Following the 2020 season, first base didn’t look like it’d be an area of concern for the Yankees for the next few years. Luke Voit led the Majors with 22 home runs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, turning in a stout .277/.338/.610 batting line that was 53 percent better than the league-average hitter, by measure of wRC+. A series of injuries derailed much of Voit’s 2021 season, however, prompting the Yanks to trade for Anthony Rizzo at the deadline.
Fast forward several months, and Rizzo is a free agent, Voit is a possible trade candidate, and the Yankees have been linked to big-fish names like Oakland’s Matt Olson and even free agent Freddie Freeman, who has yet to put pen to paper on a new deal in Atlanta. Everyone’s wondering who’ll play shortstop at Yankee Stadium in 2022, but first base is a question mark in its own right, so let’s take a quick look at each of the most plausible possibilities.
Luke Voit: There’s certainly an argument for sticking with the status quo and giving Voit another go-around. Last year was blown up by a torn meniscus that required surgery, an oblique strain that wiped out another month, and then continued knee troubles in the season’s second half. Voit, who turned 31 just yesterday, managed just eight more plate appearances in 2021 than he did in the 60-game 2020 sprint.
When he was healthy, Voit was a solid hitter, slashing .239/.328/.437 (111 wRC+) with 11 long balls, seven doubles and a triple in 241 trips to the dish. However, he also saw his strikeout rate spike to a career-worst 30.7% as he struggled through those injuries, and that batting line is a far cry from his aforementioned dominance in 2020.
In the three seasons leading up to 2021, Voit batted a combined .278/.371/.541 with 58 home runs, an 11.6% walk rate and a 26.4% strikeout rate in 905 plate appearances. He grades out as a poor defender at first base, but it’s easier to overlook the glovework if he’s hitting like he did from 2018-20. If he’s hitting like he did in 2021, that defense becomes harder to hide. Voit is controlled three more seasons and projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz to earn $5.4MM in 2022. He’s affordable and has plenty of upside with the bat — but there are red flags to consider as well. For his part, Voit told Dan Martin of the New York Post that he loves playing in New York and hopes to remain. He also acknowledged that a trade is possible.
DJ LeMahieu: The 33-year-old thrived with the 2019-20 Yankees, playing all over the infield and turning in a combined .336/.386/.536 showing with a tiny 12.7% strikeout rate. However, with a .268/.349/.362 batting line in 2021 (100 wRC+), LeMahieu had his own downturn at the plate this past season.
If LeMahieu were still hitting at his 2019-20 levels, that’d be more than enough offense even if he moved to first base on a full-time basis. If he’s “only” an average or slightly above-average hitter moving forward, then his versatility and ability to play other positions becomes more important.
The Yankees could still give LeMahieu the bulk of the work at first base in 2022, though it doesn’t seem like it’d be a top choice. It’s hard to see them doing so with Voit still on the roster, meaning they’d likely need to move Voit and spend the bulk of whatever resources they have remaining on other needs (shortstop, pitching, etc.).
Anthony Rizzo: Rizzo had a big start in New York, but by the time the season had run its course, his overall offensive production as a Yankee looked pretty similar to Voit’s 2021 output: .249/.340/.428 (113 wRC+). Rizzo was an offensive force with the Cubs from 2014-19, batting a collective .284/.388/.513 in that time and topping 30 home runs in four different seasons. He’s since settled in as more of a 20 to 25-homer threat who makes good contact (15.1% strikeout rate) and draws some walks but is no longer an MVP-caliber hitter.
Two points in Rizzo’s favor over Voit: he’d give the Yankees a left-handed bat to help further balance a lineup that skews heavily toward right-handed hitters, and he’s also generally considered to be a strong defender. Defensive metrics were down on Rizzo in 2021, but he still graded out better than Voit typically has. That’s also the only time in his career he’s ever drawn negative marks for his glovework at first base.
Rizzo would be a costlier option, even though his stock has dropped from the point at which the Cubs were offering him extensions to keep him beyond 2021. MLBTR predicted a three-year deal at a rate of $15MM per season heading into the offseason, and even that was in part due to some of the narrative building up Rizzo as a difference-making clubhouse presence and leader. Post-lockout, an even shorter deal can’t be completely ruled out. He’ll still cost quite a bit more than Voit, but he won’t break the bank relative to, say…
Freddie Freeman: Braves fans and pundits alike are still a bit surprised things have gotten to this point with Freeman, the homegrown Braves icon whom most onlookers considered a slam dunk to spend his entire career in Atlanta. It’s still wholly plausible that after a protracted set of contract negotiations, Freeman returns to anchor the lineup at Truist Park, settling in as a lifelong Brave. At the same time, there have been reports that the Yankees, Dodgers and perhaps the Blue Jays could at least try to pry Freeman from Atlanta by offering the lengthier deal and/or weightier annual salary he’s thought to seek.
Freeman, the 2020 National League MVP, shook off some early-season doldrums in 2021 and finished out the year with a pretty typical (for him) .300/.393/.503 slash through 695 plate appearances. These endpoints are completely arbitrary, so take them with a grain of salt, but on May 7, Freeman finished the day with a .195/.326/.407 slash. From that point forth he hit .324/.409/.526.
Freeman will turn 33 in September, so the always-prominent concerns about paying for a player’s decline phase exist here as well. It might take six years and an annual salary in the $30MM range to sign him (or at least a salary well north of $30MM on a five-year term). The Yankees obviously have the resources to do that — particularly if they take an affordable approach at shortstop, as has been rumored — but there’s plenty of long-term risk.
Matt Olson: Perhaps the most-speculated trade match of the entire offseason, Olson-to-the-Bronx makes a good deal of sense. He’s an elite fielding left-handed bat who broke out as one of the game’s most well-rounded offensive players in 2021. Always a 30-homer threat — he swatted 29 homers in 2018 and 36 in 2019 — Olson slashed his strikeout rate from 26.3% all the way to 16.8% this past season. He did so while maintaining a walk rate north of 13%, and the resulting .271/.371/.540 slash and 39 home runs were career-best marks.
The A’s control Olson through 2023, but he’s projected to earn $12MM in arbitration (via Swartz) at a time when the A’s are reportedly aiming to reduce payroll. He’d give the Yankees a clear upgrade for at least two years, coming with an affordable (for them) salary in both seasons. It’s always possible that the Yankees could look into a long-term deal in the aftermath of a trade, too.
That said, Olson’s going to come with one of the heftiest asking prices of any player on the trade market. Yankees fans are surely loath to even consider the possibility of including a headliner such as top shortstop prospect Anthony Volpe, but any trade scenario involving Olson is probably going to come at a prospect cost that upsets many fans. Olson will (or at least certainly should) command multiple players from the top echelon of any team’s farm system.
Those are just a few possibilities for the Yankees, but they seem to be the most plausible paths for GM Brian Cashman and his staff to tread. After Freeman and Rizzo, the free-agent market doesn’t offer a clear everyday option at first base who’d be an upgrade over Voit and LeMahieu. There are other speculative trade candidates to consider (e.g. Dominic Smith, Josh Bell), but none who promise the impact and clear upgrade that Olson would bring to the fold.
Let’s open this up for readers to discuss and to take their best guess (link to poll for Trade Rumors iOS/Android app users) …