- Patrick Gunn
To Trade or Not to Trade: Yankees Infield Dilemma
by Patrick Gunn
February 16, 2023
The Yankees have a lot of infielders. Particularly, from second base to third, the Bombers have a glut of talented players with young talents Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza, and Anthony Volpe pushing down the door. That opened up a question on this week’s episode of the Bronx Beat Podcast: who is getting traded? We discussed which players are most likely getting moved, focusing on Josh Donaldson, Isaiah Kiner-Falefa, and Gleyber Torres. All three have flaws and strengths that can add to the team But - given the team’s depth issues and injuries - should the Yankees make a move? Our Cary did a great job looking into the issue back in December, but the sun is shining in Tampa, Florida with pitchers and catchers reporting. Let’s delve into the Yankees’ veteran infield options and make the case for moving all of them along with why they would be difficult to trade. Caveat: Anthony Rizzo is being excluded because there is a 0.00000001% chance the Yankees move him, he is their first baseman.
Why Trade him: Offense is important and Donaldson had the worst full-season at the plate since his rookie year. Oh, and he’s 37 years old. Yes, he still had a decent average exit velocity (90.7 mph). Donaldson also saw his hard-hit rate drop nearly 10 points from the last three seasons, his strikeout rate rise six percentage points (to 27.1%), and most of his expected averages turn for the worse (.215 xBA, .370 xSLG, .299 xWOBA). That comes with Donaldson being owed more than $20 million dollars this season with a potential $8 million dollar buyout for next season, per Baseball-Reference. The Yankees are paying a lot for an aging slugger that may not have as much power plus his off-the-field issues - including his racist remarks made to Tim Anderson and numerous times where he stopped and watched deep fly balls instead of running.
Why Keep Him: Defense is also important. And Donaldson still might be one of the best defenders at third base in the league. Outs Above Average (OAA) had him at plus 6 runs saved last year, in the 90th percentile, and top-10 at the position. His arm strength is not what it was, but Donaldson can still pick it at the hot corner and is the Yankees' best option at the position. Also, maybe he bounces back at the plate? He did still hit the ball hard and has typically hit more than 15 home runs, right?
In reality, trading that contract may be impossible. Teams will probably not want to pay more than $20 million dollars for an aging player losing his power that may have clubhouse questions. The Yankees had to answer questions themselves about Donaldson given his comments from just 2021 about Gerrit Cole.
Why Trade Him: Kiner-Falefa served his role well as a stopgap to the young players that elevated the team’s floor on defense. Now the new generation of Baby Bombers are ready and need playing time. The utility player did no favors for himself with his mediocre offensive production, albeit his lack of power and hard contact fell in line with his career up to this point:
Exit Velocity: 86.2 mph in 2022 vs. 85.9 mph career
Hard Hit rate: 30.1% in 2022 vs. 28.9% career
Walk Rate: 6.6% in 2022 vs. 5.8% career
xSlugging: .333 in 2022 vs. .333 career
xWOA: .290 in 2022 vs. .288 career
Kiner-Falefa stayed consistent there, a singles hitter who can get clutch hits but won’t hit many homers. His defense left something to be desired, as OAA placed IKF in the 17th percentile (-3, 27th amongst shortstops) with a putrid arm (24th percentile). Those numbers come with the eye test with IKF double-clutching throws leading to players reaching and some costly, costly errors. That screams decent utility player rather than the stud Aaron Boone presented. Not to mention it is hard to bring back a player you bench in the playoffs.
Why Keep Him: IKF - and Boone - may have been vindicated by a new statistic. Baseball Prospectus’ new metric - Range Defense Average - does paint Kiner-Falefa as one of the best defensive shortstops in the league. The numbers suggest IKF does perform well in comparison with average fielders. I recommend reading the full piece about the data and how it reads, but it suggests that rating defense is difficult. Maybe the Yankees’ brass uses something similar to this? Of course, they still rate his arm as a negative, but maybe there is more to Kiner-Falefa’s defense.
Whatever you make about him at shortstop, IKF has more value as a utility player. He has rated well at third base and can play some second and even catcher. Not to mention, a high-contact player (only 14.8 K% for his career) can make for a solid bench piece.
Why Trade Him: Signing players in their 30s to six+ year deals can be risky and LeMahieu has shown why earlier than expected. A toe injury at the end of last season cut short a productive middle of the year. LeMahieu had more walks than strikeouts in June and July while posting a 0.308 BA a .430 on-base percentage and a rising slugging. His August that dropped to 0.211 BA and a 0.276 OBP with a .274 slugging percentage and 18 strikeouts compared to 9 walks and played just eight games in September and October.
That comes after a 2021 season which LeMahieu played through injuries and put up his worst full season as a Yankee. His availability is a question mark two years into a six-year contract at age 34.
Why Keep Him: Like Donaldson, LeMahieu’s contract limits the Yankees’ abilities to move him. They still owe him $60 million over the next four years as he ages. Teams are not going to want to eat that up for a player dealing with injuries.
And the Yankees still have more reason to keep LeMahieu than trade him. The Bomber’s offense started humming again right as LeMahieu hit his midseason hot streak. And he carried their offense in 2019 and 2020 when Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton delt with injuries. His high contact rate with just enough power - even during non-juiced ball seasons - elevates the team. Not to mention LeMahieu still rates well defensively across three positions. Even with the risk of injuries, LeMahieu is still one of the most important players on the Yankees and they have little reason to move him.
Why Trade Him: Of all the players mentioned, Torres has the most trade value. He is coming off a rebound season of sorts following a putrid 2020-2021 stint where he combined poor hitting (95 OPS+, 6.8% barrel rate, xWOBA around .330) and worse defense at shortstop (-10 combined OAA). The move back to second base saw an uptick in power (from .366 slugging to .451, exit velocity back over 90 mph) and improving defense (0 OAA at second).
That growth comes without Torres reaching his heights from 2018 to 2019. Even at age 26, Torres has yet to hit that star potential with decent power and inconsistent production. The Marlins asked for Torres in a deal involving Pablo López at the deadline last year, per Ken Rosenthal. His Statcast page is solid but nothing jumps off the charts and his strikeout and walk rates did take a turn for the worse, according to MLB Savant:
Why Keep Him: Depth, depth, depth. Torres is still an above-average MLB second baseman and those are hard to come by. Granted, the Yankees can swing for better than that, but still Torres took noticeable improvements last season as a full-time second baseman. He hit 12 total home runs in 169 games in 2020 and 2021. Doubling that toal last year alone shows a major step forward and a willingness to improve. And he has handled the situation defensively pretty well, accepting the move back to second base while playing the position respectively. Torres deserves more credit for his work ethic than he receives.
Not to mention that the Yankees are going to be incorporating even younger players in the near future in Volpe, Peraza, and Cabrera. Torres gives the Yankees a younger experienced presence who also provides insurance if LeMahieu gets hurt.
Overall, Donaldson is the only player I would 100% agree with sending out. He has been a disappointment and the Yankees have the options to move on from him. Torres and IKF, I could see trading if the right move comes along - maybe Bryan Reynolds or someone better. However, both provide depth and versatility to the roster. The Yankees have some time in Spring Training to sort out their infield, but I’m not sure if trading everyone is needed a year after they traded Luke Voit and Gio Urshela while moving Torres off shortstop. The only reason the Bombers should shake it up is if they embrace their youth. That means letting Peraza start the season at shortstop, keeping Cabrera on the roster, and bringing up Volpe when ready. Then we can have more conversations about the futures of Donaldson, IKF, LeMahieu, and Torres.