Lots to cover today and we’re finally in a dynamic environment in MLB so let’s get right to it: The Yankees are better today than they were yesterday.
Josh Donaldson has been a very good and remarkably consistent player for a long time. Between 2013 and 2021, he’s posted between a 119 and 153 OPS+ each season and has averaged 6.0 bWAR per 162 games over that same stretch. He had a tough stretch of injuries in 2018 and 2020 (who didn’t?) but had a great 2019 in between and only missed 12 games due to injury in 2021 – a season in which he posted a 127 OPS+ and 3.2 bWAR. And if you’re curious, he was significantly better with the glove last season than Gio Urshela was.
As far as Isiah Kiner-Falefa goes, you only need to know one thing if you’re a Yankee fan: He can field the shortstop position on a better-than-average level. Given the size of the issue that’s been for the Yankees for two and a half years, that in itself makes the team better. (Also, he’s a plus baserunner, which on the Keystone Cops Yankees is a big plus as well.) Despite being below average at the plate in 2021, Kiner-Falefa still managed to produce 3.7 bWAR and 4.0 WARP in 2021, and speaking of his weak bat: Baseball Prospectus gave him a tick below league average 95 DRC+, which is ten points higher than both his OPS+ and wRC+.
Why is that significant? DRC+ is more based on what the batter did as opposed to the results, as OPS+ and wRC+ are. As a result, since his DRC+ is much higher than the other two this may indicate he performed much better with the bat last season than his numbers would indicate, and he may be due for a breakout.
24-year-old Catcher Ben Rortvedt only got 98 PA in his 2021 rookie campaign, so there’s not much to go on offensively, but both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus rated him as above average defensively in his 39 games. Perhaps filling the glass half full the most is that it wasn’t that long ago he was considered a top 100 prospect in MLB. Although the Yankees are rolling the dice (assuming they’ll platoon the lefty-hitting Rortvedt with Kyle Higashioka), Higgy does have 8 career-long balls against left-handed pitching in only 126 career at-bats.
As far as what’s going the other way, it’s really hard “not” to like Gio Urshela, and he’ll definitely be missed. That said, even his biggest supporters have to admit that perhaps the flash was no longer in the pan. After being great over 2019 and the shortened 2020 season, Gio was not very good last year, and that’s putting it delicately because I like him. Despite the fantastic hands at the hot corner, his lack of range makes his defense less than great, and based on his (very weak) batted ball metrics from Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant his performance was even worse than his numbers suggested. As much as it hurts to say, this may have been the perfect time to cut bait with Gio.
With regards to Gary Sánchez, I’ve been one of his biggest defenders in front of the Yankees’ fan mob that’s hounded him for years. Obviously, I saw the warts, but even with the ups and downs, when it was all added up he was usually still better than a league-average catcher. Yet even that trended in the wrong direction last season, and it became harder to defend his play, even for me. “Make or break” might be too strong of a term, but the 2022 season is a very important one for Gary Sánchez with regards to his future. Regardless, I think by and large he took unnecessarily harsh criticism during his Bronx tenure, so I wish him the best – I’d like to see him do well in Minnesota.
Yet questions still remain. Donaldson was rather vocal during the “sticky stuff” scandal last season, specifically with regards to Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole. Some may be concerned about how Donaldson will be welcomed in the Yankees’ clubhouse, but I’m not. The Yankees welcomed Wade Boggs even though there was some tension regarding him and Don Mattingly, and Boggs was not well-liked by Yankees’ fans prior to his arrival. Roger Clemens spent 1998 beaning Yankees’ batters, including Derek Jeter, and they still figured that out. Heck, even Armando Benítez became a Yankee without incident.
The more interesting question to me, is why would the Yankees – who of late have become stingy – take on $48 million guaranteed on to their payroll? (Currently, they’re $12 million over the new salary cap…uh, sorry…”luxury tax threshold”.) Could this mean they’re going to flip Donaldson in another trade? Clearly, Oakland has started their fire sale – could Donaldson be going elsewhere as part of a three-team trade that may send one or more of Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and/or Chris Manaea to the right coast? (All three of whom would be VERY welcomed in the Bronx…)
Regardless, the bottom line is the Yankees are better than they were yesterday. The defense on the left side of the infield is much better, the baserunning is better and the combination of Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa was better offensively than Urshela and Sánchez were last season. Much remains to be seen, but this is a good day in Yankee land.
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