Left field was a major problem area for the New York Yankees in 2022 — just ask any Yankees fan — and, heading into 2023, not much has changed.
Last season, Aaron Hicks largely manned the position, leading the team with 46 starts in left field, but the team tried multiple solutions throughout the year to fill the black hole in the lineup, from Joey Gallo to Andrew Benintendi — who missed September and October due to injury after being acquired at the trade deadline — to Miguel Andujar, Marwin Gonzalez and Oswaldo Cabrera.
Hicks consistently drew boos at Yankee Stadium and hit .216/.330/.313 with eight homers, nine doubles and 109 strikeouts in 385 plate appearances across 130 games. He routinely looked lost at the plate by September, and defensive miscues got him pulled from games. The Yankees signed Hicks to a seven-year, $70 million extension in February 2019 after a career year in 2018, where he hit .248/.366/.467 with 27 homers and 4.7 bWAR. But since, the 33-year-old outfielder has not replicated the success, has become a target of fan ire, and the team owes Hicks more than $30 million over the final three years of his contract. If he’s still a Yankee on Aug. 8, he will be able to veto any trade due to his 10-and-5 rights.
According to team sources, the Yankees have made efforts throughout the offseason to acquire a left-handed hitting left fielder, but so far have fallen short. As things currently stand, Hicks remains on track to be standing in left field for the Yankees on Opening Day.
“I suspect he will be the guy that emerges [in left field] because he is still really talented and everything is there,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said on SiriusXM MLB Network Radio. “Hopefully we can get the Aaron Hicks we know is in there back as a consistent player for us.”
Last season, both Cashman and manager Aaron Boone routinely expressed their confidence in Hicks and his skill set, but that hasn’t stopped the team from looking to trade him this winter.
“We have lines out on certain opportunities,” Cashman said. “If it happens in February or March, so be it. Or we go with what we have.”
Here are five options the Yankees are considering instead of Hicks, either to fill his spot before the regular season begins or during it, according to team and league sources.
Two main possibilities loom via trade.
Bryan Reynolds asked the Pittsburgh Pirates to be dealt ahead of the winter meetings, but no deal has been struck. According to multiple sources, the Yankees have shown interest in Reynolds but the two sides have not been able to come to an agreement. Pittsburgh is looking for starting pitching prospects, while the Yankees can mostly offer position players. According to league sources, the Pirates are looking for a package of multiple top prospects from the Yankees, including one or more of Anthony Volpe, Oswald Peraza and Jasson Dominguez.
The 27-year-old Reynolds has been a star for Pittsburgh since his rookie season in 2019, when he hit .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers in 135 games, producing 3.9 bWAR. After a down 2020 campaign where he hit .189/.275/.357, Reynolds had the best year of his career in 2021, hitting .302/.390/.522 with 24 homers and 6.0 bWAR1. He put together another strong season in 2022, hitting .262/.345/.461 with 27 homers and 3.0 bWAR.
The other option being considered is Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins. Kepler has shown flashes of stardom, finishing 20th in MVP voting in 2019 while hitting .252/.336/.519 with 36 homers and 90 RBIs with 4.0 bWAR. He’s locked in through the 2024 season after Minnesota signed him to a five-year, $35 million contract extension in 2019.
But Kepler hasn’t kept up that level of production, posting seasons of 1.0, 2.1 and 2.1 bWAR since 2020. The Twins have a crowded outfield, and have been fielding calls from other teams. But according to team sources, the Yankees and Twins have been unable to come close on a package of players that would satisfy both sides and are far from an agreement.
Profar is the best free agent outfielder remaining. The 30-year-old had the best season of his career in 2022, hitting .243/.331/.391 with 15 homers, 58 RBIs and 36 doubles for the San Diego Padres. Over the course of his nine-year career, Profar has played every position except pitcher and catcher. The switch-hitter’s power profile would also project well to Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch — his expected home run mark at Yankee Stadium in 2022 was 20, according to Baseball Savant.
The Yankees, though, are hoping to stay below the $293 million threshold, known as the “Steve Cohen tax” after being created to rein in the free-spending New York Mets owner, and with the team currently at about $292.3 million according to Roster Resource, there is a reluctance to sign a player who would push them over the limit.
Let Oswaldo Cabrera take over
The in-house option, Cabrera quickly became a favorite among fans and the coaching staff during the last few months of the 2022 season. The versatile switch-hitter made a strong impression with his upbeat attitude and his ability to play multiple positions. In a limited big league stint, Cabrera hit .247/.312/.429 with six homers in 44 games while flashing a strong glove.
Cashman praised Cabrera’s stint in the big leagues.
“You have the young buck, Cabrera, that wants to stake a claim,” Cashman said last week. “He showed a lot of positive things for us, especially on the defensive side, being a jack-of-all-trades.”
The Yankees were initially hesitant to train Cabrera, predominantly an infielder in the minors, to play the outfield. But the 23-year-old decided to take the matter into his own hands, training in the outfield in his free time and adding the position to his repertoire. When the Yankees called him up from the minor leagues, he immediately made an impact by playing every infield position, in addition to right and center field. According to multiple sources, Cabrera will be given every opportunity to build upon his strong first impression in 2022, and could take over as a starter or be used in a platoon with Hicks.
Since 2018, Stanton has not played more than 72 games in left field. Given his injury history in the last few years, it seems unlikely he will ever play the position full-time again.
Stanton, however, has talked about being in a better rhythm at the plate when he’s playing defense versus being the designated hitter. Earlier in the offseason, Boone said he preferred to use Stanton in the outfield “in spurts” when Aaron Judge is the designated hitter or in more defender-friendly ballparks like Boston or Houston.
Although this would only be a solution for a small number of games, if Stanton stays healthy and it helps him at the plate, too, it’s a win-win.
While both the Yankees and others like Florial’s makeup, he hasn’t produced in the big leagues. The 25-year-old has struggled with injuries and has only played 29 games in the majors over three seasons.
Florial performed well in Triple-A for the Yankees in 2022, hitting .283/.368/.481 but struggled when he received a big league opportunity, hitting .097/.200/.097 across 17 games and 31 plate appearances.
New York will face a crossroads as Florial is out of minor league options. If he does not make the team, he could end up as a trade piece before the end of spring training — perhaps even for one of the players at the top of this list.