Yankees Thoughts: Aaron Hicks, Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa Still Yankees

Trio currently expected to inexplicably be in Opening Day lineup

Pitchers and catchers report in a month, and position players shortly after that. Baseball is almost here, even if real meaningful baseball isn’t here until the end of March.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. I’m excited for the return of Yankees baseball because I’m always excited for the return of Yankees baseball, though my excitement is somewhat diminished compared to what it normally is at this point in the calendar because I know what I’m getting myself into. Watch a good movie once and it’s encapsulating. Watch it a second time and it’s still good, though that first-view feeling is gone. By the third time, you’re reciting lines. By the fourth time, you’re on your phone outside of your favorite scenes, and by the fifth time, you’re nodding in and out as you watch it. I know I’m about to spend the next nearly full calendar year, writing, talking, reading and spending thousands of hours investing my time into a team and roster whose ceiling remains the same: losing to the Astros in the playoffs. I have seen this movie before. I just saw it less than three months ago, and I know how it ends.

The reason I’m willing to spend those thousands of hours letting a game in which one man throws a five-ounce white ball at another man holding a rounded wooden stick is because of the hope that this season will somehow be different, and that the team of 26 men I happened to grow up closest to can throw that white ball better and use that rounded wooden stick better than the other 29 teams. I watch the Yankees each season hoping they win the last game of the major league season. Growing up, that hope was often fulfilled. Over the last 22 years, it’s been fulfilled once, and over the last 13 years, it hasn’t been fulfilled at all. Now I feel like Rudy’s scout team teammate who tells him the only reason he hasn’t quit is that he’s “under the delusion he might get a chance to run out of that tunnel.”

2. That’s how I feel about these Yankees. A roster that shocked everyone with their run to Game 7 of the ALCS in 2017 has never gotten as far again. The Baby Bombers are no longer babies, and the majority of the original core either plays for other teams or doesn’t play baseball at all, and would gladly pay for even one more at-bat in the majors. The only two position players still on the Yankees from that 2017 ALCS Game 7 lineup are Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks, and if Judge isn’t the only remaining Yankee from that lineup come Opening Day 2023, it will be a problem.

3. Hicks is about to get 10-5 rights as a major leaguer with 10 years in the league and five years with the same team, which will kick in a full no-trade clause. The Yankees have been trying to move his unmovable contract since last year and have been unable to, so imagine how much harder it will be once Hicks can decide if he’s moved at all or where he can be moved to.

I can’t believe no team wants Hicks and the $31,357,144 owed to him. No team wants a 33-year-old center fielder who is coming off a .216/.330/.313 season in which he was benched at least three times, who has played in 60 percent of his team’s games in the last seven years, who has had season-ending injuries in four of the last five years, who has had his elbow and wrists surgically repaired within the last four years and who has hit 30 home runs total in the last four years? How could no team want a player who told The Athletic last season, “If I’m a guy that’s in the lineup, cool. If I’m not, it is what it is.”

4. Unfortunately, that no-trade is going to kick in. As of right now, the Yankees owe Hicks the $31,357,144 and there’s nothing they can do about it. If any of the other 29 teams was willing to eat even $1 million of that owed amount, he would likely have been gone by now. But no team wants him. This isn’t a pay David Justice to play for the A’s or pay A.J. Burnett to play for the Pirates or pay Brian McCann to play for the Braves. This is more like a pay Jacoby Ellsbury to do nothing. The Yankees have certainly come to terms that the remaining money on Hicks’ deal is a sunk cost since the last two years have been a sunk cost. If they’re going to have to release him for nothing to remove him from the roster, they might as well start the season with him and in terms of his production, hope to catch lightning in a bottle, and then catch lightning in a second, bigger bottle and put that first bottle of lightning in that bigger bottle, and then catch lightning in an even bigger bottle a third time and put the first two bottles of lightning in that third bottle.

5. The alternatives right now are either Oswaldo Cabrera (who the Yankees clearly don’t want to have to pigeonhole into one position, as Brian Cashman seems to finally have his answer to Ben Zobrist, the answer he thought he had in the failed Tyler Wade experiment), Estevan Florial (who the Yankees have never been willing to give an extended look to, and as recently as last August called him up to what Aaron Boone said was “to play every day” only to then not play him) or Willie Calhoun, whose best chance at playing baseball in New York this summer prior to getting a contract with the Yankees was with the Long Island Ducks in the independent Atlantic League. The Yankees are set to have their highest payroll in organization history and don’t have a true answer at one of their everyday positions.

Hal Steinbrenner is OK with it. He’s more than OK with it. He was able to re-sign his cash cow in Judge, so he doesn’t have to pay to have the Judge’s Chambers in right field renovated, but he does have to pay $360 million of his father’s money over the next nearly decade. That money has to come from somewhere (it doesn’t actually, but the Steinbrenners will make you believe it does), so skimping out on having a major-league-capable left fielder is where it has come from at this point.

6. I say “as of now” and “currently” and “at this point” leaving open the possibility that the Yankees make a trade that fills their left field void between now and Opening Day, but we all know it’s unlikely the Yankees’ roster is any different on March than it is today.

The Yankees are no better today than they were when the Astros took their American League champions team picture on the Yankee Stadium infield while the Yankees were answering questions in their clubhouse about why they yet again couldn’t score runs in the postseason. At the beginning of January, I went around the field with a brief summary of each expected Yankees starting position player. It’s not pretty. If you’re a Yankees fan with a heart condition, I don’t recommend reading it. The most frightening situation isn’t even left field. It’s the entire left side of the infield.

7. I literally feel sick when I have to write or talk about Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Josh Donaldson. I’m not exaggerating. I feel like I just ate from a questionable street meat cart on 6th Avenue and am now going to need to find a somewhat respectable public toilet to build a 15-layer toilet paper nest on just having to type their names. The fact this duo makes up the left side of the infield, came over in the same trade and are nearly universally (“nearly” only because there are a lot of boomer Yankees fans who think Kiner-Falefa is good at baseball) despised by Yankees fans is oddly beautiful in the way a tornado is. They are going to be standing side by side and saluting the Bleacher Creatures during Roll Call on March 30 against the Giants. If you think otherwise, you clearly don’t know how the Yankees conduct business.

Owed money is king for the Yankees and controls all decision making. The Yankees would rather lose than have owed money sitting on the bench in favor of a better, less expensive player, and they would rather watch countless runners get left on third base with less than two outs than release owed money for nothing. When envisioning a possible Yankees lineup, the first thing you need to do is scrap everything related to on-the-field play and go right to the payroll.

8. Kiner-Falefa is on the books for $6 million in 2023. That’s $6 million of guaranteed money, which is a lot more than the league minimum Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe will command, so you can pencil in Kiner-Falefa at short. (Be on the lookout for the first day of spring training quotes talking about how hard Kiner-Falefa worked tirelessly over the winter on his defense. And don’t forget about the secret Yankees metrics Boone and Cashman referenced throughout 2022 that rate Kiner-Falefa as one of the best defenders in the game.)

Kiner-Falefa ended up being the worst everyday non-catcher Yankee to get a full season of at-bats in the Cashman era (and one of the worst in the history of the 100-year-old franchise). Kiner-Falefa’s defense on routine plays was as bad as his bat, and after single-handedly trying to advance the Guardians in the ALDS, he was benched by the manager who spent the summer defending him by citing vague and secret defensive metrics. These metrics were so powerful that it led to Cashman hiring Brian Sabean to find out what has been going on in Cashman’s player evaluation department. Sabean told the media his first assignment is to watch every postseason game from this past October and share his evaluation with Cashman. I hope he has some TUMS readily available while watching the offense, some Pepto Bismol while watching the defense and a barf bag for the in-game management.

9. Donaldson is owed $21.75 million in base salary in 2023 and has an $8 million buyout attached to him for 2024. There’s a better chance the Yankees figure out how to efficiently conduct Stadium entrance security than there is that Donaldson isn’t bought out in 2024. That means Donaldson remains a $29.75 million investment for the Yankees. I have made a lot of foolish purchases in my life. The Tubthumper album from Chumbawama in 1997 comes to mind. But that cost my sixth grade self, what, $14? Maybe $15. (I should have used that money on a safer investment like buying more Pogs.) The Yankees willingly traded for Donaldson and took on the entire $51.5 million owed to him to acquire Kiner-Falefa. Teams do crazy shit like that when they are getting an elite player in return. Pay off this overpaid sunk cost for us and we will give you the player you covet. The Dodgers took on David Price’s remaining contract to get Mookie Betts. The Yankees coveted Kiner-Falefa, a player the Rangers spent half-a-billion dollars to avoid playing (by signing Corey Seager and Marcus Semien), and a player the Twins immediately flipped to the Yankees (and then used the money saved on Donaldson to sign Carlos Correa). The Yankees coveted him so much, they were willing to take on more than the entire team payrolls of the A’s and Orioles to make it happen.

Donaldson is going to play because of owed money. There’s no circumstance in which he will be benched for underperformance. If he wasn’t benched last year when 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, what exactly would he need to do to get benched in 2023? If he were to have a sub-.500 OPS around Memorial Day, Boone would still deflect questions about Donaldson batting fifth with how great his defense has been as if defense doesn’t grow on trees.

10. As currently constructed (again with the “as currently constructed” as if it’s going to change), I know the hours I will put into this season are likely to be wasted if measuring the season as championship or bust, which I do. Even if the Yankees were the best team on paper, winning it all would still be unlikely, and they aren’t close to being the best team on paper. At best, they are same team they were 12 weeks ago, and most likely, they are worse. They have 11 weeks left to change to that.

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