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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Matt Chapman

The third baseman provides one of the more enigmatic cases among impact free agent hitters.

Wild Card Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins - Game Two Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

When the Yankees broke camp without a viable starting third baseman nor left fielder, many of us wondered how they would hope to compete with the best teams in 2023. The predictable came to pass, with both Opening Day starters at the positions — Josh Donaldson and Aaron Hicks — released from the team before the end of August. Will the Yankees make the same mistake, or will they look at external options to man the hot corner in 2024? Should they choose the latter, Matt Chapman is likely one of the first names they will consider.

2023 Statistics: 140 games, 581 PA, .240/.330/.424, 17 HR, 54 RBI, 110 wRC+, +4 Outs Above Average, 3.5 fWAR

2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 144 games, 623 PA, .230/.323/.421, 24 HR, 77 RBI, 103 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR

Previous Contract: Earned $12.5 million in final year of two-year, $25 million contract signed with Blue Jays in March 2022.

There are few third baseman around the league who can match the steady production Chapman has provided since his debut in 2017. He holds the fifth-highest fWAR (27.5) at the position over that span, grading out as the second-best defender (+54 OAA) behind only all-time great Nolan Arenado. And while not quite achieving the heights of his sophomore and junior campaigns, Chapman has proven he can produce in the AL East, with 44 home runs, a 114 wRC+ and 7.7 fWAR across two seasons with the Blue Jays.

There’s no debating that several of the tools in Chapman’s toolbox still rank among the game’s elite. Only Aaron Judge surpassed his 56.4-percent hard-hit rate while his 17.1-percent barrel rate, 93.4-mph average exit velocity and 18.9-percent chase rate all place in the top-eight among qualified hitters. All four metrics represent encouraging bounce-backs from slight dips over the last two seasons.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant

The defense also remained excellent, though not quite at the Platinum Glove levels of earlier campaigns. Often a top-three finisher at the position, Chapman’s +4 OAA ranked him 11th among qualified third baseman. Much of his value in previous years came from his unparalleled ability to charge the ball. During his days with Oakland, Chapman typically had one of the deepest starting positions of any third baseman, allowing him to make a greater range of plays than most of his peers. That starting depth has shallowed since he moved to Toronto, which paired with the new shift rules banning an infielder from starting with both feet on the outfield dirt might have cancelled out the facet of Chapman’s defense that set him apart from the field.

With that being said, it’s also worth noting that Chapman has improved the value contributed by his arm strength in each of the last four seasons such that Statcast ranks his arm as the fourth-best among qualified third baseman.

Zooming in on Chapman’s 2023 campaign at the plate, additional concerns crop up. He was the hottest hitter in baseball through the first month, with his 216 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR at the end of April both leading the league. Then came a two-month slump before a resurgent July boosted fortunes, only for them to fall back in the tank for the rest of the year. So we have two months in which Chapman produced over a 150 wRC+ and then four other months where it never went higher than 75.

Chapman’s April came with an unsustainably-high .485 BABIP, though July was bang around league average at .308. April and July were the only two months in which Chapman walked over 12 percent of the time and struck out less than a quarter of the time, and both months represented peaks in terms of average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. Finally, his 17 home runs were the lowest mark in a full season since he hit 14 in 84 games as a rookie in 2017. That his effectiveness can swing so wildly within a season creates unease.

In some respects, Chapman’s case resembles the decision-making behind the Yankees’ acquisition of Josh Donaldson. Both Gold Glove-caliber defenders at third capable of hitting the baseball as consistently hard as anybody in the league — those batted-ball metrics hinting at untapped production waiting to be unlocked in their respective bats. Donaldson still carried elite quality of contact in Minnesota so expectation of a rebound from two relative years of decline was at least somewhat reasonable while with Chapman, it feels like we’re still waiting for the results to catch up with the top-of-the-line batted-ball metrics.

That’s not to say that the failed marriage between Donaldson and the Yankees should automatically negate interest in Chapman. The latter is 30 as he hits free agency while the former was 36 when acquired by the Yankees. Interestingly, 2023 was the first time in Chapman’s career that the majority of his home runs went to the opposite field. This change in approach might have arisen out of the Blue Jays bringing in the right-field fence prior to last season — it’s an approach that would certainly benefit a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium. Of course, the fact does remain that whichever team signs Chapman would be paying for production in his 30s, right about the time when the aging curve begins to accelerate downwards.

While still a question mark, third base is not as pressing a matter as other holes on the Yankees roster. New York has DJ LeMahieu to man the role, and his late-season resurgence under Sean Casey offers at least a glimmer of hope that the worst of his decline can be held at bay a little longer. The writers at MLB Trade Rumors predict a six-year, $150 million pact for Chapman while FanGraphs are less bullish clocking in at four years and $80 million for the 30-year-old third baseman.

Depending on contracts tendered to arbitration-eligible players, the Yankees will be bumping right up against the first Competitive Balance Tax threshold before adding a single player. The combination of all of these factors — Chapman’s spottiness in 2023 and the financial constraints ownership levies upon the team — likely relegate Chapman to the less-likely tier of free agent targets for the Yankees