We’re not going to talk too much about Jake Bauers, or Franchy Cordero, or Willie Calhoun, or Billy McKinney. We’ve talked about them plenty this year in a game-coverage capacity, and now that that’s not really a thing anymore, I think we can put the kibosh on it moving forward (aside from a Roster Report Card here and there).
I’m sure that most fans would agree that Yankees should probably do the same. It’s nothing against them personally, of course. There are a lot of things that sank this Yankees season, but if you have to point the finger at one singular thing, it’s hard for me to turn my eyes away from the 1,025 plate appearances taken this season by Bauers, Cordero, Calhoun, McKinney, Oswaldo Cabrera, and Aaron Hicks.
Those 1,025 PAs produced a total of -1.2 fWAR, and an abominable -2.8 rWAR. That’s essentially two full-time lineup spots dedicated to players who, in theory, would be worse than a random warm body called up from the high-minors. It simply can’t happen again.
It sounds laughably simple, but the solution might be as basic as “sign solid players.” Given that the Yankees are almost always in the conversation for the top two or three most desirable free agents of any given year, it’s pretty easy for the lower and middle class of free agents to slip through the cracks. In this offseason, notable for a distinct lack of available star power, they should be the priority.
When I talk about the lower classes of free agents, I’m talking about the players who rise to a level above “warm body,” but will never be mistaken for stars or even solid everyday regulars. They’re not the type of players that Yankees fans are going to get particularly exciting. But they’re the kinds of players that a good team needs if they’re going to stay competitive throughout a 162 game season.
Robbie Grossman is one of those unexciting, yet competent, players. I can imagine the eye rolls if the Yankees had announced his one-year, $2 million contract last winter instead of the Rangers. Yet Grossman has posted a solid 104 wRC+ with his typically excellent plate discipline, and it’s not at all difficult to imagine the Yankees scraping out a few extra wins in 2023 if they had such competence to fall back upon the spate of injuries they endured, rather than group we just talked about.
Having a super bullpen is fun, but Tommy Kahnle was guaranteed $11.5 million while Adam Duvall, entering 2023 with a 105 wRC+ and a solid defensive resumé since 2019, was available for a mere $7 million dollars. If having Grossman available to spot Aaron Judge when he needed to miss time instead of Calhoun might have saved them a couple losses, having Duvall step up in his place might have saved a few more.
Kevin Kiermaier has already been connected to the Yankees this fall, and he’s wrapping up a 4-WAR season in Toronto on yet another one-year, sub-$10-million contract.
Taking it up a notch slightly, neither Anthony Rizzo’s $40 million guaranteed nor DJ LeMahieu’s initial $24 million outlay were particularly sexy, but paid significant dividends. Both of those types of signings — the lower class of free agents, and the middle as well — were notably absent from the Yankees 2022-23 offseason plans, and they paid for it. If they sign Kenta Maeda this winter, or Jesse Winker, Eduardo Escobar, Mark Canha, or Hunter Renfroe, we don’t know whether they’ll be good or not. You can look at Grossman, Duvall, and last year’s free agent list and say the same thing. But what we did know for sure entering 2023 was that none of Calhoun, Bauers, Cordero, or McKinney had ever played anything but replacement-level baseball in the major leagues. Now, the Yankees are missing the playoffs in large part because those players were exactly who they’ve always been.
Let’s take the Texas Rangers as a case study. Everybody knew that giving megadeals to Marcus Semien and Corey Seager wouldn’t be enough to turn around the team on their own. When they signed Jacob deGrom, many laughed at them taking another big swing with so many other holes on the roster. Then they signed Grossman, and gave affordable, market-rate deals to Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney, a year after doing the same for Jon Gray. They traded for Mitch Garver after having already picked up Nathaniel Lowe and Dane Dunning in similar deals. None of those deals or players were noteworthy on their own, but when you build such a collection of players who are at worst competent major leaguers, a team’s floor gets raised substantially. Now, they’re on the verge of making their first postseason appearance since the Yankees last missed it.
Whatever magic struck Matt Carpenter in 2022 isn’t coming back. You can’t pull the Luke Voits and Mike Tauchmans of the world out of obscurity every year. Right now, the Yankees have a lot of players whose worst-case scenario is being one of the 10 or 15 least valuable players in the league.
In spite of the weak free agent classes, there will be players available with far higher baselines, and while they won’t have the pomp and circumstance of whatever contract Cody Bellinger is getting, they’ll be affordable enough that payroll constraints really shouldn’t be a consideration. The Yankees already have their Seager and Semien, and possibly more. You can always use another superstar or two, but we live in the real world, and this time around, the Yankees need help from the little guys who can keep the ship sailing when the stars can’t quite get it done.