The Yankees sit in third place in the loaded AL East despite a 39-30 record. They’re unquestionably approaching deadline season looking to add to the roster. Erasing an 8 1/2 game deficit on the Rays to take the division is going to be a challenge, but New York currently occupies the second Wild Card spot.
How much payroll flexibility is at the front office’s disposal is an open question. New York had an active offseason highlighted by the record contract for Aaron Judge and the six-year deal to bring in Carlos Rodón. They appeared to hit their spending limit by Spring Training, however. Reports suggested they were loath to move their luxury tax number past $293MM, which marks the final tier of penalization. They entered the season with concerns about left field and the back of the rotation that have largely borne out in the first couple months.
Public estimates of the Yankees’ spending still put them right around that $293MM CBT mark. A club’s tax number is calculated at the end of the season, so their reported reluctance to surpass that figure could ostensibly limit their flexibility to add money before the trade deadline.
Hal Steinbrenner met with reporters (including Chris Kirschner of the Athletic) at this week’s owner meetings. The Yankee owner denied that the $293MM mark represented a firm cutoff, saying he’d consider moves he felt were difference-making acquisitions. Steinbrenner stopped short of promising a payroll uptick, though, saying “spending money for the sake of spending money, I just don’t know.”
Which players constitute notable upgrades will obviously be a point of conversation between ownership and the front office over the next six-plus weeks. While it’s still early for clubs to pinpoint specific trade targets, it’s easier to identify areas of need, particularly in the lineup. As measured by wRC+, the Yankees have been in the bottom third of MLB in offensive production at each of catcher, third base, shortstop and left field.
Not all of those will be upgraded upon midseason. Jose Trevino is a Gold Glove caliber catcher, so New York is probably content to live with fringy offense. Josh Donaldson has lost the bulk of the season to injury. He’s now healthy, and while he’s coming off a disappointing 2022 campaign, the Yankees will first see if he can reclaim third base before looking for alternatives.
Rookie Anthony Volpe has been the everyday shortstop, starting 63 of the first 69 games. The highly-touted prospect has struggled offensively through his first few months at the MLB level. Volpe is hitting just .192/.264/.359 while striking out over 30% of the time he’s stepped to the plate. He’s gotten mixed reviews on his glove. Defensive Runs Saved has pegged him as four runs better than the average shortstop in a little under 600 innings. Statcast has him two runs below par.
It’s not the kind of start for which the organization or its fanbase had hoped. Still, Yankees brass doesn’t seem concerned about the 22-year-old. Steinbrenner reiterated his faith in Volpe during yesterday’s media session, noting that he promised the former first-round draftee a long leash in Spring Training (via Bryan Hoch of MLB.com). Skipper Aaron Boone also said yesterday the organization hasn’t given any thought to optioning Volpe to Triple-A (relayed by Talkin’ Yanks).
An outfield upgrade before August 1, on the other hand, seems quite likely. Left field has been a revolving door, with the struggling Oswaldo Cabrera and since-released Aaron Hicks getting the bulk of the reps early on. Lefty-swinging Jake Bauers has hit for enough power to hold down a corner outfield spot for the past month, but he’s a career .214/.308/.358 hitter.
Left field was a concern from day one, and the outfield has become particularly glaring with recent injuries to Judge and Harrison Bader. There’s still not much clarity on Judge, who has been down for ten days with a ligament sprain in his right big toe. Fortunately, Bader’s return from a hamstring strain appears imminent. He played in a rehab game with Double-A Somerset this evening and is expected back during the upcoming weekend series in Boston.