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Yankees Mailbag: Shōta Imanaga, Corbin Burnes, and Stanton’s defensive positioning

Our final mailbag of 2023 dives into the second-best pitcher posted from Japan and flashbacks to an unpleasant result from the Yankees’ past.

World Baseball Classic Championship: United States v Japan Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Good afternoon everyone, it’s time to dive back into the mailbag and answer some of your questions. Remember to send in your questions for our bi-weekly call by e-mail to pinstripealleyblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Mike B. asks: Am I crazy or does Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Shōta Imanaga give off Daisuke Matsuzaka and Kei Igawa vibes? If the Yankees miss out on Yamamto I want them to steer way clear of Imanaga.

I wasn’t as heavily invested into MLB back in 2007 as I am now, so I can’t speak to the market and hype of the Dice-K posting and subsequent Igawa pivot, but I do think this comparison falls flat for a few reasons. First, while Matsuzaka’s posting at the time was a surprisingly-high mark and opened the door for more Japanese players to earn expensive contracts in the near future, he wasn’t the superstar ace that Yamamoto is expected to be. Dice-K did have a strong NPB career, winning Rookie of the Year in 1999, one Sawamura Award (the Japanese equivalent to the Cy Young) in 2001, and led the league for several years in strikeouts. That culminated in a solid debut season with the Red Sox in 2007, a fourth-place finish for the Cy in 2008, and a quick downfall from 2009 onwards.

Likewise, I think it’s very unfair to label Imanaga the next Kei Igawa. Igawa had a sensational early career in Japan, but by the time he was posted and landed in New York he had quite clearly already went past his peak in NPB. He had become very inconsistent and was a fraction of the pitcher that had once also won a Sawamura. The Yankees were quick to pounce on him mainly because they lost out on the Matsuzaka sweepstakes and wanted to save face that they were still the big spenders, a problem that they don’t associate with themselves anymore for better or worse.

Either way, Imanaga is an intriguing pitcher that has held up despite being an older player at the time of his posting than any of the other Japanese pitchers we’ve been talking about. His most recent season saw him post an ERA decently under his career average, so he’s far from washed yet, and his market projects him to get well under what Yamamoto earned from the Dodgers so he’s also a more sensible pivot than Igawa was. The Yankees haven’t been one of the teams linked to him as much as say the Giants or Red Sox, but they should still be keeping contact as the 30-year-old has a little under two weeks to come to an agreement before his posting window closes.

jmack175 asks: What are the chances the Brewers listen to a package for both Burnes and Yelich?

Perhaps they’re listening to package deals, but I don’t think it’ll come from the Yankees. While Corbin Burnes is an excellent pitcher who could slot easily into the top half of the Yankees’ rotation, they lack the prospect depth to pull off a deal for a pitcher of his caliber even as a rental after already trading so much of it away to get Juan Soto from the Padres. Meanwhile Christian Yelich isn’t the ascendant superstar that he appeared to be in his initial Milwaukee seasons, but he’s rebounded nicely from his decline over the past two seasons and is back to being an above-average starter, so even with his extensive contract he’s not a throw-in or a player who would water down the prospect cost by including him in a potential deal.

Additionally, Yelich’s contract running for at least the next five seasons (with a mutual option for a sixth) would conflict with the money that the Yankees could throw at Soto to keep him in pinstripes beyond this upcoming season. Considering the Yankees also already have a crowded outfield with Soto, Aaron Judge, and Alex Verdugo in place with Jasson Domínguez waiting in the wings to get healthy, it just doesn’t feel like a reasonable fit. On top of all of that, if you’re going to trade for a guy like Burnes, you’ll also want to consider extending or re-signing him as well, which further complicates the payroll scheming.

Overall, it’s been a sounder strategy for New York to go for the big arms when they’re available for just money: it’s what the Yankees did with Gerrit Cole, tried to do with Yamamoto and could still do with some of the remaining options on the market. They’ve also recently made a major commitment to Carlos Rodón, who didn’t quite fit that mold after the disastrous season he just had, but at the time made all the sense in the world for the team to target as a No. 2 pitcher. I’m more bullish on Rodón returning to form than some may be, so I’m also content if the Yankees focus on raising the floor of their staff with the remainder of this offseason and find their next big target for 2024.

Steve G. asks: Why not get Giancarlo Stanton a first baseman’s mitt for Christmas? Back in the day the tall, lumbering guys who could no longer run always ended up at first base but I don’t ever recall hearing anything about it for Stanton.

Availability has been the main issue, as Stanton’s consistent injuries have seemingly tunneled him into being the de-facto DH for most of his Yankees tenure, but Anthony Rizzo locking down the position also makes it a harder scenario to see play out. The outfield at least has two spots that Stanton could feasibly fill in at (he’ll never be a center fielder), as opposed to just the one corner infield spot where they already have a solid bat. On top of that, Rizzo’s defense is one of the best on the team so there’s no argument for pulling him late in games and giving the role to Stanton that way either.

That being said, this could be the year that the Yankees experiment with it, at least in spring training. This is Rizzo’s last guaranteed year and if he doesn’t rebound well from the concussion saga last season, they could choose not to pick up his club option for 2025. Stanton’s contract running until at least 2027 means that the Yankees either have to find a way to utilize him or go the Aaron Hicks route — and while they were ultimately willing to eat $10 million a year I don’t think Hal Steinbrenner will do the same for Stanton’s $25 million or more. I worry that having him diving for hard-hit grounders to his right on a regular basis may exacerbate Stanton’s leg problems, but we’ll see if it’s an option that the team considers.