During the offseason, the Yankees didn’t have many top alternatives to choose from with an upgrade at third base in mind. Still, they passed on Justin Turner, Brandon Drury, and Evan Longoria, and unless the market suddenly presents an opportunity to sign Carlos Correa on a short-term deal and they capitalize on it, they will need to go with that they have at the hot corner.
So, what do Aaron Boone and company have at heir disposal? Let’s take a look. Josh Donaldson, the starter there last year, had a 97 wRC+, a .308 OBP, a .374 slugging percentage, and a 27.1 percent strikeout rate — all while making the most headlines with his big mouth. For what it’s worth, Donaldson did flash a rock-solid glove that probably should’ve earned more Gold Glove consideration.
There’s also the ever-versatile DJ LeMahieu, who can not only play third, but do so with aplomb. He did win a Gold Glove, as both he and the Cardinals’ Brandon Donovan were awarded for their work in a utility role (a first for Rawlings). Despite becoming more injury-prone over the last two seasons and thus seeing his bat vanish in the final two months, LeMahieu had a 116 wRC+ and 3.0 fWAR in 125 games.
Rookie Oswaldo Cabrera could potentially play third base, too, but doesn’t have too much experience there and might be needed behind that position, in left field. The rookie hit six homers with a 111 wRC+ in 171 trips to the plate and is very versatile. There’s also last year’s starting shortstop, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who is also capable of manning the hot corner. In fact, he won a Gold Glove there in the shortened 2020 with the Texas Rangers. Offense is a problem, though, with a mediocre 85 wRC+ in 2022 and no power to speak of.
Who should be the starter if the season started tomorrow? It’s hard to pick a different option than LeMahieu. Playing Donaldson or IKF would deeply affect the lineup, and using Cabrera there would not only require some training, but also would mean that Aaron Hicks plays more than the team would probably like in left field (given the current roster setup).
LeMahieu has shown that he can handle third. He has played meaningful innings there every season since he landed on the Yankees in 2019. Last year, he defended the hot corner for 385.2 frames and had an impressive seven Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS, and four Outs Above Average (OAA).
The three-time All-Star has the instincts, the arm, the footwork, and the reactions to be a good fielder over the course of a full season. As long as he is healthy, he should be the Yankees’ third baseman most nights.
Playing Donaldson over LeMahieu just because he will earn over $20 million would be detrimental to the team. At this point in Donaldson’s career, nothing should be guaranteed to him, regardless of his contract. And if they can’t trade him, they will have to pay his salary anyway.
Unless the Yankees can bring in Correa, which is pretty much inconceivable given the front office’s inclinations and the amount of money they have already forked over the offseason, the trade market and free agency likely don’t present an opportunity to upgrade at third base anymore. Rolling with the proven LeMahieu is the way to go.
Yes, LeMahieu is 34 and his .261/.357/.377 line may look a bit underwhelming especially in the power department. But that line yielded a well-above average offensive line in a tough environment for hitters last year, and he has the potential to be better if health cooperates. That’s a big if, though, as even after avoiding surgery on his foot, he’ll have to prove that his swing is closer to his 2022 first-half levels.
At the very least, LeMahieu and Donaldson will produce similar power outputs, but the former’s ability to get on base should be superior, and that is very important on a good, deep lineup. That, and the fact there is a notable difference in contact ability in favor of the 2019-20 AL MVP candidate should swing things in his favor.
LeMahieu is aging and may not return to those peak levels, but he is still the best option to be the regular third baseman for the Yankees in 2023 at this point. It may not be even close.