Yankees’ left field position battle sees interesting twist

rafael ortega, yankees
Mar 2, 2023; Bradenton, Florida, USA; New York Yankees left fielder Rafael Ortega (71) hits a two-run home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second inning during spring training at LECOM Park. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The left field position for the New York Yankees is still up for grabs. Aaron Hicks, Oswaldo Cabrera, and Estevan Florial are all competing for the starting job, despite Cabrera playing multiple positions during spring training. The Yankees are trying to maximize his value, which suggests Cabrera plays a utility role rather than taking over the starting LF job full-time.

The Bombers have been getting Florial some reps and at-bats, but he sometimes looks lost. Hicks, on the other hand, has enjoyed eight at-bats this spring, recording two hits and a run. He hasn’t done anything overly exciting, despite hoping for noticeable changes after tweaking his batting stance. One under-the-radar player, Rafael Ortega, is making a strong push for the left-field position.

The Yankees have been trying to get Ortega playing time this spring, and he hasn’t disappointed over a small sample size.

“He’s one of those guys that we want to get a lot of looks at,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

The Yankees should be considering Rafael Ortega as a legitimate option in LF:

Across seven at-bats, Ortega has recorded two hits, including a home run, triple, three RBIs, and a run. He’s hitting .286 with a .375 OBP at 31 years old. Ortega is coming from the Chicago Cubs, playing in 118 games last season. He hit .241 with a .331 OBP, seven homers, and 35 RBIs.

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However, his 2021 season was excellent, hitting .291 with a .360 OBP, 11 homers, and 33 RBIs with 12 stolen bases. If he can replicate those numbers, he deserves to win the left-field job, even if his defense represents an average player. Hicks isn’t an excellent defender by any means, so Ortega could make a strong case to be the starter on Opening Day.

“I feel good right now with where I’m at because I learned a lot from those ups and downs, especially the downs,” Ortega said. “When you go down, you get better at something that you need to get better at. That’s been helping me a lot to be here with this new opportunity with the Yankees.”

Per NJ.com.

Given the Yankees have moved Cabrera around frequently over the past week, the position battle could end up boiling down to Hicks and Ortega, which in that instance, could go either way. Yankee management is fixated on giving Hicks another opportunity, despite coming off two down seasons. If he doesn’t elevate his game and show consistency as an offensive piece, the leash should be short in favor of Ortega.

Rafael has never been known to be a slugger, but the short right porch in Yankee Stadium would treat him well as a lefty. He posted a 33.5% hard-hit rate, 4.8% barrel rate, and 87.2 exit velocity last season on average.

If he can increase those numbers slightly, even getting to a 6% barrel rate, he could easily smash double-digit home runs in 2023 and get on base at a successful clip. He walked at an 11.9% rate last season, so if he can maintain that pace, he should offer the Yankees a good offensive player.

In addition, with the MLB banning the shift, Ortega can maximize that variable. That should boost his numbers even further, making a .250 batting average with a 35% on-base rate realistic. He’s already shown his offensive qualities during spring training and surprisingly decent athleticism, running the bases quickly on his triple Thursday afternoon.

Ortega has firmly put himself in the mix for the left field job, so we will be monitoring his performance closely as the regular season approaches.