- Lincoln Mitchell
The Yankees’ Shortstop Conundrum
by Lincoln Mitchell
February 16, 2023
As spring training begins, it is still not certain who will be the Yankees starting shortstop this season. I am not sure who should have that job, but I am a bit troubled by how the Yankees are approaching the question. There are four contenders for the position Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Anthony Volpe. It is possible the Yankees will use some combination of these four players throughout the season, but identifying a full time shortstop by, at the latest, the All-Star break strikes me as a far better approach.
There are several things I have seen and heard from the Yankees thus far that are concerning. First, signing Isiah Kiner-Falefa to one year $6 million contract this offseason was a mistake. The money may not be a lot to pay Kiner-Falefa if he is the team’s starting shortstop, but it was apparent in the 2022 postseason that the Yankees do not have much confidence in him for that role. With the emergence of Cabrera, and the presence of DJ LeMahieu on the team, the Yankees do not need another versatile backup infielder-and that is the role for which Kiner-Falefa is best suited. Signing Kiner-Falefa also pushes the Yankees closer to the top salary cap threshold of $293 million. Space under that cap is valuable and using even a few million of that on a position player who the team does not feel can be a starter is a mistake. However, Kiner-Falefa is not overpaid by the standards of baseball in general, so exploring a trade netting either prospects or possibly a left fielder is the best way to address this problem.
The Yankees leadership has indicated the shortstop situation will be resolved during spring training. Basing the resolution to a question like this on spring training is not smart. Teams like the Yankees spend a great deal of money and other resources scouting, observing, and analyzing their players. Throwing all that aside in favor of a perhaps a few dozen plate appearances and plays in the field in exhibition play is absurd. Obviously, it matters who is healthy and who is in good shape, but assuming none of the four players come to camp hurt or out of shape, spring training performance should not be the decisive factor in determining the Yankees primary shortstop for 2023.
There is one other reason why the current muddle over shortstop could have a substantially negative impact. Of these four players only one stands out as a possible centerpiece of future Yankees teams. Only one has the chance to be top offensive player. That one player is Anthony Volpe. He is the crown jewel of the Yankees farm system. That is by no means a guarantee that Volpe will become a star, or even big league regular, but he is the player, of the four contenders, with by far the highest ceiling
When you have a prospect like Volpe, there is a danger in moving him around too much, not being clear on his role or otherwise being inconsistent. Second tier players, like Cabrera and Kiner-Falefa should be moved around to facilitate what is best for Volpe, not the other way around. This means that if the Yankees see Volpe as their future shortstop, then by midseason, unless he is hurt or takes a big step backwards in the minors, he should be in that role. Moving him around to get his bat in the lineup is alluring, but in the long run the small benefit from that is not worth the potential damage to Volpe’s career. A player with his potential should not be spending his time learning a position, like leftfield or second base, if he will only play there for a few months. If the Yankees believe Volpe cannot stick at shortstop at the big league level, then it makes sense for him to begin working at the position, probably second base, they think will be his eventual landing place, but given that he only played shortstop in the minors last year, there is little reason to think the Yankees see him as anything other than a shortstop.
As I see it, the Yankees shortstop situation is clearer than the team seems to be suggesting it is. Peraza has demonstrated he can play shortstop at a big league level. He is cheaper and has a higher ceiling than Kiner-Falefa, so it is best to try to move Kiner-Falefa. Cabrera is most valuable in a backup role that includes some time in left field, so he, barring a rash of injuries, should not be the team’s primary shortstop.
The shortstop question really comes down to Peraza and Volpe. The choice between these two should be based on a handful of considerations. First, is the issue of whether or not Volpe can play shortstop at the big league level. If he cannot, then he should immediately move to second base, and efforts to trade Gleyber Torres should be accelerated. However, if the Yankees think shortstop will be Volpe’s big league position, then they should not move him around the field. The second issue is how good the Yankees project Peraza to be. If he seems he has the potential to be a slightly better than average big league shortstop but not much more, then the Yankees may want to start the season with him, but should be prepared to phase Volpe in by mid-season. The potential complexity would only occur if the Yankees believe Peraza is a sufficiently good prospect that he and Volpe need to both be in the lineup long term. Again, if that is the case Volpe should begin working out at second base immediately.
Figuring out who their shortstop will be is only one part of the Yankees challenge over the next few weeks. The other part is not to mess up Anthony Volpe’s development by moving him around the field too much and putting him at positions where he is not familiar. The important question is not who the opening day shortstop should be, but where the team sees Peraza and Volpe fitting in long term, and how to get from here to there in the smoothest way.