New Year, Same Yankees Lineup

Yankees have made no improvements to underachieving lineup

I never believed Hal Steinbrenner when he told Aaron Judge he had the payroll flexibility to re-sign him and add more to the roster to essentially close the four-win postseason gap between the Yankees and Astros. And because I don’t believe a word this Steinbrenner says — unless he’s talking about how to implement harsher luxury-tax penalties, which in turn are bad for his franchise’s chances of winning and then every word he says is the truth — I’m not surprised that the Yankees’ lineup is the same it was two-plus months ago when they were laughed out of the postseason for the third time in six years by the Astros. Actually, it’s not the same, it’s worse.

That lineup at least had the potential to have a healthy Matt Carpenter and Andrew Benintendi. The 2023 lineup will have neither, and the only addition made to it this offseason has been to re-sign Judge, a move for which Steinbrenner has been praised. Yes, the owner of the highest-valued franchise in the league that makes more money than all the other teams has been celebrated for retaining the team’s star player, in what should be a given. Steinbrenner has been referred as some kind of folk hero or legend for getting on the phone during his Italy vacation to speak with Judge and eventually agree to give him $360 million of the money he inherited from his father. (Steinbrenner scheduling a European vacation during baseball’s Winter Meetings, which is the single-most important event of the offseason, tells you all you need to know about his level of interest in operating the team his father didn’t want to leave to him.)

The Yankees did add Carlos Rodon this offseason, which is nice, but unless he’s going to bat fourth and hit .350 in the postseason, all that signing did is make the Yankees stronger at an area that’s already a strength. The Yankees went from having a great rotation to having the best in baseball, but the Yankees haven’t been eliminated from the postseason because of their pitching since Chien-Ming Wang was the team’s so-called ace. These Yankees don’t get eliminated because of their pitching, they get eliminated because of their hitting, or lack thereof.

If you think there’s still a lot of time left in the offseason, there’s not. The Yankees’ roster you see today is most likely the one on Opening Day. The lineup you’re used to seeing underachieve and disappoint is getting yet another chance to “get over the hump” the team’s manager claims the team has been “close” to getting over in his five season as manager, only to come up shorter each time.

Leaving catcher out of it, let’s go around the field, and look at a lineup littered with health and production issues.

Number 48, Anthony Rizzo, Number 48
As expected, Rizzo opted out the $16 million he was owed for 2023 and turned it into two years and $40 million from the Yankees. He missed 20 percent of last season with nagging back problems. I’m sure those will only get better, not worse as he enters his mid-30s.

Number 26, DJ LeMahieu, Number 26
LeMahieu missed 23 percent of last season with a foot fracture that sapped his power and turned his bat into Isiah Kiner-Falefa 2.0. He has been rehabbing the foot fracture, but he still may need to have surgery on it, and if he does, he will be forced to miss a significant portion of 2023.

Number 25, Gleyber Torres, Number 25
From the end of July through early September, Torres had the lowest OPS in baseball. Yes, all of baseball. I wanted the Yankees to trade Torres last offseason. They didn’t. I wanted them to trade him at the deadline. They didn’t. I want them to trade him this offseason. They haven’t. I’m sure Torres will still be a Yankee in 2023, will have stretches where he tricks many (not including myself) into thinking he has regained his 2018-19 path to stardom, but will mostly be a disappointment.

Number 12, Isiah-Kiner Falefa, Number 12
I spent an inordinate amount of time in 2022 writing and talking about the Yankees’ shortstop, who failed to make any routine play look easy (and failed to make many routine plays) and posted a .642 OPS. He did all he could to single-handedly eliminate the Yankees in the ALDS and his manager and biggest fan seemed fine in letting him do so until he played shortstop like he was blindfolded in Game 3. Boone benched him for the rest of the ALDS, but ultimately (have to get Boone’s favorite buzz word in here, especially when talking about his favorite player) went back to him with the season on the line in Game 4 of the ALCS.

As long as Kiner-Falefa is a Yankee, he will be the starting shortstop, and if you think otherwise, you don’t know how these Yankees operate. Owed money is more important than talent and production, and Kiner-Falefa is owed $6 million in 2023, not the league minimum, which is what Oswaldo Peraza or Anthony Volpe would command. Unless he’s traded, get ready for more IKF!

Number 28, Josh Donaldson, Number 28
Boone and Brian Cashman have scoffed at the idea the Yankees need a new third baseman for 2023. They have acted stunned when asked about Donaldson’s abilities, completely befuddled that anyone could think Donaldson isn’t the right man for the job. To the credit of Boone and Cashman, Donaldson did just come off a season in which despite being healthy all season, he posted career lows in runs, hits, home runs, RBIs, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and had the highest strikeout rate of his career. Why wouldn’t he be the team’s starting third baseman in 2023?

Number … (checks notes) … the Yankees don’t have a left fielder.
That’s right, the Yankees don’t have a left fielder. There were plenty of free-agent options to fill this void and the Yankees passed on every single one of them. They didn’t miss out because they were waiting on Judge or Rodon, they were never going to be in on any of them. By giving Judge $360 million to play right field, ownership would have to skimp somewhere else, even though there’s no salary cap.

You might be thinking, ‘Couldn’t they just put more of the profit they make back into the team in hopes that by constructing the best possible roster, they will then play more playoff games, possibly win a championship and increase their profits astronomically?’ You must be new around here. Maybe you’re thinking, ‘Can’t they just increase food, beverage and merchandise sales?’ Oh don’t worry, they’re going to do that. But while they do that, they will try to sell you on an Aaron Hicks resurgence in left field. Again, owed money gets the first crack at any position, and Hicks is owed a lot of money. He’s under contract for this season and next season and the season after, and then in the season after that, the Yankees will pay him a $1 million buyout to not play for them.

But let’s say the Yankees are able to dump Hicks’ disastrous deal on someone. (Even dumping $1 of it on some other team has to be considered a win at this point.) And yes, the Yankees are going to do everything they can to move Hicks because he will achieve 10-5 rights this season and therefore a full no-trade clause will go into effect. Then he will be a Yankee until they release him and he can finally go do what he wants every day, which is to play golf. If Hicks goes then I think you will see the majority of Oswaldo Cabrera’s time in left field, but the Yankees seem more inclined to use him at a different position every day in the Ben Zobrist-type role they envisioned Tyler Wade fulfilling.

If it’s not Cabrera then it’s Estevan Florial? The outfield prospect the Yankees have been reluctant to ever give more than a handful-of-games look at. If it’s not Florial, well, the Yankees just signed Willie Calhoun to a minor-league deal. Calhoun’s lone good season in the majors came in 2019 when he hit 21 home runs with an .848 OPS. If you believe in stats from 2019, just know with the baseball juiced that season, Torres hit 38 home runs, Brett Gardner hit 28 and Ketel Marte hit 32.

Number 22, Harrison Bader, Number 22
Bader was pretty dreadful in his small 14-game, regular-season sample size as a Yankee (.217/.245/.283), but then he became the team’s best and most reliable hitter in the postseason, going 10-for-30 with five home runs in nine games.

Bader was sold to Yankees fans as an all-glove, no-bat center fielder, who would fit in nicely at the bottom of the order. That’s nice and a good piece to have, except when you also have an all-glove, no-bat shortstop, third baseman, left fielder and catcher, you have an offensive problem, and the Yankees have a major offensive problem, which is why I’m writing this.

Number 99, Aaron Judge, Number 99
He’s the most important player on the team, and he was just paid to be that player. If he’s not, it won’t matter what anyone else does on the current roster.

Number 27, Giancarlo Stanton, Number 27
Giancarlo Stanton missed 32 percent of the season. In five seasons, he has missed 37 percent of the Yankees’ games. I’m sure as he too enters his mid-30s, he will be healthier than he was in his late-20s and early-30s. When he did play, he was bad, hitting .211/.297/.462.

With six weeks to go until spring training, that’s the Yankees lineup. To summarize, their first baseman missed one-fifth of last season with debilitating back problems; their second baseman is still rehabbing a foot fracture from last summer that may need surgery; their other second baseman was the worst hitter in baseball for a six-week stretch and they unsuccessfully tried to trade him at the deadline; their shortstop was benched in the postseason and was the worst at his position in the majors; their third baseman experienced career lows in every offensive statistic; they don’t have a left fielder; no one knows what to expect from center field; their right fielder is the best hitter in the league and their designated hitter is coming off the worst “full” season of his career.

In November and December, I went to bed each night praying I would wake up to a flurry of free-agent signings to improve the roster, using the team’s greatest and endless resource to do so: money. But now that every elite free agent is signed, I go to bed each night praying that a trade or trades will be made to improve this roster.

As of now, I know how the regular season will play out, but most importantly, and sadly, I know how the postseason will play out. I have seen this same core and lineup enough to know what their ceiling is, and with spring training around the corner, it’s still an ALCS loss to the Astros.

My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!