As free agency dwindles to a close and Spring Training comes ever closer, the remains of the market tend to get vastly overlooked. The top options on the market have all found their destinations for 2023. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t solid options remaining on the market to bolster the Yankees’ roster. They most likely don’t have much left to spend, but these free agents shouldn’t cost much at all, with their upside and roles being integral to what makes a deep roster that goes far in the postseason. The Yankees have their starting lineup mostly set in stone outside of left field, but that’s been discussed multiple times already.
We’re going to evaluate players who are capable of filling different roles on the team that the Yankees could be looking for from the depths of their 26-man roster.
[su_posts template=”templates/list-loop.php” posts_per_page=”3″ tax_term=”1622326″ offset=”1″ order=”desc”]
Giving the Yankees a 2nd Utilityman
Josh Harrison has been linked to the Yankees by Jon Heyman of the NY Post, but on the surface, this seems like a poor fit. A right-handed position player who’s 35 and primarily plays the infield, this doesn’t make much sense for a team currently trying to offload infielders such as Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Josh Donaldson. That being said, if the Yankees have to start Oswaldo Cabrera in LF, Harrison could slide in as the Yankees utilityman. Even if the Yankees were to acquire a left fielder, Harrison could serve a role on the bench as a secondary utilityman, as he has experience at positions like LF/RF as well.
Harrison slashed .256/.317/.370 for a 98 wRC+ in 2022, making him a roughly league-average hitter with excellent defense at 2B/3B. His 44th Percentile Sprint Speed makes him a mediocre runner at best, though he’s consistently posted negative BsR values due to inefficient base-stealing. Perhaps bigger bases in 2023 could aid his stolen base success rates, and the Yankees are a team that’s become increasingly aggressive as base stealers. Harrison’s game is centered around making a lot of contact and swinging at a lot of pitches, resulting in a lower OBP but also hitting for a solid average.
We consistently see Harrison post below-average power numbers, but he hits for enough power to post solid offensive numbers for a depth position player. Steamer projects Harrison for a 95 wRC+ while The BAT X has him at a 94 wRC+, meaning, for the most part he’s close to league-average at the plate. What entices me about his profile is the high-contact approach and versatility, allowing the Yankees to have a competent MLB backup in case of injury. In a pinch, you can throw him in the outfield, and this also creates a roster spot for Anthony Volpe to take over eventually.
If Josh Harrison is to struggle and Volpe excels, it’s an easy DFA and replace situation where the Yankees don’t have to do much to get Volpe to the Majors. If Harrison is playing well, then you have a good problem on your hands with a surplus of quality infielders, and perhaps you’re more inclined to trade Gleyber Torres at the deadline for a position of need and let Volpe fill in at 2B. As for where Harrison would fit on the roster, a trade of IKF would open up the perfect opportunity for him.
The Yankees’ bench would be Aaron Hicks, Kyle Higashioka, Josh Donaldson, and Josh Harrison, and however you may feel about Hicks/Donaldson, they’re statistically considered league-average players. Having a bench where you don’t roster a single “bad” player according to 2023 projections and 2022 WAR metrics is a good thing, and they’d have plenty of depth on their bench with defensive viability. Harrison had a $5.5 million club option declined as well, so it’s hard to imagine he’d cost much on the free-agent market and could settle for a deal at around $3 million for next season.
A low-cost defensive stud, Harrison would add to the Yankees’ ability to make contact, bolster their infield depth, and give them an occasional spark in the lineup when he gets hot. Think of him as a better version of Ronald Torreyes, as he also has some flare in his game that should make him fun in the clubhouse and on the field to watch. You can never have too much depth, and trading IKF (which seems inevitable) and replacing him with a cheaper and more effective alternative would be an upgrade this team could certainly use.
Adding Another Left-Hander for the Bullpen
Will Smith was the closer for the Atlanta Braves and integral to their World Series in 2021, tossing 11 scoreless innings and going 6/6 on save opportunities. That being said, 2022 was an absolute trainwreck, with Atlanta posting a 4.38 ERA and 5.22 FIP. Smith’s four-seam fastball simply wasn’t effective anymore, posting a 7 Run-Value and giving up a .505 SLG% against the pitch. While it still has above-average vertical movement, it simply doesn’t have the velocity or vertical approach angle to be a highly-effective pitch. With a horrific 72.5 Stuff+ and 88.3 Pitching+, Smith would have to shift to a different primary pitch.
He was shockingly dealt to the Houston Astros, where in his first 7.2 IP, he had a 4.70 ERA and used his awful fastball 48% of the time. The Astros realized that a change would need to be made, so they had Smith increase his slider usage and dial back his fastball usage, resulting in a dominant finish to the season for the 33-year-old lefty. Increasing his slider usage to 58% over the final 14.1 IP of the season, Smith quickly turned his season around.
- 2.51 ERA
- 1.16 FIP
- 2.36 SIERA
- 30.4% K%
- 3.6% BB%
He has a 112.4 Stuff+ on his slider, and it’s his best pitch, and while projections are low on him (4.17 ERA VIA Steamer), I think it would be a net positive to bring Smith in to help the Yankees with their left-handed depth. Perhaps his fastball could be better in reduced value, but the Yankees are pretty good at optimizing talent, and the Astros have already seemed to lay out the blueprint for his success. He had a $13 million option declined, and I don’t imagine a mid-30s reliever coming off of a 3.97 ERA is going to generate much of a price tag.
With closer experience, he not only adds a second left-handed option for the bullpen but also gives another closing option late in games if they have to deplete his top arms in an extra innings game. Smith could be a high-upside arm that could end up being one of the best bargains for relievers in this free agency period. As the 7th or 8th reliever in this bullpen, he could make a strong Yankee bullpen even deeper.
Will Smith held left-handed batters to just a .278 wOBA and struck out 28.6% of LHBs with just a 4.6% BB%, so the viability against lefties is truly there. The Yankees didn’t necessarily struggle against left-handed hitters, but having extra help in a mostly right-handed bullpen should surely help. This would depend on how the Yankees view the depth of their bullpen, but if they want to get a low-cost option from the left-handed side, you could see Will Smith as a viable option in pinstripes.
High-Upside Power Bat
Edwin Rios, after 2020 looked like a long-term piece for the Los Angeles Dodgers, as in his first 123 ABs, he clubbed 12 HRs and slugged .634 with a 150 wRC+. Ever since then, he’s played just 52 games with a 77 wRC+, battling injuries and playing time questions. Rios has a 112 wRC+ and 20 HRs in 260 career ABs, and while he hasn’t played defense at a high level, his upside offensively is certainly intriguing. The floor for Rios is the lowest amongst all of the options we discussed today, but with experience at 1B/3B and the corner OF, there’s a chance he could be the Matt Carpenter replacement.
This isn’t to say he goes out and has a historic offensive stretch, but he could be that left-handed lottery ticket worth picking up. He has a MiLB option remaining, so a minor league contract with incentives for making the Major League team could definitely be worth it with the raw power tools he possesses. He has a 15.5% Barrel% and has reached Exit Velocities north of 113 MPH, though it comes with remarkably high strikeout numbers. He has a 32% K% and an ugly 34.1% Whiff% in his career, but again it’s the power you’re buying low on.
At just 28 years old, Rios is definitely still capable of reaching the heights of his early days, but that comes with the risk of him just being a dud. The MiLB option creates an opportunity to work on his swing before he could be considered for MLB action and also gives the Yankees a chance to see if the tools are all still there. Injuries being a factor in his sharp decline raises question marks as to how said injuries will affect Rios going forward, but when you’re not making a notable financial investment in a player, those risks don’t bother you nearly as much.
The comparison here is Matt Carpenter, again not because he’ll have a historic offensive stretch, but because the Yankees seem to optimize left-handed bats with strong raw power. We can look at players like Mike Tauchman or Mike Ford as well, and for right-handed comparisons, there’s Cameron Maybin and Gio Urshela as well. The Carpenter comparison is more descriptive of the literal role he’d play on the team, serving as a corner infielder and occasional outfielder with power that can play an MLB role if the Yankees were to be overrun with injuries.
Rios provides the least versatility and immediate MLB viability, but because he can be optioned still and is the only candidate here to get a non-guaranteed MLB roster spot in a potential contract, it’s a good risk to take. There’s not much to lose financially, there’s a ton to gain value-wise, and the Yankees could always use left-handed power. One of their bigger question marks is the offense for next year, so taking some high-upside flyers in that regard just makes sense.
Who knows, you could strike lightning in a bottle here, as Rios could attempt to pull more flyballs with a short porch in right field and return to his prolific HR prowess. It wasn’t too long ago that this was a player averaging 39 HRs per 600 Plate Appearances, and while Steamer projects him for just a 94 wRC+ in 2023, it feels like one of those projections that could be highly volatile next season. If he’s able to give you a 105-110 wRC+ and some HRs off the bench at the Major League level, it’s a roaring success for the Yankees.
Rios clubbed 7 HRs with a 120 wRC+ in just 86 ABs in 2022, showing that he still can put the ball in the seats at a high-level, it’s just a matter of consistency and a good bill of health.
The Yankees are a team that will shop at the top of any free-agent market but, most importantly, can optimize talent extremely well. Those smart under-the-radar signings can be the difference in a tough divisional race or even in the postseason. It’s just a matter of whether you unlock their talent or not. This article isn’t to say the Yankees should sign all of these guys, however, if they are to sign a low-cost MLB player or just take on an MiLB flyer, keep an eye out for these guys.