If you asked a diehard Yankee fan to describe their offseason, you might get a ho-hum response. The standards in the Bronx are apparently a little different than they are across the rest of the MLB landscape. “Only” re-signing your best player to a nine-year, $360M extension and lengthening the already deep starting rotation by inking lefty Carlos Rodon to a six-year, $162M deal would certainly seem to qualify as a splash to me.
The fans have a point, though. If you put any stock into Fangraphs’ Roster Resource section, the last five spots in the 2023 Yankee lineup read like this:
3B Josh Donaldson
LF Oswaldo Cabrera
CF Harrison Bader
SS Oswald Peraza
C Jose Trevino
Now, Trevino is a fine defense-first catcher, of whom relatively little offense is expected. Bader was super in the postseason for the Bombers, but projects as a strong defender with an iffy bat and subpar durability. He has never accumulated more than 427 plate appearances in a season, and at age 29 in 2023, it’s probably unwise to expect him to change now.
Donaldson is 37 years old, is coming off a .222-.308-.374 season and is owed $21.75M for his services in 2023. He was the key piece in GM Brian Cashman’s 2022 spring training deal that also brought SS Isiah Kiner- Falefa and a minor league catcher to the Yankees for C Gary Sanchez, 3B Gio Urshela – and perhaps most importantly, a ton of payroll flexibility.
Honestly, 2022 wasn’t Cashman’s finest year – he also obtained righty starter Frankie Montas and his balky right shoulder from Oakland, along with reliever Lou Trivino for a package of minor league pitchers, Ken Waldichuk, JP Sears, Cooper Bowman and Luis Medina. Plus, the price for Bader wasn’t cheap – lefty Jordan Montgomery, a better pitcher than Montas in my mind before the shoulder injury, sure would look good in pinstripes right about now.
Perhaps the most telling names in the projected Yankees’ 2023 lineup are those of Cabrera and Peraza. Along with even better prospect Anthony Volpe, it sure looks like the Yanks are counting on the kids for over 1000 combined plate appearances this season.
And that’s great, from one perspective. Let the kids play, take their medicine without letting them flail, and focus on the big picture, not simply short-term results.
This is the Yankees, however, and the short-term is always the big picture. And remember, Cashman’s seat may be a little hotter than it has ever been at present, despite his recent signing of a four-year extension through the 2026 season. Old school-type executives Brian Sabean and Omar Minaya, who tend to run counter stylistically to the analytically-inclined Cashman, have been brought on board this winter to “balance” the front office.
Now, Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe are far from sure things to open the season in the Yanks’ everyday lineup. The big free agents are all gone, however, and the only somewhat valuable piece of MLB veteran trade bait that might be moved is 2B Gleyber Torres, whose departure would put even more workload and pressure on the kids.
There are some other veteran names who might eventually be penciled into the Opening Day lineup. DJ LeMahieu could be a fit in any number of spots, but his toe injury has been slow to heal and still might require surgery. He simply cannot be relied upon as of today. Kiner-Falefa has been brought back to ease the transition to Peraza/Volpe. Then there’s Aaron Hicks, who suffered a knee injury during the club’s short playoff run. He’s been wholly unproductive since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, posting a .211-.322-.317 line in exactly 162 total games. Another guy that can’t be counted upon.
So what about these three youngsters, who at this point it truly appears will be counted upon quite heavily this season?
Volpe, 22 in 2023, is the youngest and best long-term prospect of the group. The 2019 1st round pick has very intriguing power/speed potential – he had a 27 HR/33 SB season split between the two A-ball levels in 2021, and then a 21 HR/50 SB campaign in 2022, primarily at AA, though he had 99 AAA plate appearances.
He has an innate feel for the game and an effortless glide that evokes the image of Derek Jeter to many. Not to me, though, Volpe is a really, really good prospect who may be a perennial MLB All Star. He also is an extreme fly ball hitter who has become too power-focused, while Jeter always had that pure all-fields line drive/grounder stroke that was sure to generate .300+ batting averages over the long haul. He got off to a brutal start at AA in 2022, and then hit only .236-.313-.405 in his AAA stint. Again, no red flags, but to expect MLB excellence in 2023 would be foolhardy.
Peraza, 23, like Volpe is expected to be able to meet the high defensive standards of an everyday MLB shortstop. He too has developed some projectable power that should translate to the game’s top level, and has been successful in 115 of his 140 (82.2%) minor league stolen base attempts. There’s nothing about Peraza’s game that absolutely wows you, but there are no gaping holes, either. He certainly didn’t look out of place in a 57 plate appearance MLB trial run, making consistent contact and batting .306.
And then there’s switch-hitter Cabrera, 24, who got the most big league run in 2022, batting .247-.312-.429 over 171 plate appearances. Most impressively, he played all four infield spots and both outfield corners and didn’t look out of place anywhere. He lacks the power or speed upside of either Volpe or Peraza, and has a bit of swing-and-miss in him, but it’s pretty clear that he has a future as a valuable MLB piece, perhaps ultimately in a LeMahieu-esque role.
Each year, I compile an ordered list of minor league position player prospects, based on their age and production relative to league and level. While I look at it as a master follow list, a starting point from which to conduct more traditional analysis, it has proven to be a solid barometer of MLB upside over the past 30 years. It doesn’t take position or speed (beyond the impact it might have on OBP and SLG into account) so my system might not fully reflect these guys’ upsides.
Cabrera has qualified for this list in each of the last five seasons, peaking at #201 in 2019. Peraza has qualified each of the last three seasons, peaking at #109 in 2021. And Volpe has qualified in both of his full minor league seasons , peaking at #11 in 2021. One other crucial point – there was no minor league season in 2020 because of the pandemic, so both the players and the organization deserve tons of credit for keeping them on schedule at a vitally important point in their respective development curves.
To wrap up, I see Volpe as a potential stud, although he carries a very high risk level in the short-term due to batting average concerns. I’m pretty confident that Peraza and in particular Cabrera are not stars, although they should be valuable MLB pieces in the short-to-intermediate term. Let’s call Peraza a league average regular with a little upside above that, Cabrera a solid jack-of-all-trades, perhaps a poor man’s Ben Zobrist.
But they are not going to reach their peaks or come close to it in 2023. Heck, Mike Trout was an out in his first crack at the big leagues. It will be very interesting to watch the Yanks’ front office handle the delicate task of developing these players while attempting to win a championship.