This would be the slow part of the offseason even if we weren’t also facing the fact that Yankees have exactly one clear and obvious move left to make, and all we can do is speculate on who it might wind up being. You know the drill by now: He’s left-handed, plays the outfield, and hits for a fair amount of power. He’s not Austin Riley (I accidentally wrote and deleted that name several times throughout this post) and he’s not Auston Matthews (thought it several times but stopped myself from writing it, at least). He’s Austin Meadows, erstwhile Ray, incumbent right fielder for the Detroit Tigers. Let’s take a look at Meadows’s rough 2022 and why he might be worth taking a swing on in 2023.
On the contractual front, Meadows will play two more years under arbitration before reaching free agency, so Detroit may be reticent to deal him — perhaps especially in light of how his sunk-cost 2022 and how solid Isaac Paredes looks in Tampa Bay — but it’s also hard to say what the goals are for the 2023 Tigers. Their lineup might have some punch if things go right, but the organization is entirely devoid of proven starting pitching options beyond Eduardo Rodriguez, who’s also gone through quite a lot over the last three years. If they’re to trade from anything resembling an area of strength, the outfield is the place, with Riley Greene expected to take a step forward alongside Meadows’s younger brother Parker, who re-solidified his prospect status with a torrid 2022 in Double-A. Finding a team like the Yankees to take a chance on Meadows the Elder’s bounce-back is a trade-off they can probably swallow.
If there’s a place where a bounce-back could happen for Meadows, who was limited to 36 games in 2022 in which he slashed .250/.347/.328 (101 wRC+) without a home run, Yankee Stadium seems like as good a place as any. Even without a change of scenery, there were some promising signs that his brief season wasn’t quite as rough as it looked. He halved his typical strikeout rate and maintained an excellent eye, walking nearly as much as he struck out. Unsurprisingly, he also nearly halved his career whiff rate and was more precise than ever in his swing decisions, swinging at just 62% of pitches in the zone — nearly in line with career-low in that category he posted in his bonkers 2019 season — but making contact nearly 92% of the time he did swing, easily a career high.
The extra contact ability didn’t do much good for his batted ball numbers, though. His strength seemed to have waned, with his maximum exit velocity registering as below average for the first time in his career just three years after ranking in the 97th percentile. His barrel rate, pull rate, and fly ball rate were all the lowest of his career, all indicating that his swing and strength simply weren’t firing at 100 percent, given how strong we’ve known him to be in the past.
Some of that could be attributed to health, and perhaps a rapid change of scenery. Meadows nearly broke camp with Tampa Bay before his sudden trade to Detroit, where he was beset within a month by a bout of vertigo that caused him to miss roughly three weeks. Barely a week after that, he returned to the IL with Covid-19 and a bothersome achilles that simply wouldn’t heal properly, and was ultimately shut down late in the year with just those 36 games under his belt.
Meadows fits the category of low-risk, high-reward as well as any player that’s been suggested to fill the Yankees’ still-vacant hole in left field. Now with two subpar and injury-marred seasons in his last three, the estimate for Meadows’ 2023 salary now lies in the $4.3 million range, per Roster Resource, and should it become three subpar seasons out of four, a simple non-tender will suffice to clear it from the roster. As such, the acquisition price shouldn’t be terribly high, considering the depth of the Yankee system relative to the shallowness of Detroit’s, well, organization.
Meanwhile, the upside is indeed very high. While just the other day I talked about how it might be a good idea to try to break the “take walks and pull the ball in the air” mold in which the Yankees have modeled their recent outfield acquisitions, it’s mouthwatering to think about what a fully healthy and activated Meadows could do in Yankee Stadium. Even if little other changes were to be made, his power would still play up quite a bit: According to Baseball Savant’s expected home run totals, Meadows may have added up to 12 additional ding-dongs on to his career total of 73, had they all come in the Bronx. Even his brutal 2022 would have looked better if he hadn’t been dealing with Comerica Park’s high walls and cavernous alleys. His 2022 spray chart, first overlaid on Detroit’s dimensions, followed by New York’s:
Meadows looked a little bit stiffer at the plate in 2022 than he had in years past, and whatever caused his power outage, it’s visible in how many dots on that spray chart don’t even make the warning track. That’s not in character with how he hits the ball when things are going well. Still, the charts speak to the way in which Yankee Stadium specifically benefits a lefty with a propensity for towering fly balls. If that sounds familiar in a terrifying way, don’t worry. Though their batted ball profiles are similar and they’re both left-handed corner outfielders, Meadows and his bat-to-ball ability strike me as a much safer bet than whatever Minnesota hopes to get out of Joey Gallo.
Back to the chart. The point is that if Meadows can simply re-locate his 2021 stroke — simply good, rather than his 2019 All-Star peak — the Yankees might still wind up getting prime Gallo-type production from him. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Meadows might have made a run at a 40-homer campaign in 2021 had he played more of his games at 161st Street:
Look, man. A chart is a chart, but it’s December 28th, and it’s fun to dream. It could make for a pretty deadly outfield! Outs Above Average hasn’t been a fan of his defense as of late (-3 career OAA in LF), but UZR and DRS are both “meh” at worst, grading him around average or even slightly above it in left field recently. With Harrison Bader and Aaron Judge catching everything within a half-mile span in center and right field, Meadows shouldn’t cause any issues in the seven-hole.
Most would believe that Austin Meadows will not be traded before the season. Then again, on April 4th, 2022, most would have also believed that Austin Meadows would not be traded before the season. The next day, he was a Detroit Tiger. So it goes! We could do a lot worse near the bottom of the order come April.