The shift in the Yankees’ outlook sparked by suddenly seeing Jasson Domínguez, Everson Pereira, Austin Wells, and Oswald Peraza in the lineup together isn’t limited to the rest of the 2023 campaign. The results of this roster experiment could go a long way toward shaping their approach to what could be a difficult-to-navigate free agency period this winter.
A good month from Domínguez or Pereira changes the outfield equation for the offseason on a number of fronts. It’s a weak free agent class, and it’s a particularly weak free agent class on the outfield front. Cody Bellinger is the clear-cut top name in the class, which says something in and of itself — his 142 OPS+ makes for a very nice bounceback year, but the 66 OPS+ in the preceding 900 plate appearances is close enough in the rearview mirror that you’d be hesitate to make a huge commitment. After Bellinger, the recently-waived Harrison Bader is probably one of the next handful of best options available, depending on how you feel about guys like Hunter Renfroe and Joc Pederson. The pickings are slim.
The point isn’t that if a young outfielder has a good September, you don’t need to get outfield help. It’s that this season’s outfield market isn’t quite as gloomy if you’re in the market for a supplementary hitter who can give you solid production over less than a full season’s worth of at-bats. If September indicates that New York might actually be able to bank on someone like Domínguez or Pereira contributing something in 2024, then names like Pederson, Tommy Pham, and Adam Duvall start to have some appeal as reliable bats-for-hire to fill in between the kids and the two very large men who need at least a modest chunk of DH time between them. This is a bad offseason for teams that need a difference-maker on offense.
In some ways, Michael King brings the inverse scenario to the team’s pitching staff. It’s not an incredible class of free agent pitching, but it’s a strong one, albeit with some headline names finishing off disappointing platform seasons. Before King entered the picture for next year’s rotation, I might have thought that it would be putting a Band-Aid on a stab wound to enter into pursuit for a potential difference-maker on the hill like Aaron Nola, Marcus Stroman, or Blake Snell, or once again plucking from the top of the Japanese market in Yoshinobu Yamamoto or Shoto Imanaga. That equation changes if King’s September looks anything like his last two starts: nine innings of one-run, no-walk, nine-strikeout ball. If he can be penciled into mix with Clarke Schmidt and Nestor Cortes behind Gerrit Cole and Carlos Rodón, then the kind of solid upper-mid-rotation starter that’s very much in stock this offseason could be a bigger point of interest than they would be otherwise.
It’s still a little bit baffling to me why it took this long to see Austin Wells. The Yankees catching situation hasn’t undergone as much scrutiny as other parts of the offense, but no matter how well Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka work with the pitching staff, it’s something I think you have to look at this offseason if you’re Brian Cashman & friends (or the McKinsey consultant paid to look on their behalf). The Yankees have gotten a 60 wRC+ from their catchers this season, 29th out of 30. Good defense and framing actually have their overall production in the top third of the league, at 2.0 fWAR. But the team’s offensive struggles this season must lead them to reconsider how much they value the pure glovework.
Enter Austin Wells. One of two — or even both! — very simple thing can happen to foreclose on that whole paragraph of angst you just read. First, over the next month, Wells can hit well enough to give himself an early in on a lineup spot next year, whether it’s behind the plate or elsewhere. Second, over the next month, Wells could show enough behind the plate to convince Yankees brass that he’s a viable option there at least in the near-term future. If either of those perfectly feasible things happens, then they can enter 2024 with a pretty good feeling that they’ll see some bounce towards the mean from the position, with a healthy Trevino also in tow. If Wells fails to impress, then there’s not much to suggest they won’t still roll with that trio next spring, but again: it would be hard to not at least consider alternatives.
One of those alternatives is a trade. That’s another thing that a strong month from any one of these young fellows can do. If they’re impressing Yankees fans, they’re probably impressing other teams too. Jesús Montero probably would have gotten a nice return in any case after the 2011 season, but if the Mariners had any hesitation about losing Michael Pineda after a 3.5 fWAR rookie season, Montero’s 169 wRC+ in an 18-game cameo at the end of the season probably greased the wheels. The thinness of the free agent market means we might see an even more robust than usual trade market, if selling-inclined teams sense an opportunity to cash in on other teams desperate to upgrade. Domínguez certainly isn’t going anywhere, but if Pereira, Wells, or Peraza raises their game in the coming weeks, it could very well be enough to convince a different team to part with another player who might have a more immediate impact.
The Yankees have new life, and it’s not just limited to a few feel-good games late in a lost season. The lack of production from the internal options they opened the season with made it feel as if a path to contention in 2024 was cloudy at best, but any potential emergence at this stage from players like Domínguez, Wells, Pereira, Peraza, and King could shed a lot of new light on it. It could take many forms — we’ll just have to see how it plays out.