We are just a bit past the first quarter of the season. The team’s strengths and weaknesses are more apparent, leaving room for some critique despite this fantastic start. Most parts of the roster are phenomenal. The rotation and bullpen have been incredible, though they will be more taxed with some injuries and inconsistencies decreasing the depth. The offense has been one of the best in the league, largely lead by number 99 and with few weak spots.
Those weak spots are mainly coming from up-the-middle players. I wish I could say that Aaron Hicks and Isiah Kiner-Falefa have been impressive, but up to this point, we can say they’re not performing as well as the average major leaguer. Kiner-Falefa has had his moments here and there, but overall has struggled at the plate with an 80 wRC+. Although his .255 batting average is decent, he is just pounding grounders non-stop, therein limiting his power. Meanwhile, Hicks hasn’t shown any signs of life on offense and his 83 wRC+ is right down there with IKF. Like any year, he is walking a lot, but that isn’t enough in this lineup any more. This is a group of aggressive hitters who take their walks. Hicks has been passive and sometimes even lost at the plate.
Back in October of last year, I argued the Yankees were in need of up-the-middle talent. As we all know, they passed on every shortstop in free agency, and didn’t make any splashes via trade on a center fielder. Instead, they traded for stopgap shortstop, Kiner-Falefa, and stuck with Hicks as the center fielder on the roster.
Kiner-Falefa has been exactly that: a stopgap. His defense at shortstop is okay. His footwork isn’t top notch, and he often fields the ball like a third baseman (the position where he actually won a Gold Glove in 2020). Entering play on Wednesday, he sat in the 11th percentile in Outs Above Average. It’s been enough time to say that Kiner-Falefa is much better suited for third, but he will suffice as a stopgap defensively — as long as that is definitely the case. Hicks has been very similar to Kiner-Falefa defensively. He also sits in the 11th percentile in OAA. They’re both not glaringly bad defenders, but their range is limited from meh reactions. It’s not really a winning formula.
The Yankees are arriving at a time when they are going to be battling injuries on both sides of the ball. Giancarlo Stanton has been a rock at the plate this year. His absence will be noticeable. It isn’t fair to Kiner-Falefa or Hicks to expect them to pick up their play. Their recent past performances are probably just true indicators of the type of players they are today. It sucks, but it’s reality.
I feel bad saying it, but the Yankees need to find either a real center fielder or shortstop if they have championship aspirations. The team is just too good to not take advantage of the situation they currently have. I realize that they’re waiting on Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe to help at shortstop. Kiner-Falefa might just be what we have until then, which might be a little while since neither prospect is off to a good start in 2022.
I’m more comfortable with Kiner-Falefa on this roster anyways. He battles at-bats out. This is probably one of Hicks’ better skills too, but IKF more often wins those battles with hits. With the hitters who are ahead of him in the lineup, that skill is going to be needed.
This means a center fielder is probably the most realistic move. There isn’t a realistic everyday option coming up in the minors and Hicks is more or less a replacement level player. I’m still dreaming of the switch-hitting Bryan Reynolds out there in center, but even if the team can acquire a versatile outfielder who can move around and at least swing an average bat, it would make a big difference. Good teams like this shouldn’t play replacement-level players if they this level of financial resources. It has been and still is the time to pay for up-the-middle talent.