Baseball scouts often say that teams win when they are built “up the middle.” The importance of having stability at the positions in the middle of the diamond, where the most on-field action happens, cannot be overstated. Just ask the dynasty-era Yankees, who trotted out a core of Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams up the middle of the field.
The 2021 Yankees are a far cry from those days. In fact, the Yankees’ most stable positions are on the corners – the future of the Yankees’ up-the-middle core is up in the air. Questions dog Gary Sánchez, Gleyber Torres and Aaron Hicks, and they’re a big part of why the Yankees haven’t gotten where they need to be.
Building up the middle is traditionally a hallmark of winning teams because quality players who man catcher, shortstop or center field are more scarce, and thus more valuable. It’s not so hard to find a power-hitting first baseman, but it is much more difficult to find a shortstop or center fielder that is more than just replacement-level. This is a truth the Yankees are discovering now, with the trade market for center fielders dry and the team currently playing a third baseman at shortstop to cover for an ailment. The Yankees are full of corner infielders and outfielders with noted limitations, but short on MLB talent up the middle.
Now, if a team has the very best corner infielders and outfielders, maybe they can cover for weakness up the middle. But, a 2009 study from Bill James found that teams that were stronger at catcher, shortstop and center field tended to win more games than teams that were better at the corners. Updating this with more recent examples also holds true – the 2020 Dodgers excelled with an up-the-middle trio of Will Smith, Corey Seager, and Cody Bellinger, the 2018 Red Sox had a solid Christian Vázquez-Xander Bogaerts-Jackie Bradley Jr. group, and the 2016 Cubs featured Willson Contreras, Javier Báez, and Dexter Fowler.
Consider the Yankees’ current state at these positions. Catcher is a revolving door, as Gary Sánchez’s future has never been murkier and is splitting time with Kyle Higashioka. The Yankees are said to be seeking an upgrade at shortstop, as Gleyber Torres’ poor defense and suddenly-spotty hitting have risen questions. Aaron Hicks has four years and $40 million left on his contract, and although I have defended him many times and think he is a more useful player than some fans say, he has not provided the Yankees enough value for his new deal, and his inability to stay healthy is a concern. Complicating matters is the fact that the Yankees don’t have a capable replacement for any of these players.
Perhaps this is why the Yankees have dedicated so much of their prospect pool to catchers, shortstops and center fielders. They have Austin Wells, Josh Breaux, Anthony Seigler and Antonio Gomez behind the dish, Oswald Peraza, Alexander Vargas and Anthony Volpe as shortstop prospects, and the highly-anticipated Jasson Dominguez and Estevan Florial in center field. These players are all awhile away from reaching the big leagues, but the Yankees have assembled the makings of a future core up the middle.
In the immediate future, the Yankees will have to scour the trade market for some depth at these key positions. However, the Yankees’ unwillingness to go over the luxury tax threshold makes it harder to add an impact player in a trade. Right now, the Yankees are stuck with what they’ve got, which is an inflexible roster that is stronger on the corners than up the middle.