The Yankees have lacked a consistent option in left field for quite some time, and one could argue that the Yankees’ last effective everyday option there was Brett Gardner. It’s not as if the Bronx Bombers haven’t tried. Acquisitions of both Joey Gallo and Andrew Benintendi were expected to shore up the team for a deep postseason push, but Gallo’s struggles and a season-ending wrist injury for Benintendi rendered the moves ineffective come October. This time around, Brian Cashman struck a deal with their hated rivals in Boston, landing left-handed outfielder Alex Verdugo.
It’s safe to say that the 27-year-old outfielder failed to live up to being the centerpiece of a Mookie Betts trade, and with the expectations for the Bronx Bombers through the roof following the acquisition of Juan Soto, he’ll have to improve on a lost 2023 season. With an ugly split between manager and player in Boston, what can the Yankees feasibly expect from Verdugo in 2024?
The Yankees Might Be the Right Organization for Alex Verdugo’s Bat
Alex Verdugo has consistently been a hit-over-power type of hitter, and while this profile works for some, it comes with severe limits to one’s ceiling. This isn’t to say hitters with strong bat control and contact skills can’t consistently provide value at the dish, but rather that, in most cases, you need to flash power to reach thresholds above being “solid”. Verdugo has a career 105 wRC+ and .765 OPS, which both scream “solid,” but the Yankees could hope to get more in a ballpark better suited for this kind of approach.
Fenway Park’s unusually deep right field makes it not only a tough position to man, as the Red Sox have typically reserved it for all-worldly defenders like Mookie Betts (ha), but also a tough part of the park to get the ball out. For Verdugo, that means letting the ball track to shoot it the other way, and while he’s never been a dead-pull hitter, the flyballs he does occasionally pull would have more success here. Verdugo would be the kind of hitter who could benefit from making earlier swing decisions, especially given the excellent barrel control and low strikeout rates (15.4%).
This past season, he swung at just 58.6% of pitches in the strike zone with a 25.2% out-of-zone swing rate, and while not letting a pitch track as much could result in more strikeouts and whiffs, he’d still likely maintain above-average marks in both categories. Likely due to the increase in run-scoring in 2023 from 2022, Alex Verdugo posted his highest ISO since 2020 (.158) and hit 13 HRs, tied for a career most. According to Statcast, he would have had 13 more HRs over the past three seasons (37), which would certainly boost his solid-at-best 102 wRC+.
To be clear; Alex Verdugo has the raw power to certainly make those gains in terms of game power, setting a new career-high in Max Exit Velocity (112.4) and did put up a .331 xwOBA, but his high groundball rate and aforementioned cautious approach limit his ability to unlock that. The combination of a shorter distance between home plate and right field alongside the Yankees’ tendency to unlock more raw power could be exactly what the 27-year-old left-handed outfielder needs to find sustained success in the Yankees’ lineup.
If Verdugo pushes his ISO closer to the .180 mark, it’ll make up for the slightly lower contact rates, and he could become the kind of hitter that fans would love in the corner outfield. Beggars can’t be choosers, as the highest fWAR by a left fielder for the Yankees over the past three seasons came from Aaron Hicks in 2022 (1.5), which is…mind-boggling almost. For those who aren’t convinced the Yankees got an upgrade in left, Brett Gardner still leads all Yankee left fielders in fWAR in that stretch (1.2), and he’s been out of baseball for two whole years.
Greg Allen leads that group in offensive runs (5.7), the Yankees adding a 2 WAR player in Alex Verdugo is certainly going to be a nice change of pace. Plenty of hitters have seen their power (which we can measure in xwOBACON) increase with the Bronx Bombers, with Jake Bauers and Billy McKinney crushing the baseball after having track records of not doing much damage at all. While those hitters had harsh fall-offs and limited playing time as the prospects came up, Verdugo isn’t a project, he’s a proven Major Leaguer.
At the very least, the Yankees are adding a hitter who can do damage against right-handed pitching, as last season he posted a 109 wRC+ against righties, with a 115 career mark. Trent Grisham’s numbers against left-handed pitching could create the lane for a platoon, and against right-handed pitching, Verdugo might be considered for the lead-off spot. His career .346 OBP against them would certainly help set the table for the dynamic duo of Aaron Judge and Juan Soto, but while the bat may fit in Yankee Stadium, does the glove suit left field?
Could Alex Verdugo Finally Give the Yankees Competent Defense in LF?
The Yankees were terrible defensively in left field, mostly because they had to rely on non-outfielders to play left. Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who had never played outfield up until 2023, logged the second-most innings in left field, and as a whole, they posted -14 DRS and -7 OAA. Alex Verdugo moved to right field this past season, as the Red Sox signed the lumbering Masataka Yoshida, as Fenway Park works as the inverse to Yankee Stadium in outfield difficulty. Manager Alex Cora publicly challenged Verdugo, resulting in a more athletic version of the left-handed outfielder.
He’d post +9 DRS and +1 OAA in the outfield, with an incredible arm that generated plenty of assists (12) and helped him become a Gold Glove finalist. Verdugo will now be tasked with playing left field at Yankee Stadium, and while he has +21 DRS in left field, that’s at Fenway Park, where it’s much easier to hide poor range. Juan Soto is going to play right field for most of the season, as his poor range makes him a rough fit in the corner, and his arm might mask his defensive issues in a shorter part of the ballpark.
Alex Verdugo has strong reaction times and jumps, although his routes have been historically subpar, but the profile should work in left field. Fenway is a weird place to play outfield, with its unique distances and the various wall heights in the ballpark. The Yankees don’t need a Gold Glover in left, but if they get solid defense out there, it’s once again an improvement over what they’re used to.
From the Yankees’ perspective, it’s all about getting improvements in left field, and that’s been hard to come by. Finding a left-handed corner outfielder has been the objective for months, and Alex Verdugo is a player that Brian Cashman has shown repeated interest in. Just 27 years old, he’s a young and durable option for a team that has lacked durability for quite some time. Injuries are subject to a lot of variance, but Verdugo has played at least 140 games since 2021, and while he’s had nagging injuries that have limited his play, the Yankees have the depth to give him ample rest.
Trent Grisham was also acquired in the deal for Juan Soto, with Everson Pereira still in the organization as well. Depth is something the team hasn’t had, especially in the outfield, and the ability to play actual outfielders out there will create a hard-to-miss change in play for the Bronx Bombers. The last variable for Verdugo comes with his off-field track record, one that cannot be ignored in any context. He has a lot to prove as a person, arguably more than he has to prove as a player, as the public benchings and Minor League incidents won’t be easily forgotten, especially in New York.
If he becomes a distraction, an obstacle to the team’s ultimate goal of winning a World Series title, Brian Cashman and the front office both know they’ll have some tough questions to answer. In his most recent media availability session, the long-time GM reiterated that Verdugo is a “gamer” and that they did go through some sort of vetting process, and writers and fans alike will hold him accountable to those words. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with Verdugo and the Yankees.
Alex Verdugo was a cast-off from a last-place Red Sox team willing to let him shine in the Bronx if it means opening up a corner outfield spot, and he’ll have the entire winter to work towards making it a decision Boston regrets for a very long time.