During Saturday’s exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Aaron Boone indicated that he plans to use Giancarlo Stanton in the field about two or three times per week. This plan will most certainly be welcome news to Yankees fans like myself, who spent the majority of 2021 clamoring for the team to play him in the field so they could deploy the jumbo package. Beyond just getting to see an outfield comprised of linebackers, though, playing Stanton in the field, alongside the acquisition of Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s defensive versatility and the presence of DJ LeMahieu, has the potential to have huge ramifications on how the team approaches lineup construction this season. With Opening Day rapidly approaching, the 2022 Yankees, at least for now, suddenly have something that’s been sorely missing from the team in recent years: lineup flexibility.
In the past, with the exception of LeMahieu, the Yankees’ lineup has been extremely rigid. This rigidity is part of the reason why we had to endure nearly a full season of Gleyber Torres at shortstop despite the fact that it was abundantly clear that he was not cut out to field the position. It’s also why we had to watch Tyler Wade make 25 appearances in the outfield last season, and why there was a legitimate discussion about making Gio Urshela, who has limited range at third base, the full-time shortstop this season.
Now, all of a sudden, the Yankees are going to feature two every day players who can play multiple positions. In three seasons in New York, LeMahieu has made 106 appearances (62 starts) at first base, 195 appearances (177 starts) at second base, and 102 appearances (94 starts) at third base. Since 2019, he has been the literal definition of a super utility player, even as he has become a mainstay in the starting lineup. In Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the Yankees have a guy who has played 173 games (172 starts) at shortstop, 117 games (103 starts) at third base, 20 games (19 starts) at second base, and 73 games (66 starts) at catcher in four major league seasons. It would be outlandish for me to claim that I’m excited about the prospect of IKF being the team’s starting shortstop in 2022, but it would be even more outlandish of me to not acknowledge that the defensive flexibility he provides this team is anything but beneficial.
The benefits of this flexibility, however, are contingent on having a cohesive plan when it comes to lineup construction. In 2021, Giancarlo Stanton played 139 games. 108 of those games came as the DH. He didn’t make his first appearance in the outfield until July 30th, when the team travelled to Miami, and they realized they couldn’t afford to lose his bat if they wanted to have any shot at making the playoffs.
From July 30th until October 3rd, Stanton played 26 games in the field, freeing up the DH spot to get guys off their feet and give them a bit of a break. Perhaps coincidentally, this stretch also just so happened to coincide with the Yankees’ best offensive stretch of the season, at least in terms of run creation. Now, according to Boone, the team finally wants Stanton to play the field again. This move, even more so than the hopeful resurgence of LeMahieu and the acquisition of Kiner-Falefa’s defensive flexibility, is the key to what the Yankees want to accomplish in 2022.
The big offseason acquisition, for better (he’s still an excellent hitter) or worse (there were a lot of really good players available), was Josh Donaldson. In Donaldson, the Yankees got a 36-year-old third baseman with bad legs who has a great bat and is capable of playing a solid third base. Last season, Donaldson split time between third (92 games) and DH (34 games). By freeing up the DH spot more than they have in the past, the Yankees can do as much as they can to get Donaldson off his feet and keep him fresh for the season. Additionally, in games when Donaldson is the designated hitter, the presence of DJ LeMahieu, a solid fielder and solid bat, to take over third base makes it a lot easier to give Donaldson these rest days, as you won’t be sacrifice that much on either side of the ball. Last year, this job would’ve gone to either Odor or Wade, so there’s really no doubt that this is an upgrade.
While it may not have been the common sense addition fans wanted, the acquisition of Donaldson means Boone has the ability to slot a career 137 wRC+ hitter in the lineup alongside Aaron Judge (career 151 wRC+) and Stanton (career 142 wRC+). For a team that had some serious offensive issues outside of Judge and Stanton last year, the benefits of this addition cannot be overstated, especially if it’s fortunate enough to coincide with an improvement from Joey Gallo and/or a resurgence from Gleyber Torres (slashed .289/.338/.456 with a 115 wRC+ in the second half of 2021) and DJ LeMahieu (played through a triceps injury and hernia that required surgery). Keeping Donaldson fresh is the key to making this work, though, and that means building out a roster that is flexible enough to allow him to DH from time to time without sacrificing a huge drop-off in production when he’s out. Without LeMahieu and IKF’s ability to field multiple positions (and, at least in the case of LeMahieu, hit at an above league average clip), this strategy simply wouldn’t be feasible.
For a team loaded with injury concerns—Donaldson, Stanton, Judge, and Torres have all missed some pretty substantial time over the last few years—flexibility is the name of the game. I mean, the “next man up” philosophy is great on paper, but when that means Odor and Wade become regulars on a team with playoff aspirations, suddenly it loses a bit of its appeal. Though the offseason did not go the way a number of us wanted it to go, at least the front office has put together a more flexible roster than they have in the past. That’s not nothing, and its importance simply cannot be overstated.