The Yankees’ Chase for Improvement

Did the Yankees do enough to close the gap?

The 2022 American League Championship Series was over in four games. The eventual World Series champions, the Houston Astros, swept the New York Yankees. It was a pathetic performance by the Yankees, who only managed to score nine combined runs in the series, with over half of those runs delivered in the series finale that propelled the Astros to the World Series.

Despite possessing the American League’s single-season record-setting home run champion, Aaron Judge, who hit 62 during the regular season, the reason for the ALCS loss was simple. The Yankees could not hit. The outcome may have looked different if DJ LeMahieu (fractured foot) and Andrew Benintendi (broken hamate bone) had been able to play. Still, with all sincerity, the Astros would have won in six or seven games even if LeMahieu and/or Benintendi had been on the field. 

Heading into the offseason, it was clear the Yankees had work to do to close ground with the Astros. The focus of the offseason was Aaron Judge (as it should have been). Still, despite paying $360 million over nine years to bring back the 2022 American League Most Valuable Player, the move does not improve the Yankees. It only prevented them from being worse than they were in October. The same can be said of Anthony Rizzo, who opted out of his contract and quickly re-signed with the team in November. Both men were on the field for the losses to the Astros.

Setting those positions aside, the Yankees needed to address several positions with aggressiveness—left field, shortstop, and pitching (both starting and relief). Andrew Benintendi performed well in left field after his acquisition at the trading deadline (and seemed to be the type of player needed to add diversity to the lineup). Still, the broken hamate bone prematurely ended his season. Although the Yankees were interested in bringing Benny back when he hits free agency after the season, they were unwilling to make a five-year commitment like the Chicago White Sox did. Benintendi took $75 million for five years from the White Sox, leaving a void in left field for the Yankees. 

There were endless rumors about Brian Reynolds, who had requested a trade from his current employer, the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Pirates asking price is said to be a King’s Ransom. Reynolds would be a definite upgrade…a player who could move the needle in the pursuit of the Astros. Nevertheless, an outfield-needy team like the Los Angeles Dodgers has a stronger farm system, making the Yankees a less desirable trade partner for the Pirates, who are said to be seeking upper-echelon pitching. The Yankees have traded away most of their higher-ranked pitching prospects over the past two years. 

The Yankees lost one consistent starting pitcher at the trade deadline last season when they swapped LHP Jordan Montgomery in a surprise last-minute deal with the St Louis Cardinals for CF Harrison Bader. Bader performed well and was particularly effective in the playoffs, so it is hard to find fault with the trade even if Bader was on the Injured List for a few weeks after his acquisition. Another starting pitcher was lost in the offseason when Jameson Taillon became a free agent and subsequently signed with the Chicago Cubs. The Yankees rebounded nicely when they signed free agent LHP Carlos Rodón which you could say is the only position the Yankees improved. Yet, it is not like Taillon was a schlep on the mound. He is a good pitcher. Moving from Taillon to Rodón is not as great as one might think. Rodón is better, but he would not have changed the ALCS outcome. 

A familiar arm was added to the bullpen when the Yankees re-signed high-leverage reliever Tommy Kahnle for his third tour of duty with the Yankees. Kahnle spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2020. Signing Kahnle was nice, but the Yankees bullpen lost Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Chad Green through free agency. I know Chapman is addition by subtraction. After his no-show, literally, in the playoffs last season, he had become persona non-grata. Well, that happened earlier in the season through disastrous outings that cost him his role as the team’s closer, so I am glad he is gone. Britton missed much of the season after Tommy John surgery in 2021. He made a brief, unsuccessful return in September before landing on the Injured List again. Still, he has been a popular Yankee and, when healthy, is a dominant lefthanded sinkerball pitcher at the back end of the bullpen. Green will not pitch in 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery last season. 

Although Kahnle makes up for ineffective and hurt relievers, he does not improve the team. He is simply a needed replacement for the losses. 

This leads us to shortstop. The Yankees have passed on elite free-agent shortstops for the past two seasons. To a degree, I get it. When you are paying your right fielder $40 million per year, you need young, controllable players at other positions to balance out the budget. As it stands, the Yankees are bumping up against the “Steve Cohen” Luxury Tax threshold of $293 million, a threshold that Managing General Partner Hal Steinbrenner seemingly does not wish to cross despite his words about improving the team. 

Bypassing any run at elite free agent shortstops Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, or Trevor Story in the 2021-22 offseason, the Yankees elected to go the ‘stop-gap’ route. The two best prospects in the organization are shortstop Oswald Peraza and top prospect Anthony Volpe; however, neither player was ready for the Major Leagues at the start of the 2022 season. 

The path to the 2022 ‘stop-gap’ starter, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, can be traced to one poor decision by the Yankees on November 30, 2021. I feel the decision made this day is a leading reason for the struggle to find a quality left fielder. Why? On this day, the Yankees elected to tender a contract to catcher Gary Sanchez. Once a bright offensive performer for the Baby Bombers, Gary’s defensive woes and offensive inconsistency had led the fan base to the belief it was time to cut bait with Sanchez. The Yankees had the chance to walk away from Sanchez by simply non-tendering him. Yet, they chose to tender him a contract.

Once the MLB lockout ended, there were rumors the Yankees were interested in acquiring Isiah Kiner-Falefa from the Texas Rangers to fill the void at short. The Rangers subsequently dealt IKF to the Minnesota Twins, but within 24 hours, it was announced the Yankees had acquired IKF, 3B Josh Donaldson, and C Ben Rortvedt for 3B Gio Urshela and Sanchez. So basically, the Yankees took Donaldson and his $21 million per year contract, which runs through 2023, with a $6 million buyout for 2024 to part with Sanchez and gain a potential starting shortstop. By taking the entirety of the contract, the Yankees allowed the Twins to pay Carlos Correa while handing themselves a deterrent to handing out any big money for left field or shortstop.

I am sure the Yankees did not expect Donaldson’s offense to fall off a cliff last year. He is a superior defender, but the Yankees would have been better off with Gio Urshela in 2023. Urshela’s glove passes the eye test more than it does actual defensive statistics. Still, Gio’s stronger offensive performance would have offset the drop-off in defense from Donaldson to Urshela without $21 million devoted to an abyss in the lineup. 

If the Yankees had simply walked away from Gary Sanchez in November 2021, the albatross of Donaldson’s contract could have been avoided. It is money that could have been used to retain Andrew Benintendi or acquire another outfielder with elite bat-to-ball skills and solid defense. 

Yet here we are.

Donaldson’s contract and a hole in left field. General Manager Brian Cashman is trying to sell the fan base on Aaron Hicks despite the obvious attempt to replace him during the trade deadlines for the past two years. Estevan Florial has finally reached his make-it-or-break-it with the Yankees, as he no longer has any options. Florial, once the Yankees’ top prospect, has done nothing to show he identified or hit Major League pitching in his limited big-league opportunities. Oswaldo Cabrera, not a trained outfielder, was effective in left field, but his highest and best asset is his versatility. The proven ability to play both the infield and outfield. He has not caught or pitched, but it would not surprise me if he could successfully handle either one. I say that with jest, but with all sincerity, Cabrera can help the team more by spelling others, not locked into one set position.

The Yankees tried Isiah Kiner-Falefa as their starting shortstop last year, but it is time to move on. Without getting into the flaws of his game, I do not believe IKF has the mental fortitude to succeed in New York. He can make the difficult plays but then botches the easy ones and lets doubt seep into his game. He was replaced at short by Oswald Peraza in the playoffs last year, and Peraza heads into Spring Training as the favorite. Many fans are pulling for a breakout Spring by Anthony Volpe, but I agree with those who believe Volpe is better suited for second base. Regardless, if Peraza or Volpe takes the shortstop gig, IKF’s days are numbered. The Yankees will not retain him as a $6 million backup. Of course, they must find a suitor since it takes two to tango, but I am sure they can find a team. The Twins liked him well enough to trade for him last year. The Twins do not have a need now, having brought back Carlos Correa after his free-agent fiasco with the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets. Yet there should be other interested teams; IKF can be a decent player in a lesser-pressurized environment. 

Spring Training is about to start, and the Yankees have not definitively upgraded their team. If anything, they have maintained the status quo. There is still time to improve, and I am sure Brian Cashman will be working the phones hard between now and Opening Day. The Astros may have lost Justin Verlander, but they have shown the ability to grow their own elite pitchers (something the Yankees should learn). They also upgraded first base by signing Jose Abreu.

I will always wonder what could have been if the Yankees had just said no on November 30, 2021. Better allocation of dollars leads to stronger, more productive teams and enhances the chances for October success.

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