The post-lockout Yankees started making moves on Sunday. After a relatively minor deal to bring back outfielder Tim Locastro, the team swung a trade involving more notable names. Joining the Yankees were Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt. Departing for Minnesota were fan favorite Gio Urshela and catcher Gary Sánchez, who was a frequent lightning rod for Yankees fans looking to express their frustration over the past few seasons. It was a seismic move for the Yankees’ 2022 plans and merits closer analysis.
Defensively, the Yankees are going to improve at the hot corner. Donaldson may not be the elite defender that he once was, but last season, he was still in the 63rd percentile of third baseman in Outs Above Average (OAA). This is a notable increase against Urshela, who for all the flashy plays, has not been a darling of this statistic over the last few years. Donaldson also provided two more Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last season in a similar sample size to Urshela at third base.
Donaldson’s average exit velocity ranked in the 99th percentile of major league players. He still hits the ball blisteringly hard, and the Yankees love this metric when searching for players who have more than their baseline statistics show. He also still has the ability to get on base regularly, and his .352 OBP from 2021 was only bested by Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge among the Yankees’ regulars.
The Yankees as a team struck out 24.5 percent of the time in 2021. Both Donaldson and the new shortstop, Kiner-Falefa, come in well below that stat. Donaldson has only topped that rate once in his major league career, while both Urshela and Sánchez were above that mark in 2021.
The strikeout-averse Kiner-Falefa went down swinging just 13.3 percent of the time in 2021. The trade-off is that he does not hit for much power, and he does not take many walks. Overall, he is a below-average major league hitter, but the Yankees and new hitting coach Dillon Lawson will probably begin working with him to trade some of that contact for a little more impact on the ball. This would fit the profile of what Lawson did with numerous players while working within the Yankees’ minor league system.
The bulk of Kiner-Falefa’s value comes from his glove, but it is also a demonstration in the frustration of dealing with defensive analytics. FanGraphs credits Kiner-Falefa with 10 Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop in 2021, which is a very good number. Yet MLB’s Outs Above Average (OAA) statistic rates him as just in just the fourth percentile. It’s clear that the Yankees’ internal evaluation leans closer to the FanGraphs figure, though it should be noted that even being in the fourth percentile is an improvement for the Yankees at shortstop, as Gleyber Torres was rated at the very bottom in the first percentile.
As an added versatility bonus, Kiner-Falefa also won the 2020 AL Gold Glove at third base.
The most unknown player in the deal was Ben Rortvedt. The 24-year-old catcher only has 39 games of major league experience and while he recorded a poor wRC+ of 40 at the plate, he was still credited with 0.2 fWAR. That indicates that his framing and defensive abilities are very strong, and he also has an established relationship with Yankees catching guru Tanner Swanson, who coached him in the minors for Minnesota. He threw out 7 of the 16 runners who attempted to steal on him at the major league level in 2021. With larger bases likely coming to the major leagues soon in an attempt to encourage action on the base paths, Rortvedt will likely be called upon to continue throwing out runners at a high rate.
The Yankees’ catching roster now consists of Rortvedt and Kyle Higashioka. Neither player broke the Mendoza line with their batting average last season, but their strong framing metrics are valuable to helping the pitching staff negotiate the AL East. It is worth noting that Rortvedt is a left-handed hitter, creating a potential platoon scenario for the Yankees that could help maximize the offensive contributions of each player. Rortvedt also has two minor league option years left, giving the Yankees flexibility to add another veteran catcher at the major league level.
With these additions, the Yankees have improved their defense on the left side of the infield and behind the plate. Both Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa are upgrades over Urshela and Torres, who received a majority of the reps on at third base and shortstop last season, and while Rortvedt’s bat won’t approach Sánchez’s, he has a superior glove.
In terms of fWAR, the Yankees added 4.5 fWAR to their roster while trading away 2.5 fWAR of production in Sánchez and Urshela. The Yankees are now well above the first luxury tax threshold and the move saves the Twins money, as they divested themselves of Donaldson’s contract, which was set to pay him over $21 million a year for the coming two seasons. They will now take on the question that the Yankees have been asking over the last few years, as to whether this is the season that Sánchez puts it all together and regains his early-career form.
Urshela is another wild card in the deal. He was a surprise for the Yankees when he emerged from the minor leagues and seized the third base position back in 2019. Despite the highlights, he was never the elite defender that some Yankees fans believed him to be. He battled injuries and frequently looked to be hobbling and in pain playing the field over the last few seasons.
The Yankees unquestionably swung a big trade on Sunday night. Gone are familiar faces who struggled through 2021, and in came two players to increase the value of the Yankees infield. It could mean that the Yankees are done, but the team also may still have more moves in the tank as they do not have a clear starting catcher or first baseman on the roster. Stay tuned, as the team has made moves, but they also have more questions to answer.