Do the Yankees Need Another Infielder?
As a result of the Brian Cashman’s moves in December (trading Starlin Castro for Giancarlo Stanton; trading Chase Headley for Jabari Blash), the Yankees find themselves without a credible veteran presence at second and third base. The current starters would likely come from a trio of rookies: Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade, along with the possibility of utility player Ronald Torreyes of earning a starting shot in Spring Training. The question is, can a team hoping to reach the World Series in October live to get there while playing multiple rookies?
Last season, the team won 91 games with Castro and Headley playing regularly. In addition to breakout seasons from the two Aarons (Judge and Hicks), it has to be noted that the Yankees received above normal production from both of the since departed infielders. Headley posted a 100 OPS+, an advance over the 94 he had posted over the previous three seasons. Castro provided a 106 OPS+, even more substantially above the 97 aggregate for his previous three years than Headley’s sudden offensive output. Yet, despite those improvements in offense over previous years, both players were essentially league average. Defensive metrics weren’t kind to both players, either: Headley posted a -11 DRS at third, while Castro limped to -8 DRS at second. Really, replacing these two former Yankees with simply league average production, both offensively and defensively, would actually mark an improvement from 2017.
Another factor to consider is the Yankees well and often stated desire to drop below the $197 million salary tax threshold and how any available veterans would fit into that framework. Let’s take a look at some of the names who’ve been rumored to possibly heading to the Yankees.
- Josh Harrison, Pirates: Harrison provides adequate defense at both second and third, along with the ability to play both outfield corners. He also brings better than average contact skills, striking out in only 15% of his plate appearances over the past three seasons. He’s also in the last year of his contract, owed a little under $12 million (including team buyouts of options), which might be doable. But he’s only managed a 95 OPS+ over the last three years, and Pittsburgh will want a decent prospect return for one of their more valuable players.
- Todd Frazier, Free Agent: The Yankees have familiarity with Frazier, having swung a deadline trade for him last year. I think many Yankee fans would love to see Frazier return, as he proved to not only be an excellent defender, but gave the team a much needed lift in both the clubhouse and the lineup. He also brings some defensive versatility, although metrics aren’t kind to his glovework at first base. But Frazier is looking for a multi-year contract, will be entering his age 32 season and while he has averaged a 110 OPS+ and 34 homers over the last three seasons, his production is already declining. It’s hard to see him agreeing to take a pay cut from the $15 million he earned last year on a short term contract, and I doubt the Yankees are looking to make a long term commitment to a player who’s shown declining production.
- Mike Moustakas, Free Agent: By all accounts, Moustakas would bring many of the same team leadership traits as Frazier. He’s also three years younger and profiles as better offensive threat than Frazier, having averaged a 117 OPS+ over the past three years with his production on an upswing. No doubt his lefty power would play well in Yankee Stadium and provide a valuable counterweight to the Yankees predominately right handed line-up. While his defense isn’t quite the caliber of Frazier or Harrison, nor does he provide any defensive versatility, he also isn’t a liability with the glove at third. In short, he would be a massive upgrade over Headley. But he is represented by Scott Boras, the one agent who’s known for extracting maximum contracts for his players. A 6 year, $120 million contract for Moustakas seems reasonable, but such a contract would blow apart the Yankees budget.
- Manny Machado, Orioles: This one strikes me as far-fetched. It’s arguable that he is the best third baseman in the game today. Even if the Yankees could somehow convince the Orioles to trade their best player within the division, there are a couple of additional roadblocks. First, Machado wants to return to shortstop, his original position – but the Yankees already have an all-star caliber shortstop, who also happens to be a team leader, in Didi Gregorius. Second, Machado is in the last year of his contract and is widely expected to receive a contract next year that would dwarf Giancaralo Stanton’s. While I suspect the Yankees could make Machado a very happy third baseman by giving him a 10 year, $400 million contract extension (not unreasonable, no matter how crazy that sounds), that would absolutely blow away any hopes of getting back under the salary cap this year.
- Jed Lowrie, A’s: To me, giving up prospects for Lowrie would be a waste of resources. The veteran is entering his age 34 season, has had trouble staying on the field and only sports a league average bat (102 OPS+). While he is capable of playing third, second or short, the only position he’s played decently over recent seasons is second. The only positive he brings to the conversation is that he’s only owed $8 million on an expiring contract.
- Yangveris Solarte: Solarte broke into the majors with the Yankees in 2014 and became an immediate feel-good story. The he was traded (ironically, for Chase Headley) midseason and since then has been, well, Chase Headley. While Solarte can play third, second or first, his glovework hovers between statuesque and terrible while only wielding a 105 OPS+. The only positive he brings to the equation is he won’t reach free agency until 2020, but that seems like something that would be more useful to a team like the Marlins than the Yankees.
So, back to the Yankees in-house options. Torres is the big name here. He is currently the second-ranked prospect in all of professional baseball and, despite only being 21 years old, seemed ticketed to making his major league debut last year. Nobody has much doubt about his talent level. The questions regard seasoning; he only has 96 AAA at bats and 139 in AA. Not even 300 professional at bats in the two highest major league levels would mean a lot of learning in the major leagues. Not that a player with Torres’ talent level is incapable of making that jump; after all, the Red Sox Rafael Devers played extremely well with similar minor league experience before coming up. A bigger question might be his defense, and again strictly from an experience standpoint. To date, Torres only has 83 professional innings at second base, which would be his presumed position in the Bronx. Again, it’s not a question of talent. But a second baseman who has only turned two double plays in his life poses a lot of questions about how well he can handle the position.
Andujar may be the most intriguing player in the bunch. Originally signed in 2012, he finally started to put it all together in 2016. Last year was something of a breakout year for him. Most scouts aren’t worried about his ability to hit major league pitching (in a one game call-up, he went 3-4 with 4 RBI). Rather, the questions surround the third baseman’s ability to field his position. However, it isn’t a question of physical tools. Andujar has above average arm strength and range. Rather, he has a troubling tendency to make mental errors and rush plays, which have contributed to a subpar .917 career fielding percentage. It should be noted that his defense has been steadily improving over each of the past three seasons.
Wade rode the Scranton Shuttle more than any other Yankees prospect last season, managing to get into 30 games with the big club. He is the most versatile player on this list, able to play 7 positions. While he undeniably flopped in the majors last year, it should also be noted he entered the season as the Yankees #17 prospect and was scheduled to play his first full season in AAA. He brings an interesting mix of offensive skills to the table, with consistent doubles power (that might translate into a few more homers with experience) and blinding speed.
Finally, there’s Torreyes. He’s spent the last two seasons as the Yankees utility player, playing second, third, short and taking a few turns in the outfield. While he’s one of those guys you love to root for (and the shortest man to play baseball not named Altuve), there’s a reason he’s been a utility player and not a starter. While he plays numerous positions passably, he isn’t terrific at any of them. As for his offensive skills, that career 81 OPS+ says about all you need to know.
My guess is that while a veteran infielder certainly makes some sense, it isn’t an area of absolute need for these Yankees. If something falls into their laps, terrific. But I don’t see them jumping into a bidding war for any of the available free agents, and I don’t see them going crazy to make a deal for any of the trade candidates. I suspect the season will open with Andujar at third, Torres at second and Torreyes retaining his utility role, with Wade in Scranton to work on his game. By midseason, should either of the youngsters find themselves floundering, the same resources the Yankees have available now will be available then. And odds are, the same cast of available options will be there, as well.
The Yankees Next Big Move…
…should be to dump Jacoby Ellsbury and as much of the $68.5 million he’s owed, for whatever they can get. A big of peanuts would be acceptable. And then after that? Nothing.
This might sound like something of a letdown to my fellow Yankee fans. After all, the stated goal is to win the World Series. But that’s the stated goal every year, and by doing nothing else this offseason, the team would be primed for a five or six year run. The type of run reminiscent of the 1996-2001 team.
Let’s review: this past season, the Yankees rode a home-run happy offense, a strong starting rotation and dominant bullpen to within one game of the fall classic. Youngsters Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and Clint Frazier powered the offense. Jordan Montgomery, Sonny Gray, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Chad Green anchored the pitching staff. Those 11 players, all under 28 years old, provide a strong core to build around for both the present and the future. Now, this offseason, the Yankees stunned the world by acquiring the NL MVP, Giancarlo Stanton (age 28) and his 59 home runs in exchange for Starlin Castro.
Before that move, the favorites in the American League were the Yankees and the Houston Astros and that remains the case now. Yes, the Red Sox and Indians remain strong contenders, but both of those teams have enough questions that they do not appear ready to challenge the top two teams. Given that dynamic, I can understand the Yankees fan desire to maybe grab a third baseman and another starting pitcher. If one falls into their laps, okay – but here’s why I wouldn’t go crazy looking right now.
With an eye to the present and the future, the Yankees have a trio of rookies they can try at second and third in Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade. While it would be atypical of the “Yankee Way,” I would play Torres and Andujar on opening day and let Wade fill a super utility role. Based on their minor league careers and pedigrees, it’s a little hard to imagine all three turning into major league pumpkins. Since they would likely hit at the bottom of the order, any offensive struggles wouldn’t impair the juggernaut the Yankees have assembled throughout the rest of the lineup. If they can excel, then the Yankees have found some diamonds and next offseason can be spent on luxury items (Bryce Harper? Clayton Kershaw?). If they look as lost as lambs, then the Yankees can use their payroll flexibility to go after necessities (say, Manny Machado and DJ LeMahieu). If they’re simply better than average players, they can be spun for value in trades for other pieces, while going after superstar talent to replace them.
Therein lies the biggest reason for dumping Ellsbury. Whether the Yankees go into next offseason looking for extra goodies or to address vital needs, they’ll probably look to add somewhere north of $50 million in AAV. When you add in the salaries for their existing core, there really is no room to pay a 5th outfielder $23 million, while retaining enough flexibility to make further moves as the years go by. Again, this isn’t just about winning in 2018. It’s about winning in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 – and so on.
As far as 2018 goes, the Yankees lineup (even with two rookies starting daily) is every bit as potent as Houston’s, and decidedly better than Boston or Cleveland’s. The starting staff, including the minor league depth, lines up favorably with Boston and Cleveland and is a step above Houston’s. The key is to maintain that position this year and see how far we can go, while setting up to get a talent base that eclipses everyone else by 2019.