Many people predicted the New York Yankees to make a World Series run this year, but they begin September in last place, under .500, and decidedly out of playoff contention. Most players on the roster failed to meet expectations due to injuries, poor performance, or both.
The club is already playing for next year. They released third baseman Josh Donaldson, a pending free agent and lightning rod for the team’s struggles. Center fielder Harrison Bader, another upcoming free agent, was claimed by the Cincinnati Reds on waivers.
They also committed to giving four of their top prospects a chance to test their mettle in the big leagues. They called up infielder Oswaldo Peraza and outfielder Everson Pereira on August 22, then announced center fielder Jasson Dominguez and catcher Austin Wells will join them on September 1. All four prospects should play nearly every day in the final month of the season. The hope is the younger players will demonstrate the ability to become productive members of the lineup—either for the 2024 Yankees or as trade bait this offseason.
Regardless of the means, the Yankees need to get younger, healthier, and more reliable at every corner of their roster. Starting pitching depth behind Gerrit Cole is a massive question mark. The lineup is batting .228 this season, which is the second-worst mark in MLB ahead of only the lowly Oakland A’s, and they have an awful .303 on-base percentage.
Realistically, the Yankees can’t trade for a young superstar like Ronald Acuña Jr. or Julio Rodríguez. That’s just not how baseball usually works. They also can’t sign every single top free agent. However, they can prioritize certain players and positions to fill their biggest holes and give themselves a fighting chance next season.
The Yankees have at least three infield spots locked down by players under contract next year. The middle infield combination of second baseman Gleyber Torres and shortstop Anthony Volpe will return. Torres has been their best hitter behind Aaron Judge this year, slashing .270/.339/.459 with 23 home runs. He has one more year of arbitration eligibility before reaching free agency following the 2024 season. Volpe’s rookie year has been turbulent at times, but he has improved as a hitter as the season progressed and provided excellent value defensively. His 3.6 WAR (Baseball-Reference version) is second on the club after Cole’s 5.3.
First baseman Anthony Rizzo had two outstanding months at the beginning of the season, then played through post-concussion symptoms in June and July, hitting only one home run during that stretch. They belatedly placed him on the IL on August 4. D.J. LeMahieu took over in his absence, and he’s hitting .294 with a .403 on-base percentage since the All-Star break.
The Yankees could roll into spring training with Rizzo at first and LeMahieu tapped for third base. However, both players have persistent injury questions and they’re 34 and 35 years old, respectively. The team should look for an upgrade at third base to lengthen the lineup. This would put Rizzo, LeMahieu, and Giancarlo Stanton in a first base/DH rotation and provide cover for injuries.
Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman is the best upcoming free agent at the position. He’s a three-time Gold Glover with a career 118 OPS+, indicating that his offense has been 18% better than league average. Another option could be Chicago Cubs corner infielder Jeimer Candelario, a native New Yorker with a 124 OPS+ this year.
Right fielder Aaron Judge is an MVP-caliber player when healthy, but the other two outfield spots are up for grabs. Bader will almost certainly not return in free agency. He’s a good defender with some power at the plate, but his low on-base percentage and frequent injuries were emblematic of the Yankees’ biggest issues.
Unless Dominguez and Pereira light the league on fire in September, it would be foolish to assume they can both step in as starters next year. The team can plan on one of them to earn a lineup spot, but they still need to find another outfielder. Both players can likely play center field or left field, giving them flexibility.
The best free-agent fit would be Cubs outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger, whose father, Clay Bellinger, won championships with the 1999 and 2000 Yankees. Cody won the 2017 Rookie of the Year and 2019 MVP with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but they nontendered him after disastrous 2021 and 2022 campaigns. He revitalized his career this year with the Cubs, hitting .316 with 20 home runs so far. His left-handed swing would be perfect for Yankee Stadium’s short right field fence.
Competition to sign Bellinger will be fierce because of market scarcity. One could argue that the second-best outfielder available this offseason will be Bader. Seattle Mariners right fielder Teoscar Hernández and Miami Marlins DH/right fielder Jorge Soler are options as well, but they carry defensive and on-base percentage concerns. Should they fail to procure Bellinger’s services, the trade market might be Plan B.
Cole is a Cy Young frontrunner, but the rotation behind him needs reinforcement. Clarke Schmidt proved he can take the ball every fifth day, but he’s no better than a league-average starter. Left-handers Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon are effective when healthy, which they have rarely been in 2023. Domingo Germán will almost certainly be nontendered despite throwing a perfect game this year because the team has grown weary of his off-field antics. Frankie Montas and Luis Severino are pending free agents who won’t be re-signed.
With Cole, Cortes, and Rodon under contract as well as Schmidt in his pre-arbitration years, they won’t sign more than one bona fide starting pitcher, but they need to make sure they get a secondary ace. 25-year-old Japanese sensation Yoshinobu Yamamoto expects to be posted by the Orix Buffaloes this winter, and the Yankees have already expressed interest. He has a career 1.77 ERA in Japan and won his second consecutive Sawamura Award last year—the NPB equivalent of the Cy Young.
Needless to say, there will be plenty of other suitors for Yamamoto’s services, so there’s no guarantee the Yankees will come out on top. Blake Snell and Julio Urías are both lefty starters approaching free agency who could tempt them, and a trade is always a possibility.
Of course, the biggest name on the market will be two-way star Shohei Ohtani. The health of his pitching arm remains unknown and he may not pitch at all next year if he indeed needs Tommy John surgery. If he can’t pitch or play the outfield, he won’t be a good fit in New York. The Yankees have too many other needs to commit to someone who would crowd out the existing players in their lineup. They will more likely use their resources to fill multiple other holes.
The Yankees have a lot of work ahead of them to right the ship this offseason. If they add a name-brand third baseman, outfielder, and starting pitcher, they’ll be on the right track.