The Yankees should buy low on one solid Mets free-agent outfielder

michael conforto, mets, yankees
Sep 5, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Mets right fielder Michael Conforto #30 celebrates with teammates after scoring a run against the Washington Nationals during the first inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees have been in touch with former Mets outfielder Michael Conforto. While Conforto hasn’t played since the 2021 season, the former All-Star boasts an impressive offensive resume that could greatly boost the Yankees’ offense.

A left-handed corner outfield bat, Michael Conforto provides a power bat with strong plate discipline that could help the Yankees top of the lineup. While he comes with risk and question marks, he also presents incredible upside for a team in need of a spark in the lineup. Once considered one of the top outfielders in the game, Conforto is looking to re-establish his market, and the Yankees could get incredible value out of the 29-year-old slugger.

Talk the Talk and Work Some Walks:

For the Yankees, contact became a massive issue for their 2022 ALCS matchup against the Astros. While the Astros registered a 10.2% Swinging Strike% in the 2022 regular season (4th lowest), the Yankees registered a 11.0% Swinging Strike% (15th). This isn’t inherently an issue, as the teams ahead of the Astros (CLE, SDP, ARI) weren’t elite offenses.

The problem stems from the Astros ranking 5th in SLG% as well, being the only team in the top 5 for both swinging strike rates and SLG%. Both teams registered high OBPs as well, with NYY ranking 5th and HOU ranking 7th. In the playoffs, getting on-base, hitting for power, and avoiding whiffs is a winning formula.

yankees, aaron boone
Oct 19, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone (17) talks to media during a press conference before game one of the ALCS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

While the Yankees certainly would have benefitted from having Benintendi and LeMahieu, neither of the two contribute power to the equation. Conforto combined a career 10.5% Swinging Strike% with a career .468 SLG%, something that makes him a rare combination of solid contact and power. Conforto also has a career 24.5% Chase rate, which means he isn’t expanding the strike zone often.

Conforto’s ability to lay off of pitches in the zone has netted him a career 12.1% BB% and .356 OBP, and those skills would greatly benefit a Yankee squad looking for the answer at the leadoff spot with LeMahieu’s injuries. He’s also kept his K% under 23% over the last 3 seasons he’s played, so he doesn’t have the massive hole in his swing that could be exploited in the postseason. With his swing decisions on par with other strong leadoff candidates, how about his raw power?

Power at the Leadoff Spot:

Since 2019, Michael Conforto is slugging .459 with a .200 ISO and 25 HRs per 150 games played, which is impressive considering the cavernous Citi Field dimensions. Conforto hasn’t experienced drastic home/road splits, so his power is legitimately very good, considering how well it plays universally. His Statcast metrics also suggest he has strong power, even though in 2021, we saw a SLG% under .400. Conforto battled injury and poor batted ball luck all season, but in 2020 we saw Conforto’s batted ball data explode.

  • 2020 Statcast Data
    • 114.4 MPH Max Exit Velocity
    • 11.0% Barrel%
    • .451 xwOBACON
    • .374 xwOBA

We still saw strong batted ball data from Conforto in 2021 despite a disappointing 106 wRC+, running a 9.2% Barrel% and .350 xwOBA to go alongside his 12.3% BB%. Conforto is a skilled hitter, and the raw power tools have translated to strong game power consistently in his career. Yankee Stadium provides a ballpark that would reward Conforto for pulling flyballs more than Citi Field could, and that raw power and solid hit tool could combine for more 25+ HRs over the course of a full season.

It’ll be hard to set expectations for Conforto’s HR total coming off shoulder surgery, but the initial projections seem to like him a lot. Steamer projects Conforto for 19 HRs over 131 games, giving him ~22 HRs over 150 games for his first season post-surgery. For free agents, Steamer uses a neutral park factor since there isn’t a home ballpark for said player yet, but Yankee Stadium is a HR haven for left-handed hitters. Anthony Rizzo saw a rise from a 120 to 126 wRC+ after signing with the Yankees. We could see Conforto projected for a 25 HR pace over 150 games if he signs with the Yankees, thus, his median outcome is extremely promising for power output.

Offense is only part of the equation for player value, but how about appreciating Conforto’s defense?

Under-discussed Defensive Value:

Michael Conforto has a negative career DRS, but when you evaluate that closely, you’ll see that has to do with -15 DRS in as a centerfielder. Conforto is going to play the corner outfield if he was to play in the Bronx, so let’s take a look at the defensive production at RF and LF in his career:

  • Career LF + RF defense:
    • 13 DRS
    • 10 OAA
    • 4.5 UZR

His career defense in the corner outfield is surprising, considering he doesn’t have the reputation of a strong defender. One of his best traits defensively is his strong arm, as in 2021, he ranked in the 89th Percentile, averaging 89.0 MPH on his throws. His jumps, routes, and bursts all rank right around league average, which don’t do him many favors, being average in terms of getting to the ball is fine when paired with a strong arm. He has a career 12 rARM in LF and RF, so he’ll grade out as an above-average defender, most likely if his arm is somewhat close to what it was in the 2021 season.

With Harrison Bader playing to his left and hopefully Aaron Judge playing in RF, the Yankees would boast an outfield chock-full of strong arms. Bader’s range and speed could help eliminate Conforto’s need to cover the gaps as aggressively and limit his role in the defense, which could also benefit the outfield defense as a whole. With the upside there, a potential contract for Conforto could vary. The market for a buy-low deal that probably will just be a one-year commitment for a player with 4+ WAR upside is cloudy, but let’s take our best stab at it.

Evaluating Michael Conforto’s Market

FanGraphs projects Michael Conforto to net a 1 year $12 million deal for the 2023 season. That seems like a great deal for any team since Conforto could churn a 120-125 wRC+ with strong outfield defense for them, but how does it stack up to other notable LF options and their projected (or actual) contracts?

  • Brandon Nimmo: 5 years $100 million
  • Andrew Benintendi: 4 years $56 million
  • Jurickson Profar: 3 years $30 million
  • Mitch Haniger: 2 years $24 million
  • Joc Pederson: 1 year $19.7 million (actual contract)
  • Michael Brantley: 1 year $12 million

I don’t imagine the Yankees shop at the top of the market (Nimmo) but if they want to save money to use on other positions, perhaps Conforto is the right player to settle for instead of giving $50+ million to Benintendi. Conforto also projects favorably for the 2023 season, with Steamer giving him strong median outcomes.

  • Steamer 2023 Projections
    • .244/.340/.418
    • .333 wOBA
    • 117 wRC+
    • 11.1% BB%
    • 21.7% K%

Steamer projects Michael Conforto to be a pretty good hitter for 2023, and 117 projected wRC+ would rank 5th among all Yankees for Steamer wRC+ (min 100 PAs). While there are valid concerns about how Conforto looks post-surgery, if the medicals come back strong, this is a risk you take. Buying low on Michael Conforto means getting a player who could give you good power, solid defense, and a great eye for the top of your lineup. Go big or go home, and for a Yankees team desperate for their first pennant since 2009, it’s time to take a swing at Michael Conforto.

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