Rejoice! The first pitch of the 2023 season is just over 24 hours away. From the moment the final out of the World Series is converted, the countdown begins for one of the best days of the year — Opening Day — and that day has nearly arrived.
The Yankees have been firming up their 26-man roster over the last couple of days. All that’s left to do is set the lineup card for tomorrow. That’s far from an automatic task for the New York decision makers. We still have not received definite confirmation on the starting left fielder, while second and third base have three candidates for two starting roles. To that end, I’d like to make the case for Oswaldo Cabrera to be awarded a starting role in the outfield while the Yankees await Harrison Bader’s return from injury.
Cabrera was one of the pleasant surprises of the Yankees 2022 season. The rookie came up and immediately showed he could hold his own against major league pitching, with a 111 wRC+ in 44 games. His switch-hitting bat is a welcome interruption inserted amongst a righty-dominant batting order, and he demonstrated he could ably glove it at first, second, short, third, in right and in left.
With Bader on the shelf with an oblique strain, Aaron Judge will likely see the bulk of center-field reps through the first month of the season. He had been taking some reps in left this spring, but that job feels destined for Aaron Hicks after the front office has reiterated throughout winter and spring their expectation for the 33-year-old to win the starting role.
That leaves a toss-up between Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton to start in right field. I’m sympathetic to all the hue and cry for Stanton to play the outfield so they can squeeze another bat into the lineup. Stanton himself has stated multiple times that he feels more locked in at the plate in the games when he’s playing in the outfield, though the numbers fail to provide conclusive evidence one way or another — in his Yankees career he’s a 131 wRC+ hitter when playing the field vs. 129 wRC+ when DHing.
However, I think it’s fair to question whether A) that extra bat would be an appreciable upgrade over Cabrera and B) if it’s worth making that sacrifice in defense. Playing Stanton in right frees up the DH slot for the odd man out of the trio vying to start at second and third — DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, and Josh Donaldson — or for Cabrera himself.
When LeMahieu is healthy, he absolutely is the better hitter than Cabrera. The Yankees seem beholden to Donaldson at third, so we can probably remove him from the conversation entirely, which leaves Torres and Cabrera. I wouldn’t necessarily complain about Torres getting to DH and Cabrera on the bench — that offensive lineup probably has the slight edge over one with Cabrera at DH and Torres on the bench — but there is more to consider than just offense.
It wouldn’t make much sense to start Stanton in right and DH Cabrera given the latter is the superior fielder. Stanton has graded out as slightly worse than average in right over the last two seasons while Cabrera is slightly above average. Cabrera is younger, faster, and has a cannon for an arm — 90th percentile arm strength — leading to six outfield assists from right field in just over 200 innings last season.
That’s a skillset I would be itching to develop if I was part of the Yankees coaching staff. Last year was Cabrera’s first taste of the outfield in his professional career, and he handled it with aplomb, showing some natural instincts for the position. There is value in getting Cabrera everyday reps in right if they have an eye toward him as a player in their long term plans.
Of course, all of this comes with the obvious caveat that the Yankees like to regularly rotate their starters rather than field a consistent lineup from day to day. Even if Cabrera doesn’t get the Opening Day nod, he will be given solid playing time as Judge, Stanton, and Hicks are given days off in the field. That being said, there are certain players who should be getting the bulk of starting reps, and I maintain that the most complete Yankees starting nine includes Oswaldo Cabrera in right.