Spring training is about to begin, so the Yankees need to brace for Josh Donaldson and Aaron Hicks being blamed for everything from a failure to get to the World Series to an inability to solve world hunger.
When general manager Brian Cashman has proclaimed Donaldson the starting third baseman and Hicks the frontrunner in left field, it resonates with the fan base as if he is championing Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Pavano for Monument Park.
Mainly due to their big salaries and small production, Donaldson and Hicks currently are enemies No. 1 and No. 1A of the Pinstripe State.
I would argue today, however, that the Yankees have bigger issues, beginning with starting pitching depth. With Frankie Montas expected to miss at least the first month of the season, the Yankees will pivot to Domingo German, who provides fine depth. But next up is Clarke Schmidt, who has yet to define if he is more than a reliever. And after that …
Well, after that is a reminder that the Yankees have drained a lot of organizational pitching depth over the past three years. They are not going to regret trading Jordan Montgomery for Harrison Bader last trade deadline. But that deal was orchestrated in conjunction with acquiring Montas to replace Montgomery.
And the cost for Montas included J.P. Sears and Ken Waldichuk, who will vie for Oakland’s rotation. That same day, Aug. 1, they dealt Hayden Wesneski for Scott Effross, who will miss the 2023 season after Tommy John surgery while Wesneski competes to break into the Cubs’ rotation after a strong late-season cameo in 2022.
Jameson Taillon is gone from the Yankees — just as the key piece they traded for him two years ago, Roansy Contreras, is as likely as anyone to be Pittsburgh’s Opening Day starter. There was Garrett Whitlock, lost in the December 2020 Rule 5 draft to Boston, and other depth possibilities such as Glenn Otto, T.J. Sikkema and Beck Way are out the door, too.
Individually, none is a killer, and that is the price of business for a contender that wants someone like Taillon or Andrew Benintendi or Joey Gallo. But collectively a layer of protection has been removed that is more worrisome than a late January depth chart that has Donadson and Hicks as starters.
I also would argue that the major league results of Oswaldo Peraza and Anthony Volpe will be far more important to the 2023 Yankees than those of Donaldson and Hicks. Among other items, for the Yankees to change their offensive identity away from the rinse-repeat of beating the AL Central team and losing to the Astros playoff exit, Peraza and Volpe need to bring average, contact and speed to the lineup while still offering extra-base pop. And one of that duo has to turn Isiah Kiner-Falefa into a backup or a former Yankee.
As for Donaldson and Hicks, there is still a long way from here to March 30 versus the Giants. Cashman acquired Donaldson (and Kiner-Falefa, plus catcher Ben Rortvedt) as spring training opened last year, and he traded Albert Abreu, Joely Rodriguez and Luke Voit before the first regular-season game. It was a busier spring because of the ownership lockout that preceded it.
Still, I would think it is more likely than not that the Yankees will make a trade between now and Opening Day to decrease their infield glut and perhaps find more rotation protection.
If not for what they were owed (plus Donaldson’s less-than-pristine reputation), the Yankees would have traded Donaldson, Hicks or both in the offseason. Hicks has three years at $30.5 million still due — plus he would receive a $1 million assignment bonus if traded. Donaldson, between his 2023 salary and a 2024 buyout, is due $27 million.
Is their depth-chart status about the Yankees being determined to get something for their money? I asked Cashman if everyone on his roster were making the $720,000 minimum this year, would Donaldson still be the starting third baseman and would Hicks still be the frontrunner in left?
“We’re not applying that [status based on salary] standard,” Cashman said. “The hypothetical you played out, it’s not a realistic one. Donaldson has been a hell of a player for quite some time, including defensively last year for us, and offensively last year was really the first year that he went south. So there’s no reason to believe that that’s something that is permanent.
“He transitioned to a new team, and then we’ll just wait and see how the ’23 version on the offensive side looks, because the ’21 version [26 homers, .827 OPS for Minnesota] was more than good enough. That was something we were clearly looking forward to apply to the roster and so the question is did he just wake up and stop hitting for life? Or was it just an off-year? We’ll find out.”
Of Hicks, Cashman said: “The [left field] competition is between Hicks, [Estevan] Florial and [Oswaldo] Cabrera, and because of Hicks’ talent and experience, I would not be surprised if he emerges out of that, because he’s healthy.”
Asked if Hicks has retained the skills that motivated a seven-year, $70 million contract, Cashman said: “I still think his talent is there. Obviously, we have not been able to tap into it. If you want to look at various months [in 2022], you’ll see a certain player one month and a different player the next month, a lot of inconsistencies because the physical tools and talents do exist. There have been injuries and inconsistency the past two years.”
Hicks 2022 season was like a roller coaster, including three months with an OPS above .700 (including an .890 July) and two months below .400. But does that simply show a player who can’t concentrate or stay healthy consistently? And is the more worrisome stat — considering his villain status in The Bronx — that Hicks’ .523 home OPS was so much worse than his road of .732?
As the season progressed and the booing intensified, Hicks appeared more ill at ease and his performance worsened: He hit .077 at home with a .316 OPS after the All-Star break.
The Yankees could surely use the switch-hitter’s lefty bat with him playing in left field to free up the switch-hitting Cabrera to move around the diamond and provide more lineup diversity.
If DJ LeMahieu is healthy, the Yankees will be less reliant on Donaldson. But Cashman still envisions LeMahieu as a regular who moves from third to second to first. And he insists that Donaldson should have been one of the three Gold Glove third base finalists last year.
Donaldson did not endear himself to the fans for, among other things, going into homer trots on several flyballs that were not homers, but mainly for his strikeout addiction, which worsened late in the season and carried into a 5-for-29, zero-RBI, 16-whiff postseason. That included a 1-for-13, 10-strikeout eyesore in the ALCS versus Houston— in which Donaldson’s mere appearance in the on-deck circle at Yankee Stadium brought derision.
Can Donaldson or Hicks rebound to usefulness or better? It’s not impossible. Perhaps there is a 25-30 percent chance for each of them. Still, even as they are the bull’s-eye for dissatisfaction, they are not the Yankees’ biggest concern as the time for pitchers and catchers to report nears.
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