How can Yankees balance lineup, better support Aaron Judge?


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Two hundred ninety million dollars does not go as far as it once did.

For the Yankees, it is not even the No. 1 payroll in New York — it will be roughly $100 million less than the Mets’ if the Mets finalize a deal with Carlos Correa.

At a nearly $290 million projection for luxury-tax purposes, the Yankees have the second-largest payroll in the majors, a franchise record and yet still not a substantial enough outlay to extinguish concerns about the offense. The Yankees, as constituted today, appear a run-prevention dynamo and a run-scoring question mark.

The run prevention can be undone by an injury or two or underperformance. But an already greatly improved defense from 2021 to 2022 should only be more so with a full season of Harrison Bader in center and an upgrade at shortstop with Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe. Carlos Rodon could provide a co-ace to Gerrit Cole with Nestor Cortes, Luis Severino and Frankie Montas rounding out a quintet that combined to strike out 29.1 percent of hitters faced in 2022.

Though the big names (and salaries) are out of the Yankees bullpen, Clay Holmes, Michael King, Jonathan Loaisiga and Wandy Peralta are a superb quartet — and Tommy Kahnle, Ron Marinaccio and Lou Trivino would be part of most teams’ main relief contingents. One more trustworthy lefty reliever would be beneficial — particularly with Scott Effross, a righty who excels at retiring lefties, out for the season. Plus, King’s health is a question mark, especially to begin the schedule. But the Yankees have been superb for years at finding useful bullpen arms.

As for the offense, I suspect the Yankees will be among the highest-scoring teams. It is just that there are far more questions on that side. The Yankees averaged 4.98 runs per game in 2022, second in the majors. But Aaron Judge carried an inordinate weight, especially in a second half when injury and downturns in performance around Judge put an even greater burden on the Yankees slugger.

A modest regression from Aaron Judge’s otherworldly numbers last season would put a dent in the Yankees offense.
Corey Sipkin

One near-certainty is that Judge will not be as good in 2023 as he was in 2022. If Judge has a 45-homer, .950-OPS season, it will put him in contention for an MVP award, yet still be down substantially from a 62-homer, 1.111-OPS tour de force. It should not be minimized that Judge played 15 more games in 2022 than any other Yankee and had 124 more plate appearances than second-place Gleyber Torres. A dip in performance or durability by Judge is going to burden others in the Yankees lineup to be more than chorus members.

Where will they make up that difference? For 3Up, let’s delve into the three biggest issues: who plays left field, where the lefty bats are and how the infield sets up. There is a lot of overlap here. For example, Oswaldo Cabrera can play left, the middle infield and offer a lefty presence as a switch-hitter. But let’s dive in:

1. Who’s in left?

If the season began today, the Yankees would have Cabrera or Aaron Hicks stationed next to Harrison Bader and Aaron Judge.

Of course, the season does not begin today.

The Yankees were very involved in trade talks with the Diamondbacks about lefty-swinging Daulton Varsho, who instead was dealt just before Christmas to the AL East rival Blue Jays for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and catcher Gabriel Moreno, one of the top prospects in the game.

The Yankees’ preferred solution was to retain Andrew Benintendi. However, they budgeted this offseason for either Rodon or Benintendi, and Rodon was the priority. The Yankees would have gone to five years on a Benintendi offer had they not signed Rodon. But they did sign Rodon, so Benintendi agreed with the White Sox for five years at $75 million.

Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds (10) runs to third on a double hit by designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach (not pictured) in the first inning against against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.
Though Bryan Reynolds has requested a trade out of Pittsburgh, the switch-hitting outfielder with three more seasons of team control won’t be easy to acquire.

The best solution available is Pittsburgh switch-hitter Bryan Reynolds, who has requested a trade. One executive from another team with interest (not the Yankees) thinks it will be difficult to find a deal with the Pirates, saying, “They are saying they need to be blown away to do a deal or they will hold.”

Reynolds cannot be a free agent until after the 2025 season, so the Pirates are not under control-related duress to trade him. Plus, there are executives who feel the Pirates do not want to set the NBA-like precedent of a star getting his way after asking out, thus encouraging others to do so, especially from fellow small-market franchises. The Pirates either get the blow-away deal or hold onto Reynolds and reconsider a move in July.

The Yankees have some interest in free agent Jurickson Profar. But the switch-hitter opted out of a $7.5 million 2023 contract with the Padres with designs to get more on a multi-year contract. The Yankees appear to have no interest in doing that. David Peralta could be a one-year, lefty-swinging stopgap, but there has not appeared to be a lot of traction there.

The Yankees previously have had interest in the Twins’ Max Kepler, who is due $8.5 million in 2023 and is available from a lefty-heavy team that only became more so by signing Joey Gallo.

The Yankees also theoretically could sign a righty-hitting outfielder such as Adam Duvall or Andrew McCutchen and pair him in a platoon with Cabrera. But the Yankees are so righty-dominant that adding another hitter from that side of the plate would be a mistake.

I think the Yankees are likely to slow-play this through the spring to see whether prices drop on Reynolds in the trade market, Profar in free agency or if something else opens up. That raises the possibility that they are going with what they have, at least to open the season, which is currently Cabrera, Estevan Florial and Hicks.

Minnesota Twins' Max Kepler watches his two-run home run off Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Trevor Bauer during the third inning of a baseball game Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Cleveland.
Max Kepler’s lefty bat would provide some much-needed balance to the Yankees’ lineup, and he might be available after the Twins signed Joey Gallo this winter.

Florial is out of options, and I just don’t see the Yankees investing the at-bats necessary to find out whether he can be a useful player. He would be on my list of those most likely to be traded before the season opener. I think it is why the Yankees spoke to a lot of lefty-hitting outfielders such as Kole Calhoun to see if they could get minor league free-agent deals and ultimately reached agreements with Willie Calhoun and Billy McKinney to have Triple-A depth if/when Florial is gone.

As for Cabrera, the Yankees need his September surge to be real. Anthony Rizzo is the lone lefty hitter in the everyday lineup. There is a baseball adage about not being fooled by results in March or September. From Sept. 10 until the end of the regular season on Oct. 5, Cabrera’s .984 OPS was 12th in the majors, between Pete Alonso (1.000) and Brandon Nimmo (.965). Is that real or a mirage? Cabrera has versatility, a high baseball IQ and the ability to hit lefty with some pop. The 2023 Yankees need all of that, but would probably prefer that his 400-500 plate appearances in that scenario come moving around the diamond rather than just stationed in left.

That would leave Hicks. He has three years at $30.5 million left on an ill-fated (for the Yankees) deal. Can the Yankees hope that further removed from May 2021 wrist surgery, Hicks can approach being a league-average offensive performer? Even during a dreadful 2022, Hicks still walked in 13.7 percent of his plate appearances. Can he hit 15 homers and get on base 34 percent of the time? That would allow him to play regularly and Cabrera to rove more, giving the Yankees two switch-hitters to regularly join Rizzo from the left side.

But Hicks is 33 now. There have always been questions about how much he is motivated by baseball. Now, there are real questions about whether he can play amid the booing directed at him in The Bronx. He had a .523 OPS at home last year (it was .732 on the road) — the third-lowest for any player who had at least 175 plate appearances at home.

2. Who plays the infield?

Josh Donaldson is to the infield what Hicks is to the outfield. He has a roster spot and potentially a role because he has a sizable contract that the Yankees are trying to justify having on the books. Between his 2023 salary and 2024 buyout, Donaldson is owed $27 million. As with Hicks, the Yankees have not found a trade to, at minimum, reduce some of that cost. Both would begin the season as target practice for booing Yankees fans.

Josh Donaldson #28 of the New York Yankees throws to first
Josh Donaldson’s third-base defense last season was solid, but his offensive decline means he’s unlikely to make it through 2023 with a consistent role on the Yankees.
Getty Images

No one should be surprised if Donaldson and/or Hicks are not regular players by some point during the season — or even are outright released. But at this moment, both have roles, perhaps significant ones. Brian Cashman has described Donaldson as the starting third baseman.

Donaldson will play at the age of 37 next season and would not win a popularity contest in the Yankees clubhouse. What is his upside? That he plays defensively like he did in 2022 (his fielding at third base was strong) and he hits close to what he did with the Twins in 2021 (26 homers/.827 OPS)? Is that possible for a player who, including the playoffs, struck out in 46 of his final 128 at-bats?

Donaldson is part of a cluttered Yankees infield picture that needs to be thinned by trades, releases or keeping potentially major-league-ready players in the minors. It should be remembered that if DJ LeMahieu were healthy that he, not Donaldson, would have been the Yankees third baseman in last year’s playoffs. But LeMahieu had a fractured sesamoid bone in his right big toe that wrecked the last few months of his regular season, kept him out of the postseason and makes him a 2023 mystery.

There was a period from May 31 to Aug. 12 last season during which LeMahieu played in 62 games and hit .303 with an .874 OPS, walking 47 times against 33 strikeouts. He played like the MVP contender of 2019-20 while defending well at first base, second and especially third.

But here is the thing: This two-plus-month run of success came after he seemed to fully distance himself from core surgery he needed soon after the 2021 season and before he suffered the foot injury.

The reports this offseason have been excellent on LeMahieu. He has, to date, avoided surgery on his foot. He has been working out in Tampa for about a month, and the word is he is moving and feeling well. But the Yankees should not be seduced by this or the two months of excellence last year. There is still a really good player in LeMahieu, but he plays a pounding style that may make it impossible for him to make it through the season healthy as he approaches his 35th birthday in July. It may be that he will have to be protected from himself and limited — even without any IL stints — to a 125-game player.

New York Yankees DJ LeMahieu watches his two run home run
DJ LeMahieu’s grind-it-out approach is effective when he’s on the field, but also makes him susceptible to injuries.
Corey Sipkin

The best Yankees team has LeMahieu, with his on-base skills, batting leadoff ahead of Judge and playing mainly third base. But even the healthy version of LeMahieu should be limited to starting four of every five games because getting a player who can hit good playoff pitching to the actual playoffs has to be the goal.

So if Rizzo is at first and either Donaldson or LeMahieu is at third, who is in the middle infield?

Start with this question: Can Torres be both the Yankees player most likely to be traded and the most likely to be their second-best offensive player?

If LeMahieu is healthy and Peraza, Cabrera and Volpe perform well as early as spring training, could the Yankees deal Torres? The Yankees do not appear to want to exceed the $293 million top luxury-tax threshold, and they are lingering with that $290 million projection. Torres would save them about $10 million if he is shipped out, opening payroll space for additions. The $6 million owed to Isiah Kiner-Falefa also is in play.

But Torres did hit 24 homers last year. He just turned 26. It is possible he could return to his 2019 version. That season, he had an extra-base hit in 11.2 percent of his plate appearances (including 38 homers) and walked 8 percent of the time. Compare that even to his rebound 2022 season, when he registered an extra-base hit 8.7 percent of the time and a 6.8 percent walk rate.

His 2022 numbers were good, but were wrecked from being much better than that by a 34-game period from July 30-Sept. 9, when he hit .168 with a .464 OPS and struck out in 32.6 percent of his plate appearances. That coincided with others, notably LeMahieu and Donaldson, also cratering around Judge.

New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres #25 watches his two-run home run to tie the game  during the 8th inning.
With 24 homers and 6.8 percent walk rate, Gleyber Torres had a bounce-back season at the plate last year.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The Yankees are going to have to diagnose whether they are a better team with whatever they can get for Torres in a trade and some combination of Cabrera, Kiner-Falefa, LeMahieu, Peraza and Volpe playing second base.

Which brings us to Cabrera/Peraza/Volpe. I think it would be a greater setback for the Yankees if Kiner-Falefa were playing shortstop to open 2023 than if Donaldson is playing third or Hicks is playing left. The Yankees have now shunned two straight starry free-agent shortstop classes because of their belief in Peraza and Volpe. They just lost another ALCS to the Astros, who replaced the one star shortstop who has been in both free-agent classes (Carlos Correa) with Jeremy Peña, who as a rookie was the MVP of both the ALCS and the World Series.

Among the biggest mistakes by the 2022 Yankees was ignoring a jitteriness to Kiner-Falefa’s game that showed both on and off the field. Once the Aug. 2 trade deadline passed without a new shortstop, the Yankees needed to summon Peraza and play him every day to see whether he was a better all-around answer. In September, Peraza played well enough that he should have been made the shortstop and left alone because — if nothing else — the defense was clearly superior.

The Yankees have said there is going to be an open competition at shortstop during the spring. Though Volpe has played just 22 games past Double-A at shortstop, he should not be dismissed. If the Yankees think Volpe is ready and the best choice, they will go with him. It is hard to remember a prospect since Phil Hughes that the Yankees have liked more than Volpe — they did not even think as highly of Judge at the same stage.

If I had to bet on a scenario — and this is mainly guesswork — I would bet Peraza wins the shortstop job, Torres is at second, Volpe begins the year at Triple-A and Kiner-Falefa is traded. I would remember that the Yankees and Twins made a trade just as spring training was beginning last year that brought Kiner-Falefa and Donaldson to the Yankees. The Twins continue to like Kiner-Falefa. They are overloaded with lefty hitters, and I keep wondering whether Kiner-Falefa might be part of a package that gets Kepler to play left field for the Yankees while also saving Minnesota about $2.5 million.

Anthony Volpe #7 of the American League at bat during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game against the National League at Dodger Stadium on July 16, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Anthony Volpe has only played 22 games above Double-A, but there’s a chance he could be playing in the Yankees infield this summer.
Getty Images

With the elimination of extreme shifts, the Yankees also need Peraza and Volpe to eventually emerge as their double-play tandem. With bigger bases and restrictions on pickoff throws, the Yankees need Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe to become threats on the bases.

Can Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe combine for 45 homers, 45 steals and above-average defense? Is a combined 60 homers and 60 steals in play? They are the wild cards to just how good the Yankees are going to be in 2023.

3. But let’s talk about other wild cards.

At this point, Giancarlo Stanton is entering Year 6 with the Yankees. There is an established track record: Stanton will find his way to the IL once or twice, and he will go through extended power-laden periods during which he carries the team and extended strikeout-filled periods during which he looks as if he has never played baseball before.

Stanton hit just .211 last season. The last time a Yankee batted as often (at least 452 times) and hit for a lower average was Jerry Kenney in 1970, when he batted .193.

Stanton is a contradiction as a Yankee. Wind him up and he will hit 30 homers. He has shown a propensity for postseason long balls. When he is hot, Stanton is as fearsome a force as Judge. Yet his inability to play the field with any regularity combined with the prolonged slumps, righty bat and large contract often makes him a detriment to the offense in general, lefty-righty diversity in the lineup and Hal Steinbrenner’s willingness to spend elsewhere.

And whatever Stanton is now, remember he is signed through 2027, his age-37 campaign. That will be Judge’s age-35 season, when Judge might need to be parked at the DH more. How long can the Yankees roster both players?

Giancarlo Stanton #27 of the New York Yankees reacts after he is called out on strikes to end the 7th inning.
Giancarlo Stanton hit a career-low .211 in 2022 while striking out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

That is a question for another year. In 2023, the Yankees need to ask if Stanton can return to the .273 average and .354 on-base percentage and 579 plate appearances he put up in 2021 to help compensate for any dropoff from Judge?

And what do we make of Bader? He hit five homers in nine postseason games last year. Was that aberration, or, as he enters his age-28 season and his walk year, is Bader ready to add an offensive component to his game to complement being one of the game’s best defensive center fielders? Is a 20-homer/20-steal season possible? If so, Nimmo’s eight-year, $162 million free-agent pact might be a baseline for what Bader can get next offseason.

The other internal wild cards are not in play to begin the season, but assuming none are used in a trade to acquire someone such as Reynolds, is there a point at which switch-hitting outfielder Jasson Dominguez, righty-hitting outfielder Everson Pereira and/or lefty-swinging catcher Austin Wells can offer impact to the 2023 team? Because the surest way to avoid lots of questions about the offense going into 2024 as well is if the Yankees farm system is ready to offer up real impact in the next 12-24 months from several of their better prospects, notably Cabrera, Peraza, Volpe, Dominguez, Pereira, Wells and perhaps two other lefty bats, Elijah Dunham and Trey Sweeney, too.

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