It almost seems impossible, but pitchers and catchers will be reporting in a mere 10 days. With over 130 free agents still on the market—and some of them actually pretty good—there are many teams that have specific needs.
Brian Cashman and the Yankees could use another pitcher, but if they began the season with their current rotation, it is good enough to compete. But, with the trades of Chase Headley and Starlin Castro, and with Todd Frazier still on the free agent market, the Yankees do have two potential holes to fill.
The pressure to man those two spots is eased by the fact that the remaining seven spots in the Yankees order projects to lead the league in home runs, get on base at an above-average rate, and play above average defense.
The lineup is that good.
Second base and third base do have some intriguing options. The Yankees currently have two potential long-term answers in their system. The question is whether or not those two are answers at the start of the 2018 season. And, because of the state of free agency, the Yankees could sign a one year deal with a number of players who not only could contribute at an above average clip in 2018, but not block the plans of the organization.
The pull for “the next” great player is always great. Rookies are fascinating. We haven’t seen their flaws yet so they offer nothing but possibilities. Right now, everyone wants to see if Gleyber Torres is the next star. The number one prospect in the Yankees’ system, Torres is highly regarded around the league. But, there are a couple of red flags that come with Torres at the start of Spring Training.
Torres played in just 55 games last season before having Tommy John Surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. While TJ surgery recovery is far shorter and much different for position players than it is for pitchers, Torres still must regain strength in that shoulder. He most likely will need time to regain his swing path and power.
Developmentally, Torres may benefit from some more time at Triple-A as he has played all of 23 games at that level and just 55 games above High-A ball. Entering just his age 21 season, Torres has struck out 320 times in his 374 career minor league games. Yes, much of his minor league track record is compiled as a teenager, but allowing him to grow in the Minor Leagues, even for just half of this season, would be best for his career. Plate discipline and some solid work at one specific position, at least for a portion of 2018, in the Minor Leagues would be a great benefit to the young star.
Miguel Andujar actually did make it the Major Leagues last season, having the one big game and winding up with 4 hits (2 doubles) in 7 at bats in his five-game stint in the majors. The knock against Andujar has always been his defense, but the soon to be 23-year old has steadily progressed through the Minor League system since being signed at 16 as an International Free Agent. But, like Torres, Andujar has limited experience in the upper levels of the minotrs, playing just 58 games at Triple-A. Many projection systems have Andujar hitting .260/.310/.425 in 2018 at the Major League level. While that won’t hurt the Yankees lineup, given Andujar’s defensive deficiencies, he could benefit from more time in the Minor Leagues to both improve his defense and grow into his power.
It is completely possible that either or both win a starting job with a stellar spring training. Both are talented, but still unpolished players with high ceilings. Gleyber Torres projects to be a star, while Andujar could be an above average regular. But, handing Torres the second base job and Andujar the third base job seems unlikely and unwise. Either or both will have to win a job; Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone won’t just hand them jobs. Remember, Aaron Judge was almost sent down at the end of Spring Training last year because the battle with Aaron Hicks was so close. The Yankees won’t rush either one.
No Real In-House Options
Ronald Torreyes became one of the central figures of the 2017 Yankees with television cameras often juxtaposing the diminutive infielder with Aaron Judge. The utility infielder appeared in 108 games and posted a solid .292/.314/.375 line with 15 doubles, 1 triple, and 3 home runs. Defensively, Torreyes was average, posting a 0 DRS at second base and slightly below average marks at third and short. Entering his age 25 season, there isn’t much of a ceiling for the utility infielder. Torreyes’ best asset is his versatility. At best, he could be used as a placeholder for Gleyber Torres, but to expect him to hold down a job for an entire season, especially without an elite skill, is unrealistic. Ronald Torreyes as the 25th man on the team is fine, but even that isn’t guaranteed for 2018.
The Yankees did agree to a Minor League deal with Danny Espinosa, who will be entering his age 31 season, his ninth in the Major Leagues. Espinosa was once a top prospect for the Washington Nationals, but has never lived up to that billing. After a somewhat promising start to his career, hitting .242/.319/.408 during his first two seasons, Espinosa’s offensive output has been hampered due to his lack of plate discipline. With a penchant for the strikeout, Espinosa has played for three teams in the past two season and has compiled a line of just .197/.286/.340 with 283 strikeouts in 250 games. Although declining, Espinosa is still an above average defender. The switch-hitter isn’t a regular and will have to earn a spot as a utility man. He seems destined to battle Torreyes for the utility role, at best. He does offer a few skills that Torreyes does not. Espinosa is a better defender at the three infield positions, he is a switch hitter, and does offer some promise of power and speed. Again, that doesn’t make him a viable option to be a starter.
The free agent market seems the most logical choice for the Yankees for a number of reasons. First, given the sloth-like pace of free agency and the fact that Spring Training is about to begin, older free agents will be taking one-year deals at much less money than they expected. For the Yankees, this could allow them to upgrade their two remaining positions and still stay under the salary cap.
Second, the Yankees’ needs are at two positions that have multiple options and not as many suitors. And, they just so happen to be a club that offers a free agent a good offensive environment and the chance to compete deep into the season.
The second base market isn’t as deep as the hot corner and it doesn’t really make sense for the Yankees to invest in a Neil Walker when Gleyber Torres will eventually be ready. And, given their depth of utility type players who fill the profile of a second baseman better, signing even a short term piece isn’t the best use of resources.
Third base seems to be the position with the most suitable options. The easiest, and most logical option would be to bring Todd Frazier back on a short-term deal. Frazier is hoping for a multi-year deal and he still might get that, but Frazier returning to the Bronx on a shorter deal makes sense for both parties. Entering his age 32 season and in a decline, Frazier isn’t likely going to see a deal longer than 2-3 years, but could still get a team to perhaps give him three. That would take him off of the Yankees’ radar, but if the market has truly dialed back and remains this way, a one or two year commitment could make him a valuable signing for the Yankees.
Still a quality defender (+10 DRS last season), Frazier has shown improved plate discipline in each of the past three seasons, as well as quality power. Over the past three seasons, Frazier’s walk total has increased from 44 to 64 to last year’s career best, 84. Bringing back Frazier allows the Yankees the flexibility of giving Torres the job at second base while having some consistency at third base. Additionally, Frazier could be a right-handed option at first base, if the need to sit Greg Bird against southpaws arises.
The other big name option on the free agent market is 29 year old Mike Moustakas. The left-handed power hitter seems like a great fit for Yankee Stadium and would provide a good balance to the Yankees’ order, which does lean heavily to the right-hand side. Despite the breakout 2017 season of .272/.314/.521 with 38 home runs, Moustakas hasn’t received the long-term deal he would’ve gotten in previous winters. If his price falls enough to where he would accept a one year deal, the power would play in this lineup. However, Moustakas is a defensive liability, posting a -8 DRS last season. With just two full seasons with a slugging percentage over .470 in his career, teams are correct for not committing long-term, big money. But, if he comes at a short-term bargain, he would also be another quality stopgap option.
Both Frazier and Moustakas are “name” players, but neither are the types to invest long term. In previous winters, they would’ve received large contracts, the type that would’ve been impossible to live up to. But, the market seems to be low enough where they could make sense for the Yankees.
There are other names on the market like Eduardo Nunez, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Phillips and Yunel Escobar. Out of this group, only Nunez might get more than a one year deal and he isn’t an asset defensively. A reunion with him would provide the Yankees versatility and a different skill set in the lineup, but he is more likely to find more sure playing time elsewhere. As for the veterans, they would simply be placeholders and unlikely to even reach replacement level. But, they would come cheaply and be expendable once the Torres and/or Andujar are ready.
Ideally and Most Likely
Obviously, the ideal scenario for the Yankees would be for both Torres and Andujar to win the jobs. They would be paying two of their starting players the league minimum salary, making it a big return on investment. Both winning a job and thriving, however, isn’t likely.
The most likely scenario should be the Yankees signing a player as a short-term answer at third base. Todd Frazier is the best overall fit, but a Mike Moustakas or an Eduardo Nunez would fit that profile at the right price. With third base manned by a veteran, the Yankees could either give Torres the job, assuming he performs well in the Spring, or employ the in-house options for the early part of the season and either wait for Torres or make a deal at the deadline if needed.
The Yankees were aggressive on the trade market earlier this winter. And, now their patience could pay off with a value free agent signing.