The Yankees continued their shortstop-for-a-day world tour by starting Isiah Kiner-Falefa in Sunday night’s ALCS Game 4. The Astros started Jeremy Peña, whose three-run homer in the third inning changed the tenor of the game.
The Yankees started Kiner-Falefa because last offseason they shunned Carlos Correa (among others in free agency). Peña started because he replaced Correa seamlessly.
The Yankees started Kiner-Falefa — after starting Oswaldo Cabrera in Game 3 and Oswald Peraza in Game 2 — as part of a left side of the infield with Josh Donaldson. Those two arrived together as part of a trade with Minnesota that also included catcher Ben Rortvedt.
The Yankees essentially took on the toxic two years at $50 million left on Donaldson to gain access to the defensive skills of Rortvedt and the glove, athleticism and contact of Kiner-Falefa. Rortvedt, initially because he was hurt, never played an inning for the 2022 Yankees. Kiner-Falefa, miscast both as a starter for a high-end contender and in Newc York, lost his defensive confidence and full-time starting job. Donaldson spent October descending into the Ed Whitson/Sonny Gray treatment in The Bronx as one loopy swing after another failed to contact a baseball.
The Twins, with Donaldson’s money cleared out, signed Correa to what will amount to a one-year, $35.1 million contract.
The Yankees decided to try Kiner-Falefa after wasting two years of Gerrit Cole’s and Aaron Judge’s prime insisting the square peg of Gleyber Torres could play the round circle of shortstop.
The Yankees didn’t see the chessboard well enough to wait Correa out into the one-year contract. They already had not chased Correa or any other of the marquee shortstops on the board last offseason because:
1. Aaron Judge was entering his walk year and Hal Steinbrenner did not want to add another expensive long-term contract to Cole, Giancarlo Stanton and — he believed — eventually Judge.
2. The Yankees had Peraza and Anthony Volpe coming and did not want to block them by signing someone such as Correa or Corey Seager long term.
Thank you for following the bouncing ball because based on the Yankee behavior of the last 12 months in particular, Steinbrenner better now sign Judge while Peraza and/or Volpe better be outstanding players — and quickly. Or else you know what everything from the end of the 2021 season to the near future becomes? A Yankees disaster.
Steinbrenner has to decide who is advising these choices. GM Brian Cashman’s contract is up. Steinbrenner tends to take a deep breath in the storm before making huge decisions. I think that will lead him to a 20,000-foot view in which he retains Cashman because: 1) He trusts Cashman and is tightly bonded to him; and people in charge like comfort. 2) He knows Cashman is executing a plan based on the owner’s budget and — no matter how discouraging October has ended — being a high-end contender every year is not easy and Cashman has consistently provided that. 3) He knows in a way that fans do not just how excruciatingly difficult the job is with New York-sized expectations and distractions.
Does Steinbrenner believe he can execute a search and come up with someone better than Cashman to deal with it all? If, for example, he did exactly that after the disappointment of being ousted by the Astros last time (2019) there is a fair chance he would have favored someone such as Chaim Bloom and how is that going in another big market, Boston?
Still, the infrastructure has to do better. Where is the Yankees’ third-round draft success like Peña, who had six extra-base hits, including three homers, in his first seven postseason games? Forget the third round. The Yankees’ first-round pick that year (2018), catcher Anthony Seigler, sure looks like a bust. With the next pick, 24th overall, the Cubs took Nico Hoerner, the kind of shortstop talent that would have kept the Yankees out of the Donaldson/Kiner-Falefa market.
The Yankees brand in Latin America should be king even in a capped system. Yet, where is their Juan Soto or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or look at a Houston rotation redone since the Astros first beat the Yankees in 2017 by incorporating Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and Framber Valdez — a quartet that made losing Cole to the Yankees tolerable?
That is why the Yankee faith in Peraza/Volpe has to be approached with doubt. Because if a Broadway producer kept touting shows and they never manifested into much, would you keep backing the producer?
The same executive group that protected Peraza and Volpe like Faberge Eggs within the trade market also brought you Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes/Ian Kennedy, and offered the Killer B’s (Manuel Banuelos/Dellin Betances/Andrew Brackman) and launched an era assembled around Judge, Miguel Andujar, Greg Bird, Jackson (Clint) Frazier, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino and Gleyber Torres that feels like it came to an end Sunday night.
For the Yankees to become the kind of deep, diverse, athletic group of their dreams combining contact, athleticism, power, speed and defense, then Peraza, Volpe and Oswald Cabrera need to produce next year. Peña was worth 4.8 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference) in 2022. Would you bet over or under that all three of those Yankees combine for that total in 2023? Do you imagine that Jasson Dominguez will arrive sometime late next season and begin honoring The Martian hype — or will he be more Jackson Melian or Jesus Montero than Guerrero or Soto?
We have to assume if the Yankees ignored the last starry free-agent shortstop class they will do the same with Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson and Trea Turner this offseason. And for the same reasons — because they are awaiting Peraza/Volpe and allocating the next big pile of dough for Judge.
I will make an assumption that Judge will be retained. That down deep he really does not want to leave and Steinbrenner even more cannot let him go. In fact, even with a poor performance, Judge’s value potentially went up in the postseason. Becrause if Steinbrenner wanted to see what the Yankees offense looks like without him, they got a glimpse between his slump and no one else beyond Harrison Bader and Anthony Rizzo doing much for nine games. The final amount will be much higher than the seven years at $213.5 million extension offered in spring training. That was 62 regular-season homers — and all the money Judge put into the Steinbrenner coffers with that achievement — ago.
I would think eight years at $320 million is the ballpark.
What else is important?
I suspect that Rizzo will turn down his $16 million mutual option and the Yankees will put the $19.65 million qualifying offer on him. Will Rizzo believe that he can do better in the market, after he dealt with back issues in 2022, plays at 33 next year and would be tied to compensation due to the qualifying offer? The Yanks need his lefty bat, defense and intensity. Would a reworked two years at $34 million get it done?
The Yanks also could use free agent Andrew Benintendi’s contact lefty bat in left field. That plus teaming him with Bader and Judge would give the Yankees a strong outfield defense and free Cabrera to be a regularly deployed super utilityman.
The Yanks should at least see if Giancarlo Stanton is amenable to a trade. He remains a fine power hitter and shows each October he is not afraid of big moments. But the Yanks would be better freeing up the DH to be used by multiple players and to add another lefty bat. However, I doubt Stanton would agree to leave New York for anything but Southern California, and maybe not even that. With what the Marlins are paying, he is owed five years at $120 million. That plus the $27 million owed Donaldson is $147 million or near equal to the $152 million third baseman Anthony Rendon is owed by the Angels — and Angels GM Perry Minasian as the Braves assistant GM actually liked having Donaldson on the team. I don’t see a swap of those contracts happening, even with Rendon such an unhealthy disappointment as an Angel.
But the Yankees have to work to rid themselves of Donaldson and Aaron Hicks. It is bad play and worse mojo. Combined they are owed $58.5 million (including buyouts and assignment bonuses). Just as an example, Patrick Corbin is owed $59 million the next two years by the Nationals. Corbin was arguably the worst starter in the majors this year. Could the Yanks fix him and/or refashion him into a reliever and make it worthwhile for the rebuilding Nationals by throwing a mid-range prospect in?
The Yanks would be better with one undesirable contract than two because — among other things — they are going to have a roster crunch. Scott Effross and Luis Gil, who both underwent Tommy John surgery and are unlikely to pitch next year, both have to be put back on the 40-man roster for the offseason. So the Yankees really have just a 38-man roster — 37 if you don’t believe Michael King will be ready to begin next year (he does, by the way).
The Yanks could run Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino back as the catchers, with Rortvedt and prospect Austin Wells nearing — or could they build a deal around either Wells, Dominguez and/or Peraza to land Oakland’s terrific two-way catcher Sean Murphy?
The bullpen will clear out the salaries of Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman, plus Miguel Castro and Chad Green. They will build around Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loaisiga and Wandy Peralta, but with King iffy and Effross not due back, they could use a few more trusted arms.
The Yanks have to see what the market is for Torres, especially if it helps them deepen the rotation. They talked to Miami about using Torres for Pablo Lopez at the trade deadline. Can that be rekindled? The Yankee starters right now are Cole, Severino, Nestor Cortes, Frankie Montas and Domingo German. They traded away a lot of near-ready major league depth for, among other things, Montas. Plus, Jameson Taillon is a free agent. The Japanese star Koudai Senga is going to have a large market that probably will include the Yankees. If that fails, could the Yankees fashion a short deal with someone such as Nathan Eovaldi, Jose Quintana or Ross Stripling to deepen the back of the rotation?
If Torres is dealt, the Yankees have a combination of Cabrera, Kiner-Falefa, Peraza, Volpe and DJ LeMahieu to consider at second. It would be best if the Yanks could move Donaldson and make LeMahieu the regular third baseman. LeMahieu played well there and was hitting great before hurting his foot. The Yanks need to probably use this infield depth to turn LeMahieu into a 120-game player to keep him fresh for the biggest games.
Which just further emphasizes how much they need Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe to emerge right away as significant contributors. They help with a lot of age/injury concerns. And they do it at near minimum wage to make retaining Judge more palatable to Steinbrenner.
After all, that was the plan, right? The Yankees ignored a lot in the marketplace that might have made them better in 2022 because they believed in Cabrera, Peraza and especially Volpe long term and are determined not to fail in signing Judge long term.
This story originally appeared on NYPost