markedly better - as in, 2017 MVP-level better, posting a wRC+ 0f 181. Stanton was beginning to struggle when he didn’t play the field, proclaiming multiple times that he found it hard to stay loose when Boone used him to DH only.
● 2021 Playoffs - Stanton went 3-4 in the single-elimination Wild Card game loss to the Red Sox, bashing a home run to go with a double and a single.
● This Past Season - Stanton missed another 42 games, 11 due to an ankle issue and 31 due to an Achilles problem. The Yankees actually played Stanton when he was available 37% of the time in the outfield and as an outfielder, the results were vastly better. Stanton posted a 133 wRC+ as an outfielder and a 107 wRC+ as a DH. Unfortunately, the Yankees offense was greatly hindered this year by the DH position, which only produced a .711 OPS which ranked 13th in MLB.
● This Past Postseason - Stanton struggled at DH in the postseason, batting .188 with a .666 OPS and only 7-RBI’s in 9-games paired with 2-home runs.
One very obvious conclusion we can arrive at is that the Yankees lack continuity with the DH process they’re arriving at each season, the results are all over the board. Cashman’s process has created a very helter-skelter situation.
If one were grading Brian Cashman’s results, the grade would have to be very close to a failing one and it seems that poor planning has also created a middling lack of offensive production from a position that should be one of the strongest sources of run production and also lineup balance for a team with the Yankees budget. The Yankees are getting neither of these things from the DH position.
For 2023, the Yankees need to focus on stabilizing the DH position so they can benefit from more consistent production. Since Stanton isn’t a productive DH, they need to look elsewhere and also get more left-handed in the process. Ideally, the Yankees primary DH should be a dead-red left-handed pull hitter with power and the ability to drive runs in.
In our game threads here on SSTN, we often focus on RISP and we note that when the Yankees lose, it’s not because they don’t get runners into scoring position. They often lose because they can’t drive runners in and a productive DH would go a long way towards changing that narrative.
Stanton’s Progress This Past Season
The progress he made this season as he got used to playing the outfield again is undeniable, but unfortunately it was derailed yet again by injuries. The Yankees were obviously very cautious with Stanton and given that his 2022 injuries were of the “concerning lower body types,” the Yankees caution was well-founded.
In a Plan-B, Life Without Judge scenario, Stanton absolutely needs to play more right field. How much he plays is really the question. The Yankees need to come up with a plan that gets him consistent, steady time in the outfield but he also needs to be relieved regularly. Playing him for 9-innings on a regular basis probably isn’t a recipe for success, but playing him for 7-innings and then switching him to DH for a final at-bat does make sense and he needs to be asked to do this.
Stanton Going Forward - 2023
Let’s now consider right field in 2023, with the thinking that there’s probably a greater than a 50-50 chance that Aaron Judge will likely sign elsewhere. If Judge does come back, if he really does want to be a Yankee for life, then swell, but let’s plan for the worst as the Yankees very well need to shore up the position. Where should Plan-B, “Life without Judge” start?
The numbers say the Yankees need to play Stanton in the outfield more. No World Series team can be built by a GM with a straight face if the GM is willing to accept league average production from the DH position over the course of a season. Yet Stanton’s injury track record says it's only a matter of time until he has yet another lower body injury.
Perhaps there's some other solution that makes more sense - be it internal or external, or perhaps in relation to getting creative, as suggested above, with how Stanton physically playing the outfield can be managed?
Is Oswaldo Cabrera a Full-Time Outfielder?
Though Oswaldo Cabrera is markedly better when he’s playing defense in right field, opposed to left field, his true value is as a utility player and the Yankees have always believed he’s best suited to this kind of role. Because he can play literally almost anywhere on the diamond, the Yankees bench becomes much more able to carry a bat-first type of player to complement Cabrera’s versatility and it makes sense to do that. For example, the presence of Cabrera makes it easy to accommodate a DH who mashes and is used sparingly in the field.
Cabrera put up a 1.5 f-WAR during the span of the season from August 17th, when he was first called up, to the end of the season. All WAR calculations are cumulative, so we’re basically talking about a player with a very high floor and a ceiling that might be quite surprising. Imagine how valuable it would be to have a do-it-all utility player who not only plays superb defense, but has pop as well?
Ben Zobrist’s name gets floated by every MLB blogger with ink in his or her pen and who wants to describe how awesome their team’s utility player might be - because Zobrist set the bar in this department. When the Cubs finally won a World Series, Zobrist was “only” a 3+ f-WAR player, but as his peak, when he was with the Rays, Zobrist flashed 8.7, 6.4 and 5.7 f-WAR seasons. Cabrera isn’t Ben Zobrist, I can assure Yankees fans of that, but he is going to be the best utility player the Yankees have had in a very long time.
When we think back to the most recent Yankees Dynasty teams, one of my favorite Yankees, Luis Sojo, posted a 1.5 f-WAR in his best season ever (‘95 when he was with the Mariners) and he never put up a season remotely close to what Cabrera accomplished this year. That’s because Cabrera isn’t a glove-first utility guy, he actually has a bat as well. In fact, he’s a switch-hitter on a team who’s GM struggles to provide a balanced lineup.
Clearly, Cabrera is part of the Yankees plans going forward. He’s extremely valuable defensively and yet, he also has some marginal positive value as an offensive player that may become a lot more significant going forward. Fangraphs rated Cabrera’s value as a +2.2 on Offense and a +6.6 on Defense. To put that in perspective, the only other Yankee to have both offensive and defensive positive value was Aaron Judge. On the open market, Cabrera would be worth $12.8-million as a free agent, so what exactly do the Yankees have here? Is he a candidate to be a full-time outfielder?
With an ability to save runs and make plays, Cabrera showed that he gets exceptionally good jumps on balls, displaying fast reaction times and a great initial burst as he moves towards balls hit in his direction, while the routes he runs are merely average. Physically, he has a howitzer for a throwing arm, rated in the top 10-percent of MLB while his sprint speed is only a small-tic above average. His ability to hit the ball hard is a tic-below average, he strikes out a bit too much and yet he does walk well enough to get by.
I’m not able to rate Cabrera as a starting MLB outfielder on a World Series team, but I am looking at him as a crucially important, highly defensively versatile defensive player who’s also offensively versatile as a switch hitter and thus it’s clear, he should play quite a bit. Is he an acceptable fourth-outfielder or back up infielder? Absolutely. Therefore, sans Judge, the Yankees will certainly need to turn elsewhere in order to solve this piece of the 2023 puzzle - who should be in right field?
The Yankees Plan in Right Field Should Be…
Considering that there aren’t any desirable right-fielders in the free agent class, barring a shocking trade for a player like Juan Soto, the Yankees “Plan-B” for replacing Judge should be to use an in-house solution and folks, there really is only one best way to provide an internal option.
The clear answer is to play Giancarlo Stanton as the primary right fielder in 2023’s “Plan-B” and use a whole lot of Oswaldo Cabrera sprinkled in, both as a spot starter and late game defensive replacement. It’s a plug and play situation, utilizing two in-house solutions, that would work well for the Yankees and it would allow them to become more productive at DH while also helping them become more left-handed as a lineup. In fact…
Moving Into the Plan at DH
A combination of Stanton and Cabrera in right field opens the DH spot for free agents that fit the Yankees production needs. Thanks to Oswaldo Cabrera’s defensive flexibility and also considering the payroll space that not signing Judge will likely create, the Yankees could easily afford some available, left-handed free-agent pop and this offseason is the time to get it.
It would be a huge mistake to not sign Judge and then replace him with yet another right-handed hitter, but acquiring multiple left-handed hitters while utilizing Stanton more is the ONLY plan that Cashman should consider, if he wants to minimize the loss of Judge and actually make the team better overall.
Stanton is looking better and better physically these days. There is a good chance he could play 50 to 60-percent of his games as an outfielder in 2023. If he can’t, it’s just not worth protecting him, because he’s no longer a good DH - he needs to stay loose and play the field.
Using Cabrera as a late-inning defensive replacement makes a lot of sense as it would make life easier on Stanton and maybe, he could even play upwards of 70-percent of his games in right field if he got to take the later innings off. In fact, the Yankees could double switch him to DH depending upon matchups, so that may factor in as well. Cabrera could also start plenty of games, when Stanton is DH-ing when it makes sense, mainly against left-handed pitching.
With the plan in right field set, how should the Yankees approach the DH position for next season and beyond. It’s no secret that Brian Cashman has struggled to make the lineup more balanced. When the Yankees were at their absolute best in 2022, during the month of June, they had Anthony Rizzo, Matt Carpenter and Andrew Benintendi all doing their thing in the lineup. Yankees fans got to see what three good left-handed batters looked like in Yankee stadium. Perhaps Cashman should build on this concept for the 2023 season? What then is the first move?
Signing Joc Pederson as a DH is Unfortunately “Out”
Unfortunately, the one of the potential free agents I most had my eye on, Joc Pederson of the Giants, recently accepted a qualifying offer to remain with the Giants for the 2023 season - he’s off the board! The left-handed hitting, soon to be 31-year-old Joc Pederson would have made so much sense for the Yankees. First, Pederson is a proven World Series performer with a career .256/.332/.482/.814 postseason stat-line per Baseball Reference, is now a free agent and a two-time All-Star as he was voted a starter in this year's All-Star game.
Statcast places Pederson’s Exit-Velocity of 93.2mph in the top 2% of the league where his Hard-Hit% of 52.1% also resides. Considering Aaron Judge is in the Top 1-percent of the league in these departments, adding Pederson as a DH didn’t seem like a bad fallback plan to me and since he’s a left-handed hitter, I reckoned the Yankees lineup would be better balanced with him in it.
Pederson pretty much knocks the cover off the ball and with a Barrel Percentage of 15.1, which compares very favorably to league average (6.7%), his raw slugging skills are pretty impressive. Why not DH a guy like Pederson? He’s exactly the kind of hitter the Yankees lineup needs.
Adapting the shift required Pederson to start using the whole field and his approach worked nicely as he shifted away from always pulling the ball like he did earlier in his career, but make no mistake, he can pull the ball when he wants to. This makes him a very desirable left-handed bat. He’d be a good full-time DH for the Yankees because of this, not only would he hit well enough in all ballparks but with the shift going away next year, his swing profile plays even better in Yankee stadium.
Pederson is of course a far worse outfielder than Giancarlo Stanton, so the Yankees would have needed to play Stanton in the field if they acquired a bat like Pederson’s. Statcast rated Pederson 11 Outs-Below-Average, and he’s clearly even worse in left field than he is in right field. Fangraphs rates Pederson at -15 DRS with an UZR/150 of -17.7 in the outfield this year. These defensive numbers are pretty much awful, any way we slice them.
Overall, Fangraphs lists Pederson as playing to an 19.6 RAR with an f-WAR of only 2.1 this season, which gives him a performance equal to that of a $16.4-million f-Dollars. The Giants thus received plus $10.4 million of positive value from Pederson this season. This may be why Pederson accepted the Giant’s qualifying offer, he may have seen that as a very kind one year salary.
Signing Matt Carpenter
"He’s a tremendous teammate” would be the best phrase to characterize the value Batt Carpenter brought to the Yankees this season. He’ll be 37-years old next season and some may think that his performance last season was a fluke, but I staunchly beg to differ. In fact, I suggest that Cashman had better get real busy, real quick, to nab Carpenter (like he did with Rizzo), before he’s off the table.
Believe it or not, Carpenter is actually a solid first baseman. He can also play third base or corner outfield in a pinch, not well enough though to be considered a regular option. He also gives the Yankees an answer at DH and the Yankees clearly have a need for left-handed production. With DJ LeMahieu playing a lot of third base in 2023, Josh Donaldson could be used as a right-handed compliment to Carpenter and if Donaldson DH’d about 30% of the time, with Carpenter handling the lion’s share of the work (since most opposing starting pitchers are right handed), the Yankees would benefit from some continuity and increased production from the DH position.
Additionally, what should the Yankees do if Anthony Rizzo’s balky back acts up and he winds up getting injured? Answer: sign Matt Carpenter early in the offseason and worst-case scenario, consider platooning him with DJ LeMahieu if needed. Problem solved. Lefty-Righty, Righty-Loosey! Depth piece added. Veteran pinch-hitter and bench piece added - and that's the worst case scenario.
Thanks to the flexibility that Oswaldo Cabrera provides, the Yankees have an extra spot on their bench. What harm would come from giving Carpenter a look for 2023? Those that may want the Yankees to move on from Carpenter aren’t giving him enough credit for what he accomplished in 2023. It wasn’t a fluke by the way and here’s how I know this - Carpenter’s Hard-Hit Percentage was in the top 85% of the League this season. That’s how we know that what he did in 2022 wasn’t a fluke.
He’s also a dead-red pull-hitter, 60% of his batted-balls in 2022 were scorched to right field. There isn’t an excuse in the world I’d believe that would suggest Cashman shouldn't run out and sign Carpenter immediately. Considering he’d be playing in Yankee stadium and also factoring in the disappearance of the shift next season, he’d be the kind of player any savvy GM would easily consider gambling on yet again. With regular at-bats, he could be an ideal fit both on and off the field.
Fangraphs rated “Carp '' as having a 2.4 f-WAR for 2022. His Offense was a whopping +19.4 and his Defense was -2.4. Considering Andrew Benintendi was surprisingly a -3.6 Defensively, thinking Carpenter is a poor defender is a bit misguided. Granted, if the plan is to play him primarily in the outfield, then yes, that wouldn’t move the needle. He’s slow (Sprit-Speed is in the bottom 22% of the League), he gets bad overall jumps on balls and his arm is a tick below average. The only reason the Yankees played Carpenter in the outfield last season was because of injuries, the poor performance of Aaron Hicks and the need to play Judge in center field as the team lacked a competent center field option.
Signing Carpenter in 2023 is about putting a true professional in a part time role, one he can very likely handle easily. He brings potential left-handed power to the first base and DH positions, he can man third base as needed and he can play a little bit of outfield as needed. More importantly, he's a leader in the clubhouse, a steadying veteran presence. He’s also a seasoned winner. A team looking to get to a World Series could easily use a presence like Carpenter on the roster.
Carpenter’s Barrel-Percentage lunged upwards last season, to a scalding-hot 13.7-percent and “oh-by-the-way,” Carpenter has never suffered in this area as he’s always been way over the League-average of 6.7-percent. The guy connects with the baseball when he gets regular at-bats. Granted his .472 wOBA was way over his xwOBA of .362 which is a fancy way to say he played well above where he probably should have been, but the Yankees would/should be thrilled if he regresses a bit. He’s valuable.
Carpenter has shown an ability to not play for several days, then when his number is called, he steps in and is able to deliver. If you put him on the shelf for a couple of months, then that’s another matter, but that’s true with just about any Major Leaguer. The point is, he’s perfect for a regular bench role and combined with Pederson, Carpenter would give the Yankees two additional left-handed bats to pair with Cabrera, hopefully Rizzo and quite possibly, the next player we’ll be getting to.
With one quality left-handed bat secured, what’s next? Is Matt Carpenter the full time answer at DH, while also being versatile enough defensively to provide a reason to sign him? Is his veteran ability translatable as being a floor bench piece with a ceiling as a regular?
Unfortunately, there isn’t much help available through free agency that will bolster a Matt Carpenter signing. Josh Bell is a switch-hitter but the juice isn’t really worth the squeeze with him at this point and he kind of proved that once San Diego traded for him at last year’s Deadline. The Yankees need left-handed production badly, but there’s just not a lot of worthwhile talent out there that makes sense.
Accepting this is the first part to visualizing what Plan-B, life without Judge, looks like. Therefore, the Yankees need to bring Carpenter back and hope for the best, while also adding not one, but two valuable outfielders. Doing this involves opening a few spots on the Yankees Active Roster, but where to start?
Moving on From Aaron Hicks
Another issue that Brian Cashman has facilitated is that the Yankees have been saddled with the untradable Aaron Hicks for several years now, a result of the seven year, $70-million extension that Cashman extended to Hicks in 2019. Though Hicks managed 384 at-bats this past season, he’s simply not a valuable offensive player, though he’s still a capable left fielder defensively.
It all adds up to Hicks unfortunately having tremendous negative trade value (-20.6-million). Not a team in baseball wants him and for Cashman to move him, he’d have to pay the remaining $29.5-million that’s still owed to Hicks over the remaining three-seasons of his deal. The only real question to ask is, if you’re trying to build a World Series contender, should Aaron Hicks be kept around for defensive reasons or should he be DFA’d?
Fangraphs rates 2022 Aaron Hicks as a +1.5 f-WAR player, assessing him with a negative offensive value of -2.6 and a positive defensive value of +2.1. Based on the $10.5-million that Cashman spent on Hicks in 2022, he actually was barely worth it. Fangraphs assessed that if Hicks were a free agent last season, he’d have been worth $11.6-million on the open market. This means that, if the bulk of his salary was absorbed by the Yankees, Hicks could be unloaded easily enough.
Is there any compelling reason to keep Hicks around? 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 still, 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.
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.
With Hicks likely traded and the Yankees having to eat a 2023 AAV-payroll hit of $10.5-million (and $9.5-mil for ‘24 and ‘25), we can turn our attention to what has been a very persistent and complex problem for the Yankees under Cashman’s watch.
The last time the Yankees won a World Series, they were built strong up the middle thanks to Gene Michael’s ability to stick with players he knew would pay long term dividends. Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams both panned out very nicely for the Yankees. I’ll examine center field and left field in my next article, then I’ll take a crack at solving not only the shortstop position, but the infield as well.