Yankees Notes: Judge Free Agency, LeMahieu, Kiner-Falefa

Brian Cashman addressed reporters, including The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, for the first time following the Yankees’ ALCS defeat to the Houston Astros. Cashman’s future was among the topics discussed, but the GM also took time to provide some insight on various areas of the playing roster.

Aaron Judge’s future with the organization will be the biggest question heading into the off-season, and Cashman says the team would ideally get a deal done soon if they’re to re-sign him. Judge is a strong favorite for AL MVP after hitting 62 home runs and posting a .311/.425/.686 slash line. A worst case scenario for the Yankees would be for them to miss out on Judge after his free agency drags long into the off-season and likely replacements have since signed elsewhere, so it makes sense that Cashman would prefer business to be completely swiftly.

“He’s gonna dictate the dance steps to his free agency because he’s earned the right to get there,” Cashman said. “We’ll see how it plays out. He’s the most important. If he came in here today and said, ‘I’m signing up. Let’s go,’ there’s still work to be done.”

Cashman wouldn’t offer much insight into the process, offering a “no comment” when asked if the Yankees and Judge had engaged in discussion since the end of the season. He also noted it’s more of a decision for Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner as well. Cashman’s clearly stated he wants Judge back, but the ultimate decision will land at Steinbrenner’s feet as to how big of a contract he’s willing to hand out.

DJ LeMahieu struggled with a foot injury late in the regular season and wound up missing the entire post-season. The Yankees haven’t settled on a path forward for managing that injury in the off-season, but surgery remains on the table. LeMahieu posted a .261./.357/.377 line with 12 home runs this season, well short of the MVP-level offensive output he produced for the Yankees during 2019-20. The Yankees will hope a full recovery from the injury will allow LeMahieu to post better offensive numbers, but he’ll also turn 35 in 2023 and it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect much bounceback for the veteran. With four years and $60MM remaining on his contract, he’ll certainly be back in pinstripes though, but just where he fits in is up in the air and may depend on how the off-season plays out.

LeMahieu’s played plenty of first base with the Yankees, but that’s become less of a need since Anthony Rizzo joined the team last season. It’s already been reported that Rizzo is expected to decline his $16MM player option for 2023. It’s not much of a surprise given Rizzo had a strong season and is expected to benefit from shift restrictions next year. Cashman stated the Yankees will seek to re-sign Rizzo if he opts out. That could come in the form of a qualifying offer, but it seems likely Rizzo would decline that in favor of a multi-year deal.

The left side of the infield drew plenty of criticism throughout the season, and particularly during the playoffs, but Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa are both controlled for 2023. Donaldson is owed $21.75MM while Kiner-Falefa is into his final year of arbitration and is predicted to make $6.5MM per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz. Donaldson ranked eighth among qualified third basemen in Outs Above Average, but scuffled with the bat, hitting just .222/.308/.374 with 15 home runs. Kiner-Falefa was never expected to be a major offensive contributor, but defensive metrics were mixed on his glove work at shortstop, ranging from 28th in Outs Above Average to seventh in Defensive Runs Saved. While a change at third might be tricky given Donaldson’s significant salary, Cashman’s left the door open for change at shortstop, particularly given the impressive showing rookies Oswaldo Cabrera and Oswald Peraza made down the stretch. The Yankees also have top prospect Anthony Volpe getting close to the majors.

“I think Kiner was along the lines of what we expected,” Cashman said. “It gave us an opportunity to bridge the gap while the kids continued to develop because everybody in the industry, fans and teams alike, recognize that we have some pretty impactful prospects that we’re developing and needed some more time.”

In other bits of info from Cashman’s press conference, he said he wouldn’t discuss trading players but noted that outfielder Aaron Hicks would be back and that the team felt he still had something to offer. Hicks hit .216/.330/.313 in his age-32 campaign, and has $30.4MM and at least three years remaining on his contract. It’s worth adding here that manager Aaron Boone said today he wants to utilize Giancarlo Stanton in the outfield a couple of times a week next season. Stanton has largely played as a designated hitter of late, but factoring him into the outfield depth chart more regularly would affect Hicks’ playing time.

The Yankees are also hoping to bring back pitching coach Matt Blake. Hired out of Cleveland after the Yankees parted ways with Larry Rothschild in 2019, Blake is out of contract. The Yankees ranked third in the majors in team ERA with a 3.30 mark this year, behind only the Dodgers and Astros.

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