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The everlasting importance of Giancarlo Stanton

Giancarlo Stanton may not be “our guy,” but he’s the most important guy.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There are many reasons to be excited about the 2023 New York Yankees. Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo were re-signed. Carlos Rodón was brought in to help ace Gerrit Cole anchor what looks to be a stellar rotation. Tommy Kahnle will help an already quality bullpen. The offense, on the other hand, is a bit of a different story; it will be anchored by Judge and will hope for rebound seasons from many of its veterans and the emergence of some key prospects.

Yes, the Yankees are once again genuine championship contenders, even if prospects and a hope for rebounds are not certain qualities of a typical World Series favorite. There is one player, however, whose production and importance gets seemingly overlooked.

Giancarlo Stanton is the most important player to the 2023 Yankees.

Sure, it’s Aaron Judge’s team and Anthony Rizzo is a good bet to match last year’s production. Gleyber Torres is better than he is given credit for and Harrison Bader should hit enough to make himself a solid everyday player. But, Josh Donaldson is looking for a rebound season. DJ LeMahieu has to prove he is healthy. The shortstop position is in flux and the starting left fielder may or may not be on the roster. And, can the young prospects be successful over the course of a whole season?

There is uncertainty all over the lineup. With the exception of Judge, only Giancarlo Stanton is a certainty for 2023. He’s an elite hitter with elite production when healthy. Despite hitting 66 home runs over the past two seasons, Stanton, to many fans and pundits, is simply “not our guy.”

He isn’t the first Yankees’ acquisition to be treated this way.

Not Our Guy: ‘80s edition

New York Yankees Dave Winfield, 1983 AL Playoffs SetNumber: X26155

In December of 1980, the New York Yankees signed Dave Winfield to a then-record 10-year, $23 million contract. Winfield was entering his age-29 season and was a star with the San Diego Padres. The Yankees were paying a premium to pair him with their current star Reggie Jackson and, in just three years, their new star Don Mattingly.

In retrospect, Winfield gave the Yankees exactly what they were paying for. He provided eight full seasons of elite level production before being traded in 1990. During those eight years, Winfield would average .291/.357/.497 with 29 doubles, four triples, 25 home runs, 102 RBI, and 10 stolen bases per season. He would be the backbone of the 1980’s Yankees that led the decade in regular season wins.

The key phrase was “in retrospect.” Anyone who grew up in the ‘80s knows that Dave Winfield was never treated as a true superstar of the team. First, there was Reggie. And then, there was Donnie Baseball.

Winfield would never be viewed as “the guy” on any of his teams, or anything close to it. In 1984, the City openly rooted against him in favor of Don Mattingly during the famed batting title race. Mattingly went on to become an MVP in 1985 and become a superstar in the game; Winfield continued to produce in his shadow. Winfield was the most consistent power hitter in the Yankees’ lineup for eight years and was named to the All-Star team every season in pinstripes.

When we think of Dave Winfield now, we think Hall of Famer and “Great Yankee,” but he certainly wasn’t treated as such while he was actually playing. Everyone knew he was good, but the attention and adoration was always directed elsewhere.

History repeating itself

In December of 2017, the Yankees traded three players for Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning MVP who hit 59 home runs drove in 132 runs and slugged .631. The trade was a classic salary dump for the Marlins, who had signed Stanton to a 13-year contract worth $325 million in 2015, with $250 million still owed to him over 10 years at the time. The deal was backloaded for three years before it escalated to $25 million and beyond in 2018. The Marlins clearly didn’t want to pay the escalated contract and even chipped in $30 million to help New York take on the greater commitment.

Many fans, just getting over the Alex Rodriguez contract, thought that the Yankees acquired another albatross of a contract, a deal that would perhaps stop them from signing homegrown star Aaron Judge. Through the lens of the 2022 winter, Stanton’s contract no longer looks as cumbersome.

Like Winfield before him, Giancarlo Stanton was coming to somebody else’s Yankees team. This was and now permanently is Aaron Judge’s team. And, like Winfield, Stanton has produced at a high level since joining the Yankees with very little fanfare or regard as one of the elite power hitters in the game.

Maybe this perception is due to the 2019 and 2020 seasons that saw Stanton play in just 41 games in total due to injuries. It may be due to his woeful second half of 2022, when injuries pushed his wRC+ from 134 pre-All-Star Break to 68 after. But in each of his three full seasons, Stanton has hit 30 or more home runs. His 129 wRC+ as a Yankee ranks 25th in the game among players with as many plate appearances.

Stanton vital to 2023 World Series bid

Aaron Judge is coming off of a historic season. He could win a second consecutive MVP award, but even an elite year from Judge will yield some regression. A healthy Giancarlo Stanton is needed if the Yankees are truly World Series contenders as he is the one hitter capable of producing close to Judge’s level.

Stanton has, of course, played like an MVP in the past. He is, entering his age-33 season, still one of the top power hitters in the sport. His 66 home runs over the past two seasons rank 11th in Major League Baseball. His .247 ISO is 10th best. His .492 slugging percentage is 26th. Since 2021, 33 of his 66 home runs have either tied or given the Yankees a lead. Last season, 17 of his 31 homers did that. There are few difference making sluggers in the game. The Yankees have two of them.

Sure, there are worries about Stanton’s regression. Last season, despite 31 home runs, he hit just .211/.297/462, the worst marks of his career. He did have a career low 74.7-percent contact rate with pitches thrown for strikes. His overall contact rate was slightly below his career rate of 68.3 percent, thus resulting in a career-high 30.3-percent strikeout rate. That, however, wasn’t all that much higher than his lifetime rate of 28.2 percent.

Despite those potential red flags that could all stem from his Achilles injury and overcompensating as opposed to regression, Stanton is still one of the most powerful hitters in the sport. He owned 14 of the 62 hits in the majors that had an exit velocity of at least 115 mph. His BABIP was just .227, far below the league average, which suggests some bad luck.

Like Hall of Famer Dave Winfield before him, Giancarlo Stanton is one of the most important hitters in the lineup and one of the game’s great power hitters. Despite playing in the shadows of other stars and failing to get the full Yankee Universe embrace while playing, Stanton will join Winfield as one of the great Yankees and, possibly, in the Hall of Fame.

The 2023 Yankees’ lineup has many questions to answer. Giancarlo Stanton is just one of two certain answers, even if he isn’t treated like it.