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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Daniel Vogelbach

The former second-round pick hits righties well, but is probably not a fit for the Yankees.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Out of all the positions in the Yankees lineup, none is more currently interesting to me than first base. The team obviously needs a shortstop, while at this point in time, it seems likely that Aaron Hicks remains Plan A in center field. But first base? As far as first basemen go, Luke Voit isn’t exactly a bad option at the position. His 137 wRC+ since 2018 trails only Freddie Freeman and Max Muncy, and he ranks 16th among first basemen with 5.9 fWAR despite playing only 289 games in that time (everybody above him on the list except Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Pete Alonso have played between 400 and 550 games).

Nonetheless, the Yankees seem intent on making a change at the cold corner in 2022 due in part to Voit’s injury history, as they have been connected, in varying degrees, to Freddie Freeman, Matt Olson, and Anthony Rizzo. What if, however, the Yankees are unable to reel in one of these three fish, or they instead use that money on more pressing matters (hello, Carlos and Trevor) ... well, there is more than one way to irrigate a field.

I have monitored Daniel Vogelbach’s career for about as long as I can remember. Originally drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the second round of the 2011 draft, his future role with the team was cast into doubt when the team acquired Anthony Rizzo (who immediately became their No. 1 prospect) from the San Diego Padres in January 2012. As a first base/designated hitter type, Vogelbach became expendable when Rizzo turned into a perennial MVP candidate starting in the 2014 season. In the end, his biggest contribution to his original team came when they flipped him to the Seattle Mariners for Mike Montgomery when the Cubs needed pitching help during their historic 2016 championship run.

As a member of the Mariners’ organization, Vogelbach struggled to crack the Major League roster for more than a late-season call-up until 2019, when he finally made the Opening Day roster out of spring training. Starting the season as the backup to a pair of future Yankees, Edwin Encarnación and Jay Bruce, he forced his way into the starting lineup with a .208/.341/.439 slash line and 30 home runs (111 OPS+), which earned him an All-Star selection.

Starting off 2020 penciled into the fifth spot as the designated hitter, Vogelbach struggled in 18 games, and after recording just five hits in that span, he was designated for assignment. The Toronto Blue Jays picked him up for cash considerations, but designated him for assignment again after just four plate appearances over little more than a week. The Milwaukee Brewers picked him up off waivers, and he ended the season on a hot stretch — he slashed .328/.418/.569 with four home runs in 19 games.

Over the course of 2021, the Brewers rotated several players through the first base position: Keston Hiura got the start there on Opening Day and held down the position for most of April, Vogelbach took over the lion’s share in the beginning of the May while Billy McKinney and Travis Shaw, and then Rowdy Tellez took over when Vogelbach got hurt. Over the last few days of the season, Jace Pederson and Eduardo Escobar joined the rotation at the cold corner. The position kept rotating partially due to Vogelbach simply being unable to find any consistency at the plate; for this reason, the Brewers non-tendered him prior to the lockout, allowing him to hit free agency.

Now why might the Yankees be interested in a first baseman with a below-average glove (-2 Outs Above Average and -4 Defensive Runs Saved last season) who hit just 9 home runs and posted a 97 OPS+ in 2021? To begin with, his Statcast batted ball profile reflects, in many ways, just the sort of traits the Bronx Bombers have typically been interested in. Since 2019, his hard-hit percentage is 16th among first basemen at 41.3 percent (better than Anthony Rizzo and just below Rhys Hoskins), while his 16.3-percent walk rate tops first basemen in that span.

What intrigues me much more — and might just intrigue the Yankees — are his righty/lefty splits (career platoon splits listed first, then just 2021).

Since 2019, Vogelbach has a 112 wRC+ against right-handed hitters; in 2021, meanwhile, that value was 116. “So what?” you might say, “Voit had a 120 wRC+ against righties last year and has a 125 wRC+ against them since 2019; that would, technically, be a downgrade, regardless of the fact that Vogelbach hits lefty.”

And, to a large extent, I agree. However, if the Yankees fear Voit’s health or decide that he’s better used as trade bait, they could pair Vogelbach with a shortstop who hits lefties better than righties and use a “shuffle the infield” platoon that has Vogelbach play first against righties and LeMahieu against lefties.

All of this to say that, at the end of the day, the Yankees are probably not going to pursue Daniel Vogelbach, at least as a primary option to start at first base. If he’s willing to accept a minor league deal, though, then he’s someone who I could certainly see the Yankees taking a swing on — an unlikely outcome, but the market post-lockout will inevitably be weird, and players of his caliber might end up taking minor league deals with incentives for making the roster just to get into spring training.