We’re two weeks into December and it’s reassuring to see that the Yankees have already begun fixing their anemic offense from last season. In trading for Juan Soto, Trent Grisham, and Alex Verdugo, the front office has gone a long way toward remaking an outfield that ranked 25th in fWAR and 23rd in wRC+ — the outfielders not named Aaron Judge combining to produce negative value. The Yankees’ business this offseason is far from over if their championship aspirations are legitimate, however the moves they already made give the team plenty to consider when it comes to outfield alignment and lineup construction.
We’ll start with the outfield alignment. Upon confirmation of the Soto and Grisham trade, we learned that the Yankees intend to play Aaron Judge in center, Soto in right, and Verdugo in left with Grisham as the fourth outfielder. While the Yankees have confirmed that they are OK with Judge as the everyday center fielder, I’d imagine they will try everything they can within that framework to limit the amount of time their captain spends in center and the added physical demands that come with the job.
This certainly represents the highest powered outfield from an offensive standpoint, though it is fair to question whether tweaks here and there can maximize defensive ability without compromising offensive output. Indeed, there has been an unhealthy amount of pearl clutching at the prospect of that particular defensive alignment. Putting aside the entire idea that said outfield trio should mash enough to cover the collective defensive warts, it is true that since 2018, Soto has graded out as the league’s eighth-worst defensive outfielder (-23 OAA) and Verdugo 42nd-worst (-5 OAA) out of 156 qualified players.
The most obvious move would be to deploy Grisham as the late-game defensive substitution for Judge, allowing the big man to slide to right or into the DH slot so as to keep his bat in the lineup. Grisham’s been the game’s best defensive outfielder over the last four seasons — five runs better even than Harrison Bader — so he raises the defensive floor of the outfield immediately upon entering a game. He may not offer much with the bat, though I’m sure the Yankees are hoping they can unlock the version that put up a 122 wRC+ in 59 games in 2020.
It’s interesting to note that Soto only played left field and Verdugo only right field in 2023, a flip-flop of the current projected alignment. On one hand, it makes sense to put Verdugo’s 95th percentile arm in left. On the other, most of his experience in left came in the cramped confines at Fenway in front of the Green Monster, almost the polar opposite of the cavernous depths of left field in Yankee Stadium — asking him to all of a sudden cover that much more ground could negatively impact his defensive value. It’s more a function of the limitations facing Soto the fielder — his average arm strength and below-average sprint speed are best if they’re contained to just right field.
There is another question to consider: Giancarlo Stanton. Neither he nor the Yankees have fully divorced themselves from the desire to play in the field. Doing so would give Judge the opportunity for a half-day off at DH, with Grisham likely the starting center fielder in those contests. One way they could approach this while keeping both Judge’s and Soto’s bats in the lineup would be to platoon Stanton and Verdugo in right. Stanton is a career 160 wRC+ hitter against lefties and 129 against righties while Verdugo’s put up an 80 wRC+ against lefties and 115 against righties. This opens the possibility of a Soto-Grisham-Stanton outfield left to right and Judge DH’ing against lefties and a Verdugo-Judge-Soto outfield with Stanton DH’ing against righties. That Grisham owns reverse splits, hitting lefties at a 124 wRC+ clip vs. just 79 against righties, makes the above scenarios even more palatable.
Moving on to lineup construction, I think the only acceptable order at the top sees Soto bat second and Judge third. Far too often, Judge stepped to the plate with no one on, so who better to bat in front of him than the premier on-base threat in the game? Doing so would also provide Soto with unrivaled lineup protection — while he’s more than happy to take a free pass, I reckon opposing pitchers wouldn’t be thrilled at the prospect of gifting Judge a free baserunner.
As for the top four in the order, I would expect the Yankees to prioritize another on-base threat to bat leadoff. The only players currently on the roster who were above average at getting on base in 2023 were DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, and given the former’s success batting leadoff and resurgence at the plate in the second half, I expect him to reprise his role atop the order. We also know that the Yankees love to break up the parade of right-handed hitters, and they have the ability to bat right, left, right, left for the first four. Simply alternating the batter handedness that a pitcher has to face disrupts the flow of everything from sequencing to aiming point, so I expect Anthony Rizzo to bat cleanup.
This slots Torres in to bat fifth, the spot in the lineup where he’s had the most success in his career with a 143 wRC+. But where, you might ask, does that leave Stanton? I’ve been a staunch defender of Stanton’s, but 2023 was the first season to test my faith in the prodigious slugger. That he turned in his first below-average offensive campaign and below replacement level performance overall in a season when he was mostly healthy when on the field is alarming, and Stanton himself acknowledged that time would be needed in the lab to recover his production. Moving him down to sixth (if not further) removes the pressure of needing to be the main RBI threat on the team. Should he regain his form, it lengthens the Yankees lineup, giving the opposing pitcher a “heavy” at-bat for two-thirds of the lineup as Aaron Boone is wont to say.
All of this comes with the caveat that the Yankees’ business on the position player side is far from finished if they intend to fully right the wrongs of last season. This offense is more than one bat away — regardless of how generationally talented that bat may be — from a championship contender. They’ve placed an impressive wager on the upcoming season with the recent additions, but now’s the time to go all in.