baseball

Yankees roster projection 2.0: DJ LeMahieu’s health status; Oswald Peraza’s role

DJ LeMahieu did all he could. The Yankees’ second baseman consulted foot specialists, wore custom orthotics, and tried simply to fight through the pain. But when it was time for manager Aaron Boone to finalize the roster for the first round of the playoffs last year, his gut told him to leave off LeMahieu, one of his best hitters and quiet leaders. The injury to a ligament in the second toe of LeMahieu’s right foot had become too big a problem. Boone described LeMahieu as a “shell of himself” toward the end of the regular season. LeMahieu never appeared in the playoffs for the Yankees.

These days, however, LeMahieu is feeling significantly better, a person with knowledge of the team’s personnel decisions told The Athletic this week. The 34-year-old has worked out at the club’s player development facility in Tampa this offseason and so far has had no problems with the toe. LeMahieu decided against offseason surgery after consulting with several doctors, each of whom had different opinions as to which surgeries he would require.

A healthy LeMahieu would give the Yankees several options with their infield for 2023. Would they start LeMahieu every day and hope that he’s still the dangerous hitter he was in the first half of 2022, before the toe was an everyday issue? Could they play him at third base and push to the bench Josh Donaldson, whose bat underperformed in his first year in pinstripes? Or could LeMahieu bounce between both positions while also spelling Anthony Rizzo at first base occasionally?

Here’s The Athletic‘s second attempt of the offseason at projecting the roster manager Aaron Boone could bring into Opening Day:

lineup

1. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
2. Aaron Judge, RF
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Giancarlo Stanton, DH
5. Josh Donaldson, 3B
6. Aaron Hicks, LF
7. Harrison Bader, CF
8. Oswald Peraza, SS
9. Jose Trevino, C

Who’s in the left field?

For now, it’s Hicks, who had an 83 OPS+ in just 162 games played over the last two seasons combined. Still owed $30.5 million over the next three years, the Yankees have looked for creative ways to trade him (including eating a portion of his salary) since the last trade deadline. There’s reason to think the switch-hitting Hicks could rebound, however. An extreme pull hitter while batting lefty, teams shifted against him in 92.6 percent of his at-bats from that side of the plate last season—the 11th-highest rate in MLB. With shifts restricted, Hicks could see more land hits in shallow right field. Plus, he’ll be even further removed from the surgery that repaired a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist in May 2021. That could mean more power. The second-year Cabrera will get a look in spring training, but he’s played just 10 professional games in left field (nine in the majors) and would likely be better served in a utility role. Estevan Florial is considered a big-league-caliber defender but hasn’t hit consistently enough for the Yankees to give him an extended chance. Non-roster invitees Rafael Ortega and Willie Calhoun could surprise, especially Ortega, who had a 121 OPS+ in 103 games for the Cubs in 2021. A person with knowledge of the team’s decision-making said free agent Jurickson Profar’s asking price has kept him out of the Yankees’ plans. Free agent David Peralta could make for an intriguing lefty bat, but his defense would likely be a liability at Yankee Stadium, and the Yankees tend to prioritize glovework at the position.

The kid is all right

While general manager Brian Cashman, Boone and owner Hal Steinbrenner each have said to expect a spring training shortstop competition between incumbent Isiah Kiner-Falefa and top prospects Peraza and Anthony Volpe, the feeling around the organization is that Peraza might enter camp in the lead. Ranked No. 62 on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects list, Peraza, 22, impressed at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and then in a September call-up (139 OPS+, 49 at-bats) before getting a start in the ALCS. Peraza brings greater offensive upside than Kiner-Falefa, who hit just .261 with four homers and was uneven defensively, often making spectacular plays while misplaying a few too many routine grounders. Volpe is the team’s top prospect but he’s played just 22 games at Triple A and the Yankees tend to prefer their prospects to force their way to the majors via performance. Volpe, 21, might need a huge spring or an injury to force his way onto the Opening Day roster.

Where’s Torres?

Last season, when LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres each were healthy on Opening Day, LeMahieu started at second base and Torres was on the bench. The next game, LeMahieu started at third base, with Josh Donaldson on the bench and Torres at second base. Expect LeMahieu to resume getting everyday at-bats in his utility role, playing mostly second base while jumping in at third base and spelling Rizzo. On Sunday, Cashman added that Donaldson was projected to be the team’s starting third baseman despite a terrible offensive showing by his standards (.222 batting average, 15 home runs, .682 OPS). Like Hicks, the Yankees have tried to trade Donaldson — still an excellent defender — to shed the $29 million remaining on his deal.

The Stanton factor

Left Achilles tendonitis contributed to Stanton playing just 110 games and hitting only .211 last year. A source said he’s told the Yankees this offseason that he feels great. There’s a chance Stanton could work himself into semi-regular appearances in left field if the Yankees have a need and if he’s feeling good enough. Last season, however, the Yankees gave him just four regular-season games in left field and 34 in right field.

Bench

Torres, 2B
Kyle Higashioka, C
Kiner-Falefa, SS/3B/2B
Oswaldo Cabrera, UTL

The fourth wall

In this projection, Cabrera becomes the Yankees’ fourth primary outfielder, which probably isn’t going to cut it. While he showed he can handle the basics of either outfield corner, the Yankees would probably prefer someone who’s more of a sure thing defensively. Higashioka is highly regarded for his work with the Yankees’ pitching staff on game planning and he’s considered one of the better pitchers in the game (4 catcher framing runs in 2022, according to Statcast). Kiner-Falefa, who won a Gold Glove at third base in 2020, could bop around the infield.

Rotation

1. Gerrit Cole
2. Carlos Rodón
3. Luis Severino
4. Nestor Cortes
5. Domingo German

It’s German to me

The only question here would be who’s the fifth starter, which the Yankees wouldn’t need to use much in April anyway. The Yankees expect Frankie Montas (shoulder inflammation) to be ready by May 1. Dr. Neal ElAttrache didn’t find any new structural damage in Montas’ shoulder despite Montas stalling his offseason regimen and putting himself weeks behind where he’d normally be this time of year. German has the most experience and is out of minor-league options. Clarke Schmidt and rookies Randy Vasquez and Jhony Brito are also 40-man roster options, but the Yankees might prefer to keep them as depth. Schmidt has one minor league option remaining season.

bullpen

• Clay Holmes
• Michael King
• Jonathan Loaisiga
•Wandy Peralta
Ron Marinaccio
• Tommy Kahnle
• Lou Trivino
Albert Abreu

The last spot

Cashman has said he considers Holmes the Yankees current closer. Loaisiga, Peralta and Kahnle figure to share late-inning duties. Mike King (fractured elbow) told The Athletic he expects to be ready for Opening Day, and would likely be redeployed as a multi-inning stopper. Albert Abreu is out of minor-league options, but the Yankees love his high-90s fastball and hard slider. Left-hander Matt Krook, who wracks up strikeouts but also walks a lot of hitters, is also on the 40-man roster. The Yankees remain open to external bullpen options heading into spring training.

(Top photo of DJ LeMahieu: Wendell Cruz / USA Today)

.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *