The Yankees traded for Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa before the 2022 season hoping that they could be starters on the left side of the infield. IKF disappointed with the bat and the glove, while most of Donaldson’s value came as a fielder at the hot corner.
When you pay someone more than $20 million for a single season, you expect better than a .222/.308/.374 line and a 97 wRC+. Yes, Donaldson was one of the best defensive third basemen in the American League, but his bat was a bit below-average, and his postseason performance was abysmal: a 72 wRC+ and a 44.4-percent strikeout rate, with some really ugly at-bats.
Donaldson just didn’t look like a competent hitter anymore, and he is close to turning 37. He can theoretically rebound next year; it’s just not likely. He is aging, declining, and at this point, his manager might just be posturing about his viability for 2022, knowing that he can’t say a potential trade piece is ticketed for the bench next season.
Whether Aaron Boone is honest or not in his assessment of Donaldson, it’s safe to say that third base is a position that the Yankees should definitely look to upgrade. They could always go to the trade market or explore a free agent signing, but the options there are extremely underwhelming (particularly with Nolan Arenado not opting out).
That leaves us with potential internal options to take over third base in case the Yankees A) pursue a Donaldson trade, and B) are successful. Here are some of them:
- DJ LeMahieu: The versatile infielder just won a Gold Glove for his work covering several positions. One of them was third base, where he played 385.2 innings this year, and had 8 (!) Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and 4 Outs Above Average (OAA).
LeMahieu was injured for much of the second half, and it drained his power, but on the year, he was still an above-average hitter with a 116 wRC+. He should be the first internal option should the Yankees move on from Donaldson.
- Oswaldo Cabrera: The rookie should be viewed as more of a utility-type, considering how good he was in right field and the fact he is a natural shortstop and can also play second. However, if the Yankees prepare for it, he is another option to take over at third base.
Cabrera is a natural infielder, so the transition to third base should, in theory, be successful (though reports are mixed on his glovework in the infield). He even played 28 innings at the position with the Yankees in 2022, accumulating 1 DRS and 1 OAA.
- Isiah Kiner-Falefa: IKF is not a particularly good shortstop, but is a much better defensive third baseman as his 2020 Gold Glove indicates. In 967 career innings at the hot corner, he has 16 DRS and 19 OAA, and the eye test returns positive results, too.
The problem with Kiner-Falefa is that we know he is decidedly a below-average hitter, with an 85 wRC+ in 2022 and an 82 career mark. There’s also some understandable skepticism about how well his weaker arm would play at the hot corner now, compared to 2020. Kiner-Falefa should not be viewed as a regular, but perhaps he could be a utilityman.
- A top middle infield prospect: Oswald Peraza has nothing left to prove in Triple-A and needs at-bats in MLB to finish his development as a hitter. As an above-average defensive shortstop, the transition to third should be smooth on paper, but there are questions about his offense. We can’t know if Peraza is a legit above-average batter or not if the Yankees don’t test him, though, and his defense at shortstop is acclaimed enough that he probably shouldn’t be the one changing positions.
Anthony Volpe may not be ready to be an MLB starter just yet, but could end up being an option sooner rather than later. Many shortstops have transitioned well to third base, so if Peraza’s bat develops nicely, it’s not hard to see Volpe being the Yankees’ third baseman of the future with Peraza handling short. Second base might be more likely though, as like Kiner-Falefa, there is some concern about his arm strength.
Donaldson may or may not return in 2023, but it makes sense for the Yankees to look for a potential replacement within the organization should they find a trade partner for the controversial third baseman. All of the options listed above, or any combination of them (timeshares and platoons are also in play) have the potential to yield better overall results than just deploying a below-average hitter with a limited offensive ceiling who makes big money.