Yankees reliever Tommy Kahnle is in the midst of a 10-day shutdown after battling some biceps tendinitis. It doesn’t seem the club is overly concerned, with manager Aaron Boone saying yesterday he anticipated the right-hander would have sufficient time to prepare for Opening Day.
Kahnle chatted with reporters this evening, likening it to a similar issue he experienced back in 2018 (relayed by Bryan Hoch of MLB.com). He estimated it’d take roughly a month to completely dissipate. That doesn’t inherently mean he’ll start the year on the injured list, though with Opening Day three and a half weeks out, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he wound up requiring a brief IL stint. Signed to a two-year, $11.5MM free agent deal, Kahnle will be ticketed for high-leverage work in the Bronx once he’s healthy.
Even more integral to the club’s success is southpaw Nestor Cortes. An All-Star in 2022 during a season in which he worked to an excellent 2.44 ERA through 158 1/3 frames, Cortes has cemented himself as a key starter. On talent, he’s arguably the #3 option behind Gerrit Cole and big-ticket free agent signee Carlos Rodón. Yet the 28-year-old has been slowed a bit in recent weeks after suffering a Grade 2 hamstring strain in February.
That injury forced Cortes out of the World Baseball Classic but the Yankees have maintained optimism it wouldn’t affect his availability for the start of the season. That remains more or less the case. Boone told the media yesterday the Yankees were planing to move Cortes towards the back of the rotation to give him a few extra days to ramp up (via Erik Boland of Newsday). That might get Luis Severino and either of Clarke Schmidt or Domingo Germán — who appear to be the top competitors for the vacant final rotation spot — on the mound a day or two earlier than anticipated but suggests New York still believes Cortes will avoid a trip to the injured list.
The competition between Germán and Schmidt for the last starting spot, necessitated by the Frankie Montas injury, is one of a handful of position battles for the Yankees to sort through over the coming weeks. On the position player side, the club’s biggest decisions revolve around shortstop and left field. There could be some unexpected overlap between those calls, as Boone told reporters the club could consider getting Isiah Kiner-Falefa some outfield work (link via Chris Kirschner and Brendan Kuty of the Athletic).
Kiner-Falefa has never played the outfield at the major league level. He started only seven games on the grass while coming up through the minor leagues. After beginning his career as a middle infielder, Kiner-Falefa started to see some action behind the plate during his time in the Rangers’ system. He caught at the big league level from 2018-19 but eventually transitioned back to the infield — first as a high-end defensive third baseman and eventually as a primary shortstop.
While Defensive Runs Saved has loved Kiner-Falefa’s shortstop work, Statcast’s Outs Above Average has rated him much less favorably than when he was at the hot corner. While there might be some debate about his defense, Kiner-Falefa’s bat has been more consistent. He’s a high-contact hitter who doesn’t walk a whole lot or hit for much power. Last year’s .261/.314/.327 performance was right in line with his career track record.
The Yankees broke in top prospect Oswald Peraza late last year and could turn shortstop over to him on an everyday basis headed into 2023. The 22-year-old acquitted himself well over an 18-game MLB cameo on the heels of a .259/.329/.448 line in 99 Triple-A games. With another top prospect, Anthony Volpe, on the horizon, it doesn’t seem Kiner-Falefa will hold the shortstop job for long even if he secures the Opening Day nod.
Branching out into the outfield makes for a reasonable experiment to expand his flexibility for a possible bench role. While Harrison Bader and Aaron Judge have two spots secured, left field mostly seems set to come down to Aaron Hicks or Oswaldo Cabrera. While Kiner-Falefa isn’t the caliber of hitter a team would be anxious to pencil into the corner outfield regularly, it wouldn’t be surprising if he proves himself capable from a defensive perspective. He’s a good runner and has already shown the willingness and ability to adapt to a number of infield responsibilities. Branching out into the outfield could position him to take on a super-utility role if he’s squeezed out of the regular middle infield by some combination of Peraza, Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu and eventually Volpe.