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How do the Yankees acquire their starting lineups?

Reviewing how the Yankees have set out to build their roster over the last 20 years.

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Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

With the lockout entering its third month and with no end in sight, baseball writers have used this period bereft of news to journey down some fun rabbit holes on Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Statcast to see what interesting tidbits they can find. Earlier this week, Grant Brisbee of The Athletic followed up Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects list by posing the question, “When was the last time a team turned a prospect they drafted or signed as an amateur into an All-Star?”

It was a fun little exercise that brought readers a trip down memory lane. Filled to the brim with funny memories (the “Albert Pujols, left fielder” experiment in 2002-03), memories that were pleasant or tragic depending on your point of view (Seattle’s inability to win with a young Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. in the late-1990s and early-2000s), and some that made you go, “huh, that’s neat” (the Yankees have not developed a homegrown All-Star third baseman since Gil McDougald in 1959 or a first baseman since Don Mattingly). Since the Yankees are last alphabetically, their list ended the piece, and this factoid allowed Brisbee to end on the joke, “Note that the Yankees prefer to take their All-Stars from the mewling hands of the franchises that are less fortunate, thank you very much.”

And that got me thinking — at first glance, Brisbee is correct, at least when it comes to the corner infield spots: Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi, Mark Teixeira, and Luke Voit all made their MLB debuts in other uniforms, while a trio of trade acquisitions (Alex Rodriguez, Chase Headley, Gio Urshela) have manned the hot corner most of the time in the 21st century. And that led me to my next question, “How do the Yankees fill out their starting lineup?”

To answer this prompt, I went back through Baseball Reference’s archives since the start of the 2001 season and have listed, position by position, every player who the Yankees intended to start the season with at every position. While this eliminates players such as Yangervis Solarte in 2014, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andújar in 2018, and Gio Urshela in 2019, the logic is that at Opening Day, they were not in the Yankees’ immediate plans.

Note: Categories used are “Draft, International Amateur, Mid-season Trade, and Offseason Trade; if a “-” is in the column, that means the player had previously been in the Yankees starting lineup at the start of the season, but in a different position than he was now in.

Catcher

Of the Yankees’ last 21 seasons, 16 have seen a homegrown catcher behind the plate, with Jorge Posada manning the position for a decade in that time, Francisco Cervelli technically starting the 2013 season as the primary backstop before hitting the injured list (and then getting suspended), and the polarizing Gary Sánchez filling the role since August 2016. Bridging the gaps were a pair of free agent acquisitions, Russell Martin and Brian McCann; the former was a “buy low candidate” who had been non-tendered by the Dodgers, the latter a high-profile signing after the 2013 season.

First Base

Over the last 21 years, the Yankees have had a number of homegrown players man first base from time to time, such as Greg Bird, Mike Ford, Chris Gittens, Andy Phillips, and Rob Refsnyder. The vast majority of their starters, however, have been either high-profile free agent signings or, in the case of Tino Martinez, a high-profile trade.

With all that in mind, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the Yankees rank sixth in fWAR at first base since 2001, behind the Cardinals (who had Pujols and Paul Goldschmidt for 11 of those years), the Reds (Joey Votto, 13 seasons), the Cubs (Derrek Lee and Anthony Rizzo, 16 seasons), the Giants (Brandon Belt, 11 seasons), and the Blue Jays (Carlos Delgado, Edwin Encarnación, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 9 seasons).

Second Base and Shortstop

I’m lumping both middle infield positions together here, in part because there is some overlap, but mostly because they both share similar narratives. For a fairly long time, the Yankees had incredible stability up the middle, courtesy of a Hall of Famer they drafted called Derek Jeter and a borderline Hall of Famer they signed out of the Dominican Republic, Robinson Canó. After Canó left after the 2013 season and Jeter retired after 2014, the Yankees set out to replace them, with exact opposite results. At the keystone, they fumbled around with the pair of Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew before briefly solidifying the position with Starlin Castro; Didi Gregorius, on the other hand, quickly became a fan favorite after a rocky start, eventually receiving down-ballot MVP votes in 2017 and 2018.

After the Yankees flipped Castro to the Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton, they briefly handed the position over to Neil Walker. He rapidly ceded it to top prospect Gleyber Torres, who had come over in the Aroldis Chapman trade in 2016. With a middle infield of Torres and Gregorius, the Yankees were set until they opted to let Gregorius walk and move Torres to shortstop. Since then, he has struggled, prompting a move back to second late last season.

At the moment, the middle infield continues to be an adventure, one that appears to have no end in sight. What we can draw from this list, however, is that the Yankees have been reluctant in recent years to pay for top talent up the middle, with the sole exception being DJ LeMahieu.

Third Base

Much like the shortstop and second base positions, the Yankees have struggled to find consistency at the hot corner since Alex Rodriguez left the position for good after accepting his season-long suspension prior to the 2014 season. Part of the reason for that struggle has been the inability to develop an internal replacement, as the Yankees needed to sign Kevin Youkilis with A-Rod out at the start of the 2013 season, and moved second baseman Kelly Johnson to third in 2014. Although Chase Headley solidified the position somewhat after being brought over in exchange for Yangervis Solarte in 2014, he eventually was forced to shift over to first base in July 2017 to accommodate Todd Frazier. After shipping him back to San Diego to clear payroll for Stanton’s contract, they brought in Brandon Drury to keep the seat warm for Miguel Andújar — a job he did for about a week.

Andújar himself lost the job to Gio Urshela — who was acquired the previous August in an incredibly minor deal with the Blue Jays — after missing most of 2019 due to injury and absolutely failing to improve his glove at third. Since then, Urshela was on track to be one of the league’s top third basemen entering the 2021 season, but he struggled at the plate, leaving his status in the future in doubt.

Outfield

Perhaps moreso than any other position, the outfield has seen the largest regular turnover. Starting up the middle, for the most part, the Yankees have consistently invested in the center field position, replacing the previously re-signed Bernie Williams with a free agent acquisition in Johnny Damon, trading for Curtis Granderson, swapping Granderson our for the ill-fated signing of Jacoby Ellsbury, and extending Aaron Hicks a couple years after acquiring him via trade.

Since Hideki Matsui stopped manning left field full-time in 2007, the Yankees have tended to fill that spot by shifting a center field over — first Damon, and then Gardner (who has spent his career bouncing back and forth between left and center). Right field, on the other hand, has been the spot at which the team typically adds a bat at the trade deadline, and in most cases, that player has begun the following season as the starter (although it must be added that the Yankees brought in Ichiro to play left field in 2012 due to Gardner’s injury).

Recent years have made the outfield into a bit of a mess, but that has not been due to a lack of investment in the starting lineup; rather, Hicks, Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, and Giancarlo Stanton (who is not listed here, but is listed below) have spent a large amount of time on the shelf, forcing the team to turn to the likes of Shane Robinson, Jonathan Davis, and for a brief time, Neil Walker. To quote a certain former skipper, it’s not what you want.

Designated Hitter

Is there such a thing as a homegrown designated hitter? Judging from the Yankees’ use of the DH spot over the last two decades, there really isn’t (and in his original article, Brisbee notes that since no one is usually developed as a DH, only Shohei Ohtani and Billy Butler would have made his list as homegrown All-Stars). The Yankees’ use of the DH has evolved over this time; it started out by splitting time as the primary landing spot of a second first baseman (as can be seen with Giambi and Nick Johnson), as well as a way for aging bats like Williams and Ruben Sierra to get in the lineup after aging out of the outfield. Toward the end of the 2000s and beginning of the 2010s, the position was used for other older players near the end of longer contracts, such as Matsui and Posada.

Aside from a brief two-year stint by A-Rod as the DH, the mid-2010s teams took what I call the “Nelson Cruz” approach to the spot, aiming to get high-value production of an aging veteran who hit free agency on a one-year deal. Unfortunately, there really is only one Nelson Cruz, and Travis Hafner, Matt Holliday, and Alfonso Soriano mostly disappointed.

Since 2018, the DH spot has primarily been taken up by Giancarlo Stanton when he is healthy, as the team has believed that keeping him out of the outfield will help keep him on the field.