Yankees ink exciting veteran outfielder to MiLB deal for 2023

Rafael Ortega, yankees
Sep 3, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; Chicago Cubs center fielder Rafael Ortega (66) hits a two run single against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As the Yankees continue to add to their MiLB depth, they’ve picked up another outfield bat from the left-handed side who could provide a spark off the bench for the team if he makes the MLB roster. 31-year-old Rafael Ortega had a solid stint with the Chicago Cubs between 2021 and 2022, slashing .265/.344/.408 with a 108 wRC+ in 221 games, serving mostly as a platoon bat against RHP. He’s the second left-handed bat they’ve signed to a MiLB deal in the last week, joining Willie Calhoun in that regard.

Yankees Could Get a Solid Bench Bat

Rafael Ortega’s swing is built for the Bronx, with a 43.2% FB% and 17.7° Launch Angle with the Cubs as a left-handed bat. He also pulled the ball at almost a 45% clip over that timespan, which is what probably enticed the Yankees into giving him a shot in Spring Training to stick with the MLB squad. Statcast deems Ortega would have had 3 extra HRs if he played at Yankee Stadium in 2022, and that’s supported by his spray charts.

Rafael Ortega’s 2022 Spray Chart With Yankee Stadium’s Overlay

Adding more bats into the mix that could grab bench spots and serve as pinch-hitters or spot starters in case of injury or give players time off is a good thing, and Ortega provides that for the Yankees. He also sports a low chase rate and good contact rates, which helps the Yankees continue to improve their plate discipline as a team. Despite the loft he generates in his swing, he only struck out 20.5% of the time with just an 8.4% Swinging Strike%. He also only chased at 25.2% of pitches out of the zone and walked at a 10.6% clip, which is the huge boost for his OBP.

Ortega’s success vs RHP can’t be understated, as he has a .341 wOBA and a .347 OBP against RHP, making him one of the better hitters in the league in that regard. The Yankees could use him to hit in spots where someone like Oswald Peraza, Jose Trevino, or Harrison Bader are up against a really tough RHP and either force a manager to make a switch or put that pitcher in a position where the odds are stacked against them. The Yankees are a pretty right-handed team, so having left-handed bench bats is a priority for them.

Competing For the 4th Outfield Job?

Aaron Hicks is currently slated to become the Yankees’ 4th outfielder as Oswaldo Cabrera seems like the heavy favorite in LF. Assuming the Yankees move Isiah Kiner-Falefa, it would open up a bench spot for someone like Ortega to get some MLB reps in the role Matt Carpenter used to have, though he’s far better defensively. While he struggles in CF (-5 DRS since 2021), he’s an excellent defensive RF (2 DRS since 2021), and while the career LF metrics aren’t pretty, he hasn’t spent much time there since 2019. He could give the Yankees solid defense in the corner outfield if he has to play it in a pinch.

matt carpenter, new york yankees
Aug 5, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; New York Yankees designated hitter Matt Carpenter (24) salutes the fans as he receives a standing ovation before his first at bat during the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

He has a solid arm averaging ~86 MPH on his throws since 2021 and maxing out at 91 MPH, which should allow him to compensate for league-average tools defensively. While the Yankees can (and will) continue to explore their options in the trade market for a LF, it’s good to know they have options in the situation that they have injury issues next year. Rafael Ortega is a solid addition for a team looking to build a strong bench, and he could hit some HRs here or there for this ballclub in key spots as a pinch-hitter.

Rafael Ortega also seems to have a flare for the dramatic and an exuberant style of play, with HRs like this walk-off blast against the Rockies and an energetic personality. The Yankees have rallied around guys like that before, and Ortega could add a presence in the clubhouse that may benefit the younger players in the locker room.

We could be looking at the next fun Yankee veteran that has some memorable moments on and off the field, and that’s always something to look forward to. It’s still a question as to whether the Yankees will have a roster spot for him to compete for in Spring Training, but maybe they get the 122 wRC+ bat the Cubs got in 2021 when they brought in the Venezuelan outfielder.