While not quite as big a concern as right field, left is an open question for the Yankees. Andrew Benintendi is a free agent, and while Oswaldo Cabrera showed some promise at the position in limited action, so much of his value comes from being able to play pretty much everywhere that locking him in one spot seems suboptimal. The Yankees could dabble in free agency for Benny or Brandon Nimmo, but if they wanted to split the difference between the two players for a whole lot less money they could do worse than Ian Happ.
Happ, 28, brings almost identical value to AB to whichever club he lands with this winter. The Cubs have shopped him the last two seasons as they reconfigure their franchise, and are stuck in an extend-or-deal position with the outfielder. Should they choose the latter, Happ’s high floor with a little more upside in the bat — combined with the fact he’s on the hook for a projected $10.6 million for one season — would give him the edge over a free agent deal for Benintendi.
Coming off the best full season of his career, Happ triple slashed .271/.342/.440 for a 120 wRC+ and a sterling 14 defensive runs saved while seeing time at all three outfield positions.
UZR/150 and OAA are a little less enthusiastic about his performance in the field, with the former grading him as good and the latter above average, but he can more than handle himself in either corner while being able to spell in center for brief stretches. The disagreement between fielding models is the biggest driver between the gap in his WARs, with fWAR almost a full win lower at 3.5.
In terms of projecting forward, Happ once again finds himself the middle option. Nimmo is the best player of this trio, and that’s reflected both in 2022 production and 2023 projections, where ZiPS has him pegged for a 4.5 win season. Happ comes in next at 3.0, and Benintendi brings up the rear at 2.3. That expectation gets priced in, with Nimmo likely getting a nine-figure contract this winter and Benintendi expected to sign for north of $50 million guaranteed, depending on whose model you’re looking at.
I wish we didn’t have to care about budgets and CBT impact, but we do, because the Yankees have proven they do. Specifically, the Yankees have prioritized resetting the CBT threshold once every three years, and will go over it this season. That sets up 2024 as a reset season, necessitating short-term deals if the club sticks to their strategy.
This is where the relative value of Happ really kicks in. We have track records, and projections, and Happ slots right in the middle of this trio of left fielders. His standout trait is perhaps his contract status, in his final year of team control and ticketed to make less per year than either of his contemporaries. His AAV hit will be a tick above Aaron Hicks, and he’s expected to put up more than a full win of greater value — and between you and me, I’d expect more than that.
Brandon Nimmo is a better player than Ian Happ, and in a vacuum, Benintendi’s not that much of a dropoff. Should no extension be agreed to between Happ and the Cubs, though, his contract status immediately makes him a plus for a club that will maneuver around the CBT the way the Yankees will, and his expected on-field performance makes him an upgrade for the roster as well.