The Yankees can still sign the top remaining free-agent left fielder

yankees, jurickson profar
Jul 27, 2022; Detroit, Michigan, USA; San Diego Padres left fielder Jurickson Profar (10) hits a single in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

With Spring Training just a couple of weeks away, free-agent outfielder Jurickson Profar is still on the market. The Yankees still need a left fielder, as FanGraphs projects them to finish 24th in fWAR at the position (1.4), and the time to grab one before Opening Day is running out. It’s possible that they wait until the deadline to address the position, hoping Aaron Hicks can regain some of the power he lost in 2022. It’s a gamble, but why not raise the floor (and maybe even the ceiling) of a World Series contender by signing Profar? His market seems to be falling, and the Yankees could swoop in to secure their LF for 2023.

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Giving the Yankees More Plate Discipline in their Lineup

The Yankees excelled at working walks last season with their league-leading 10.0% walk rate as a team. This helped them finish 4th in MLB in OBP (.325), but Profar can add to that. Jurickson Profar walked 11.1% of the time last season, and that’s due to ranking in the 79th Percentile in Chase Rate. One of the most important things for a hitter to do is swing at good pitches to hit, and while Profar had a better Chase Rate in 2021 (84th Percentile), the key change he made was getting more out in front with his swings and pulling the ball more.

With his high walk rate, Profar presents a challenge for pitchers facing him in the lower half of the lineup, as they’ll have to attack him in the strike zone in order to generate outs. What’s even more of a challenge is getting Profar to strike out, as he rarely swings and misses. With an 18.7% Whiff% (86th Percentile) and a mere 15.7% K% (82nd Percentile), Profar can be trusted to put the ball in play in huge spots, which is something the Yankees would greatly value as their 6th/7th hitter with runners on.

In the Padres postseason run, Profar often found himself in the latter half of the lineup, and yet still drove in 5 runs in 12 games, posting a .365 OBP in the process. What the Yankees lacked last postseason was depth around Aaron Judge, and thus it left them exposed when he slumped, and the rest of the lineup was tasked with trying to make up for it. By adding some youth into the lineup, they’ve certainly helped their lineup improve around Judge, but Profar is another piece in that puzzle.

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Contact is one of those buzzwords that can start long threads on social media between traditional and analytical fans, but they’re both right and wrong in a way. The idea of contact not being valuable is dismissed by analytics, as BABIP proves this theory, with the league-average BABIP on any batted ball being higher than the BABIP on a strikeout, which is 0. That being said, contact for the sake of contact can’t be an approach in every situation, and strikeouts are just a byproduct of better pitching nowadays.

  • MLB K% By Year:
    • 2018: 22.4%
    • 2019: 23.1%
    • 2020: 23.5%
    • 2021: 23.3%
    • 2022: 22.5%

The first time we’ve seen drops in strikeout rates have a correlation with the foreign substance ban, and even then, they’re still higher than they were in 2018. It’s hard to deny that making contact is harder than it’s ever been, which is why Profar’s ability to do so without sacrificing much power should be appreciated more. As a switch-hitter as well, the splits have been rather even, and he won’t be “exposed” on his weaker side, allowing him to remain a mainstay in the lineup. With 15 HRs last year, Profar showed some pop in his bat, but perhaps Yankee Stadium could help him get those numbers up even more.

Pulled Flyball Artists

Jurickson Profar ranked in the 76th Percentile in Pulled Flyballs, and as mentioned earlier, his approach of pulling the ball more meant more chases but also led to a much better wRC+. At first, some Yankee fans will hear “pulling the ball more” and get upset, thinking it’s a philosophy that leads to more strikeouts, a homer-centric swing, and more early postseason exits. I would like to rebut that argument by pointing to the Houston Astros, who have an extremely short LF that plays well for right-handed hitters. Just like the infamous short porch in RF for left-handed hitters, pulling the ball in the air can result in inflated HR totals.

Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve pull the ball plenty in the air, and that’s because their raw power isn’t elite thus they want to get the most out of their flyballs. Pulled flyballs tend to travel farther, and most importantly for Profar in Yankee Stadium, would lead to easier HRs than he’s used to. San Diego is the opposite of a bandbox for HRs, with a 95 HR Factor versus a 113 for Yankee Stadium. Profar’s splits don’t suggest a huge difference in power output, but Statcast’s xHR by park has him with 20 HRs at Yankee Stadium compared to the 16 he hit in the combined regular and postseason.

Profar already had a 110 wRC+ in 2022, which would’ve been their 6th-best mark on the team (min. 400 PAs), something that would again help deepen the Yankees lineup. Come October, your depth plays a massive role in how far you end up going. Profar wasn’t elite in the playoffs, but a 107 wRC+ with a .365 OBP definitely played a huge role in San Diego, upsetting two 100-win teams in the Dodgers and Mets. It’s something the Yankees could have used against Houston, and they could have potentially extended the series with a clutch hit here and there.

Another factor in this is that the Yankees were abysmal in terms of production from LF at the plate. While defensively and baserunning-wise, they were great at the position, they registered an 86 wRC+ from the position, tied with the likes of Detroit and behind the Marlins, A’s, and Nationals. They need to get more offensively from the position, and Profar getting close to a 110 wRC+ would certainly be a huge help on that front.

yankees, jurickson profar
Oct 21, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; San Diego Padres left fielder Jurickson Profar (10) reacts after being called out on a check swing strike three during the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies during game three of the NLCS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a chance that the Yankees could see a spike in BABIP for Profar as well, even if it’s just a small one. From the left-handed side, Profar gets shifted against 63.8% of the time, and if he could even get five more hits than he usually would, his .243 BA would have been a .252 BA last season. That’s going to help your OBP and SLG as well, which ultimately play into a higher wOBA and wRC+. Despite projections by Steamer that would suggest he’s going to take a small step back next year (104 wRC+), I have faith that limited shifts and a better home ballpark could help him match or even surpass his 2022 campaign.

What you do at the plate is just one part of the game, as the question still looms about whether Profar fits the cavernous left field at Yankee Stadium defensively.

Can You Trust Jurickson Profar in Left?

A basic overview of Jurickson Profar’s defense would say no, as he posted -6 OAA last season in LF with a -2% Success Rate Added. This should be the end of this segment, thus making Profar a questionable candidate to man left for the Bronx Bombers. OAA (Outs Above Average) is a great metric for defense, however, there is one key thing it overlooks in outfield defense; throwing. When we look at DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), we see that Profar had a +2 in LF, making him an above-average defender at the position. That’s because Profar had a +5 rARM, making him one of the best OFs when it comes to throwing runners out.

Jurickson Profar doesn’t have a rocket arm, ranking in the 58th Percentile in Arm Strength at 87.0 MPH, but his Max Throwing Velocity of 94.2 MPH shows that when he needs to, Profar can sling it. He was 4th in Outfield Assists as well, and it’s clear that despite subpar range, he makes up for it in his ability to control the running game. When we take a detailed look at the routes Profar struggles with in particular, we see that he struggles on balls he has to come in on or go towards CF for.

The benefit for Profar would be that because of how the Yankee Stadium left field wall is, he can play less deep than he usually does, which might make things easier for Profar as he’ll have more time to react on a ball coming in since there’s inherently less ground to cover. He could see better range metrics since he struggles so much on balls straight up (-4 OAA), and even getting to a -3 OAA would allow him to be more than fine at the position.

The best way to describe Profar defensively is that he’s an arm-first outfielder who doesn’t have great range. His reactions are fine, but the issues lie in his ability to cover ground and have better bursts, something he saw improvements on in 2022 in comparison to 2021, but his August and September were his worst months defensively in 2022, suggesting he actually regressed in-season defensively. Whether it was fatigue or an unknown injury, it’s hard to project any of his instincts to improve, but I think when we factor in his arm, he’s roughly an average defensive LF.

Can the Yankees Fit Jurickson Profar Under the Steve Cohen Tax?

The Yankees have two avenues where they can move some money around in return for prospect capital, and that’s by trading Isiah Kiner-Falefa or Lou Trivino. Let’s start with the obvious candidate here in IKF, who’s looking like the odd man out with the emergence of Oswald Peraza. Anthony Volpe isn’t too far behind and, at any point in time, could get the call to the Major League level for his heavily anticipated debut. Gleyber Torres isn’t under contract after 2024, but the Yankees sorely need his bat in the lineup, and he’s a solid defender at 2B as well. Josh Donaldson and DJ LeMahieu are under larger deals, thus they aren’t getting the boot either.

It’s a matter of not being a starter on the team and also having enough money to have re-invested in a key position if moved. I’d imagine seeing Lou Trivino as a trade candidate would seem odd, but giving him $4.1 million in arbitration seems a bit odd. For context, Clay Holmes is in the same arbitration situation and got $3.3 million, how does this make any sense? Well, it could be because the Yankees are planning to move Trivino, and teams would certainly want his services.

lou trivino, yankees
Aug 21, 2022; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Lou Trivino (58) celebrates his save with catcher Jose Trevino (39) against the Toronto Blue Jays during the ninth inning the game at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

His versatility as a closer, middle relief, and multi-inning arm would make him valuable to any bullpen, especially ones with less depth than the Yankees. They have arms in the system like Albert Abreu, Matt Krook, Randy Vasquez, Jhony Brito, and Deivi Garcia, who are all on the 40-Man Roster and could compete for that final roster spot. It’s not crazy to say the Yankees could replicate Trivino’s projected production in 2023 with the high-octane arms they possess in their bullpen, and they could open up over $10 million in payroll by moving IKF and Trivino.

Such financial flexibility could be used to give Profar a one year $7.5 million deal with a club option for 2024, giving him more guaranteed money than David Peralta, who recently signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Throw in some incentives that could raise the value of that contract, and I imagine he’d take it, giving the Yankees the left fielder they need for Opening Day. Aaron Hicks is a league-average player, not a bad one, but he doesn’t give the Yankees the offense they need from the position.

aaron hicks, yankees
Jul 21, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Aaron Hicks (31) reacts after crossing home plate to score a run against the Houston Astros during the ninth inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not to say that the Yankees would be a terrible baseball team with Hicks instead of Profar, as at the end of the day, this is a 1.0-1.5 WAR improvement, not necessarily one that would change the course of a season dramatically. They could also still explore an upgrade on the trade market if Profar flops, but as a one-year contract, it’s really hard to imagine that Profar would really be a hard player to move off of if he struggles. At the end of the day, it comes down to the Yankees’ ability to move salary and Profar’s willingness to sign a one-year deal, but this seems like an ideal situation for both parties.