How the Yankees can get better after Aaron Judge signing: Cut the dead weight
It took a little kicking and a lot of screaming, sure, but the Yankees finally made one of the bold moves necessary for the club to compete for a World Series title in 2023. They might not have wanted to pay Aaron Judge $360 million over nine years, but when they considered the alternative, they made it happen.
Note, though, that signing Judge was “one of the bold moves” the Yankees needed to make to compete for titles in 2023. Because even with Judge mashing all season — did you know he hit 62 home runs? — the Yankees’ lineup had multiple weak spots in 2022.
There’s more work to be done. The Yankees paid Judge to stay. Now they need to pay a few more players to leave. Folks, calling them “weak spots” is being kind.
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“Black holes” works, too. Take a look:
3B Josh Donaldson: 546 PA, 94 OPS+
SS Isiah Kiner-Falefa: 531 PA, 84 OPS+
OF Aaron Hicks: 453 PA, 86 OPS+
OF/DH Joey Gallo: 273 PA, 77 OPS+
C Jose Trevino/Kyle Higashioka: 353/248 PA, 90/84 OPS+
A team only gets nine spots in a lineup, and to throw that many easy outs — relatively speaking — out there on a nightly basis, it’s kind of a wonder the Yankees won 99 games and made the ALCS. Gallo, of course, is long gone, traded in the middle of last season. But other exits need to happen.
Before we get into the other necessary departures, though, let’s start with Trevino. Yes, he’s included on this list, but he was an asset to the club in 2022, no doubt. His work behind the plate was exemplary, and he was solid at the plate for much of the season before trailing off in the last month (.461 OPS). Lots of good clubs can live with a lack of production from the catcher’s spot if the catcher is on Trevino’s level as a backstop, assuming they have other productive bats up and down the lineup.
The Astros won the World Series with Martin Maldonado as their primary catcher. The Cardinals won the NL Central with Yadier Molina and Andrew Knizner splitting duties, the Guardians won the AL Central with a .533 OPS from the position and the Mets won 101 games with a .569 OPS from their catchers.
Jose Trevino is not the problem.
Donaldson, though, should not be in pinstripes next season. He’s now 37, and his offensive numbers fell off a proverbial cliff last season. From 2013 to 2021, he was one of the more reliable bats in the majors, not just among third basemen. In that span, he produced a .373 batting average and 139 OPS+, hit at least 24 home runs every non-pandemic year save one (he was hurt much of the 2018 season) and earned MVP votes in six of those seasons.
In 2022 for the Yankees, he hit .222. That’s not great, obviously, but batting average is overrated. More worrisome was the .308 on-base percentage, the 27.1 strikeout percentage and .374 slugging percentage, all easily career worsts. His .756 OPS with runners in scoring position was light years below his career .927 OPS in those situations. He often looked overmatched at the plate. The defense was still stellar, but in that Yankees lineup last year, it was a third defense-first position, after catcher and shortstop, with IKF’s 84 OPS+.
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Not sure what the Yankees could get for Donaldson — probably nothing, considering he’s guaranteed at least $29 million ($21 in 2023, plus $8 million buyout in 2024) — but committing to another year and another 550 PAs of subpar production at a premium position feels like a very bad idea. At least moving him now, there’s hope that another team thinks an offseason reset is a possibility. Keep him to start the season and watch him struggle in the first month or two, and then you’re potentially looking at a straight-out release.
And then there’s Aaron Hicks. He’s entering his Age 33 season, the fifth season of the seven-year, $70 million contract he signed during spring training 2019. He didn’t play much the first three seasons of the deal — 145 of a possible 384 regular-season contests — because of injuries. He was healthy enough for 130 games in 2022, but he was not good. Again. For the sixth time in his 10 seasons in the majors, his OPS+ was under 100, meaning he was below-average as a major league hitter. There were 167 batters who had at least 450 plate appearances in 2022, and Hick’s .313 slugging percentage ranked 161st. Kiner-Falefa’s, by the way, was 157th at .327.
Yankees fans want to know what’s next, now that Judge is back in the building thanks to a bold move from the front office. The answer starts with another bold move or two: addition by subtraction, then figuring it out from there.