How Yankees can improve 2023 roster after Aaron Judge deal

The Yankees guaranteed $360 million to Aaron Judge and now they are back to zero. Or less than zero. Unless you think that for the 2023 Yankees, Judge is going to equal or improve upon one of the great offensive seasons of all time.

At this moment, it feels as if the Yankees are shooting one of the most expensive pars in history — $400 million invested to retain Judge and Anthony Rizzo. There is a lot of offseason to go, but at present they mainly have gone about keeping the two main pieces they wanted to keep with an eye on the third in Andrew Benintendi.

The only major outside addition has been a reunion with Tommy Kahnle on a two-year, $11.5 million deal. This is actually a re-reunion. Kahnle was drafted by the Yankees, but did not play with them before being plucked by the Rockies in the December 2013 Rule 5 draft. He was reacquired from the White Sox in July 2017 with Todd Frazier and David Robertson.

During that stint, he pitched to a 4.21 ERA in 129 regular-season games. He pitched in one game in 2020, and underwent Tommy John surgery in August of that year. The Yankees released him with the knowledge that Kahnle would miss all of the 2021 campaign. The righty signed a two-year deal with the Dodgers — to rehab the first year, to pitch the second year.

Kahnle worked just 12 ⅔ regular-season innings this past year. He had a 2.84 ERA, but also allowed two homers amid that small workload — both by lefty hitters in the same May game against the Pirates — before landing on the IL again due to an inflamed elbow. He returned to pitch dominantly for nine games late in the season. But after being used for the third time in four days in the Division Series, he faced three batters in Game 4, and did not retire any, becoming a co-conspirator in the five-run seventh inning that allowed the Padres to rally to eliminate the Dodgers.

Tommy Kahnle #44 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the seventh inning against the San Diego Padres in game four of the National League Division Series at PETCO Park on October 15, 2022 in San Diego, California.
Tommy Kahnle struck out more than 30 percent of the batters he faced in limited work last season with the Dodgers.
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The Yankees have a profile they like (as any team would): relievers good at striking out hitters and keeping the ball on the ground. This is the game for Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loaisiga and Wandy Peralta — and Zack Britton when he was healthy. In his short major league stint in 2022, Kahnle struck out 30.4 percent of the hitters he faced and 68 percent of balls in play were hit on the ground.

That Kahnle is a known commodity to the Yankees and they want him back is intriguing. Aaron Boone really likes him. But Kahnle is from the Jim Leyritz/Nick Swisher school — you never have any doubt he is in the clubhouse. His voice and presence radiates beyond his status. He’s the kind of player — again, like Leyritz and Swisher — who can wear on teammates in a sport in which so many hours are spent around each other day after day.

It is mainly a harmless trait and overlooked with performance. About that …

Kahnle, even including the playoffs, has thrown just 15 ⅔ innings in the past three seasons combined. He basically would be filling the role of “righty reliever expert at handling lefty batters” that had been held by Scott Effross, who probably will be lost for all of the 2023 season after needing Tommy John surgery. Among pitchers with at least 80 plate appearances vs. lefties last season, the only righty with a lower batting average against vs. lefties than Effross (.127, for the Cubs/Yankees) was Mets closer Edwin Diaz (.101).

Effross excelled against lefties in part by greatly increasing the use of his changeup. Few pitchers use any one offering much more than Kahnle relies upon his changeup.

But even if he thrives, Kahnle would be stepping in for Effross to join the returning Holmes, Loaisiga, Peralta and Lou Trivino plus — the Yankees hope — Michael King, who will be trying to make it back from a fracture in his right elbow. King might have been the most dominant reliever in the majors before he was injured last season.

New York Yankees relief pitcher Clay Holmes (35) delivers a pitch during the MLB regular season game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays on May 27, 2022, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, FL.
Clay Holmes was one of the pillars of a Yankees bullpen that recorded the third-best ERA of any relief staff in the majors in 2022.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is the current theme with the Yankees. They are mainly the same team right now heading into 2023 that again wasn’t good enough to beat the Astros in 2022. All of their top pitchers are back except Effross and Jameson Taillon, who signed a four-year, $68 million pact with the Cubs.

And all of their main hitting contributors are now back except Matt Carpenter. The Yankees had been staying in touch with the free agent’s camp. But, to date, Carpenter wants a clearer path to at-bats in 2023, and with Rizzo at first and Giancarlo Stanton as the designated hitter, that makes the Yankees a more unlikely landing spot.

The 2022 Yankees provide a quirky snapshot. On one hand, they won 99 games and reached the ALCS after winning just their second AL East title in 10 seasons. But from where they were on July 8 — a major league-best 61-23 and on a 118-win pace — to what they did thereafter by going 38-40 to close out the regular season and then being bounced from the playoffs again by their nemesis, the Astros, brought frustration.

So why don’t we use 3Up to discuss how the Yankees get better?

1. Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe are good or better players. Immediately. Let’s make the over/unders 45 homers and 45 steals for the trio in 2023. Which way would you bet?

Jeremy Peña had 22 homers, 11 steals and won a Gold Glove as a rookie before capturing both the ALCS and World Series MVP for the Astros. That was in replacement of Carlos Correa.The Yankees trio will not be stepping in for anyone nearly as good. But their importance for the 2023 team is dramatic in so many different ways.

Oswaldo Cabrera #95 of the New York Yankees reacts after hitting a two run home run during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Guardians in game three of the American League Division Series at Progressive Field on October 15, 2022 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Oswaldo Cabrera played six different positions after making his major league debut in August.
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Let’s begin with their financial importance. The Yankees ended up paying Judge way more than they ever imagined. I don’t want readers to have their eyes glaze over because they didn’t know there would be math as part of this program. If that is a concern, just trust me that the Yankees currently project to owe roughly $258.55 million for 23 players in 2023.

If that is enough for you, skip ahead a few paragraphs. If you like detail, here you go: This is for luxury-tax purposes because that is all teams care about — they want to know how much they will be paying additionally in penalties for going over the tax thresholds.

Neither Judge nor Kahnle’s contracts are official yet — they are pending physical exams and final language — but for these purposes, they are included among the 12 Yankees with signed deals for 2023. For tax purposes, Judge, Gerrit Cole, Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton, Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu, Luis Severino, Aaron Hicks, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Kahnle, Harrison Bader and Lou Trivino are signed for $202.05 million.

The Yankees have 11 arbitration cases looming for Holmes, King, Loaisiga, Peralta, Nestor Cortes, Domingo German, Kyle Higashioka, Lucas Luetge, Frankie Montas, Gleyber Torres and Jose Trevino. MLB Trade Rumors projects the Yankees will owe those players $38.3 million.

In calculating a payroll for tax purposes, every team will be charged about $18.2 million for benefits and to cover the recently created pre-arbitration pool.

Add that all up and the Yankees are at $258.55 million. Hal Steinbrenner does not make public what he has approved for a budget. But the Yankees finished at around $265 million last season. It is hard to imagine the Yankees owner would invest so much in Judge to win now and not — at minimum — stay status quo payroll-wise. I would suspect the budget goal is to come in under $273 million, which is the third tax threshold.

Aaron Judge #99 and Anthony Rizzo #48 of the New York Yankees react after the first out was recorded against the Houston Astros during the second inning in game three of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 22, 2022 in New York City.
Bringing back Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo will cost the Yankees $400 million.
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It is not just that the tax percentage penalties are lower by staying under $273 million — roughly $14 million if the final payroll was, say, $272 million — but it also prevents being $40 million-plus over the first threshold of $233 million. Because at that level or more, a team will have its first draft pick moved back 10 spots. For example, as the only two teams to cross this threshold in 2022, the Mets’ 2023 first-round pick drops from No. 22 to No. 32 and the Dodgers’ drops from No. 26 to No. 36.

This is not nothing within the industry. There are agents and competing teams that believe the Dodgers, for example, may abstain from big-ticket items this offseason in attempts to stay under that first tax threshold of $233 million to reset their penalties back to the lowest percentages going into 2024. A lot of that will depend on how the adjudication of the Trevor Bauer grievance goes. Bauer hasn’t pitched since June 28, 2021, and is currently serving a two-year suspension without pay (through 2023) under MLB’s domestic abuse policy.

No one I spoke to knew what the outcome of Bauer’s grievance would be. Those asked suspected an arbitrator’s decision would come in January and at least some of Bauer’s lost salary would be restored and/or his suspension would be lifted early. Those would be dollars that impact Dodgers decision-making because, among other items, Bauer had a $35 million player option for 2023 as part of a contract that began in 2021. 

As for the Yankees, I think in a quest to try to win it all for the first time since 2009, Steinbrenner might approve a payroll up to $293 million. That is the fourth tax threshold, the so-called Steve Cohen Tax designed with a heavier penalty to potentially work as a spending deterrent. As a second-time offender, if they went over in 2023, the Yankees would pay a 90 percent tax on what they spend beyond $293 million. For example, if the Yankees had a $310 million payroll in 2023, they would pay a $39.9 million penalty, essentially making their 2023 payroll $349.9 million. Is Steinbrenner OK with something like that?

Whatever Steinbrenner’s approved budget, Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe are vital because they will play at or near the 2023 minimum salary of $720,000. Their presence will free up budget to spend elsewhere.

Oswald Peraza #91 of the New York Yankees throws to first base to record the first out against the Houston Astros during the seventh inning in game two of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park on October 20, 2022 in Houston, Texas.
Should Oswald Peraza become a regular in the middle infield, it’s likely Isiah Kiner-Falefa or Gleyber Torres will be traded.
Getty Images

Belief in them also would allow the Yankees to more comfortably trade Kiner-Falefa or Torres to not only address other areas of need, but to save dollars. Kiner-Falefa is due $6 million in 2023. MLB Trade Rumors projected Torres to make $9.8 million in his next-to-last season before free agency.

With a limit on shifts, fewer pickoff throws allowed and bigger bases in use as part of rule changes in 2023, there will be a greater need for middle-infield range on defense and to steal bases on offense. These are areas where the young trio could help as well.

The Yankees and their fan base, particularly at home games, can use a reset. The players can be charged with being over-sensitive or not fully appreciating the reality of New York, but the booing in their own stadium bothered a lot of players. There are few things fans like more than the success and energy provided by homegrown players. Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe have a chance to provide that and perhaps improve the home environment.

Lastly, Yankees baseball operations gambled big that these youngsters are real players. There have been glamor free-agent shortstop classes in each of the past two offseasons, and so far the Yankees have abstained. They wanted to use the money to retain Judge and believed they had elite middle infielders on the horizon. This can no longer be coming attractions. Their impact must be felt in 2023.

2. To gamble or not gamble on Carlos Rodon? The Yankees probably should have put the qualifying offer on Taillon — they would have gotten a compensation pick after the fourth round when he signed with another team. But that was not enough of a potential reward for the Yankees to risk Taillon accepting the $19.6 million salary for 2023 and having to navigate around that in their payroll.

New York Yankees relief pitcher Frankie Montas reacts as Jeremy Pena #3 of the Houston Astros rounds the bases on his solo homer during the 7th inning.
Though he struggled after his arrival in New York, Frankie Montas has a good track record going back to his run with Oakland.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Taillon literally was league average with a 100 ERA-plus in each of his two Yankees seasons. But he made 61 starts between 2021-22 (tied for 17th in the majors). Montas made 59 starts with a 108 ERA-plus in that time, even including his poor, injury-riddled run with the Yankees. Can he replace Taillon’s dependency with even a little better production?

That would make him a fine fourth starter behind Cole, Cortes and Severino. Right now the fifth starter would be German or Clarke Schmidt. The Yankees need more depth, especially after recently trading so many rotation candidates such as Roansy Contreras, J.P. Sears, Ken Waldichuk and Hayden Wesneski, and having Luis Gil expected to miss all of the 2023 season following Tommy John surgery.

But again, this is about how to get better in 2023 than they were in 2022. There are no strong indications the Brewers are ready to move Corbin Burnes or Brandon Woodruff, each of whom can be free agents after the 2024 season. That leaves the Marlins’ Pablo Lopez as arguably the best trade candidate. The Yankees nearly acquired him at the last trade deadline. But I heard that Miami was willing to trade any starter not named Sandy Alcantara to improve its current position-player group.

In that case, are the 100 innings of lefty Jesus Luzardo in 2022 even more intriguing to the Yankees for what he can be? Or is that too much risk via uncertainty over what he would cost in a trade?

Rodon is attractive because he is in the argument for the best starter in the game over the past two seasons. His 2021-22 ERA of 2.67 ranks fourth among the 76 pitchers who worked at least 250 innings in that time, and his 33.9 strikeout percentage ranks first with Cole (32.9) second, Burnes (32.8) third, Max Scherzer (32.5) fourth and Shohei Ohtani (31.4) fifth.

Carlos Rodon #16 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Miami Marlins in the top of the fifth inning at Oracle Park on April 09, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
Over the past two seasons, Carlos Rodon has produced numbers that place him among the top starters in baseball.
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Once Jacob deGrom left the Mets and Justin Verlander joined the Mets, Rodon became the best free-agent starter remaining. He turns 30 on Saturday. The lefty was believed to be looking for at least six years at $180 million. Can he get that? His success and especially his health was never as good as it has been the past two years.

Consider how he was viewed in recent seasons. The White Sox (the team that drafted him with the third overall pick in 2014), released him after the 2020 season, re-signed him for just $3 million and then did not even give him the qualifying offer after he finished fifth in voting for the 2021 AL Cy Young. Rodon signed a two-year, $44 million pact with the Giants that allowed him to opt out after the 2022 season, which he did off of a sixth-place NL Cy Young campaign.

Judge used two brilliant healthy seasons in a row to motivate the Yankees to go where they did not want to go. But he did so with the Yankees understanding he could thrive in New York and had marketing value beyond his on-field success. Rodon has never been promoted as a beloved teammate. Starting pitchers, though, are often the tennis players of a team sport, the most inwardly focused and quirky on the roster. Jack Morris, Randy Johnson, even Verlander would not win popularity contests in their clubhouses. Neither would Cole, by the way.

This is about performance. Even on a five-year contract, how many starts do the Yankees believe they would get out of Rodon? Would he stay motivated with a long-term pact? Can he handle New York and the postseason? If the Yankees think positively across the board here, there would be few ways to get better than to have Rodon slot behind Cole and ahead of Cortes and Severino.

3. To win for Benintendi. Another way the Yankees can get better is if all the players they obtained during last season who are viable for 2023 perform well — think: Montas, Trivino and Bader. Cabrera also falls into this category because he was such a valuable, multi-positional piece after being summoned from the minors in mid-August.

New York Yankees left fielder Andrew Benintendi (18) slides head first to the home plate to score during the fifth inning of the game against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on August 08, 2022 in Seattle, Washington.
Free-agent outfielder Andrew Benintendi’s speed, defense and contact skills at the plate would be good fits in The Bronx.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Benintendi fits as well. His bat was just coming alive when he fractured a hamate bone in early September and was lost for the season. The loss of the lefty-righty contact bats of Benintendi/LeMahieu was a big October factor.

LeMahieu is under contract, but is coming off a broken bone near his toe, leaving it dubious whether he can return in full. The Yankees will have a better idea of LeMahieu’s status by next month — a positive result also would make Torres, in particular, more of a trade candidate.

The Yankees have engaged two teams with a lot of lefty outfielders in trade talks: the Diamondbacks and Twins. The Diamondbacks seem most poised to trade Alek Thomas, whose value is enhanced by being a fine center fielder, a position the Yankees do not need to fill with Bader under control through 2023. Before re-signing Brandon Nimmo, the Mets were talking seriously to Arizona about a trade for Thomas that would have had to include Brett Baty. The Yankees would find Daulton Varsho far more appealing. So would every team. So do the Diamondbacks. If Arizona even considered moving him, the return ask would be substantial.

Minnesota’s Max Kepler is due $8.5 million in 2023 with a $10 million club option in 2024 or a $1 million buyout. He has not come close to repeating his 2019 offensive success (35 homers, .855 OPS), managing a combined 37 homers with a .705 OPS in the three years since as he has battled injuries and the shift.

Kepler could be a beneficiary of shifts being limited. His .237 batting average on balls in play the past three seasons is seventh-worst in the majors among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances. He also is a good defender. Neither Alex Kiriloff nor Trevor Larnach have stayed healthy and/or productive enough to be overly attractive for their outfielder corner bats.

The Yankees can try for Michael Conforto. Word was he wanted a free-agent deal akin to what Rodon received last offseason — two years at good money, but with the ability to opt out after the first year. But that will be tough for any club to do. Conforto did not play at all last season. He had shoulder surgery, which leaves him a mystery for 2023. If he does not perform well, he will not opt out and a team would end up paying a lot for two years.

Max Kepler #26 of the Minnesota Twins bats against the Chicago White Sox on September 2, 2022 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois.
Max Kepler of the Twins, a potential trade candidate, could be a corner outfield option for the Yankees.
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If he makes himself strictly a one-year, make-good player, his attractiveness goes way up. Michael Brantley also is coming off of shoulder surgery. That is one risk. The second is that, as he turns 36 in May, his ability to play left field regularly and well is not there, and Stanton blocks the Yankees’ DH role.

The cleanest path to a solution is Benintendi because it won’t cost prospects, there is no question he can handle a big market and his lefty contact bat is ideal. One team said at the winter meetings that Benintendi was seeking a five-year deal. Perhaps that is a negotiating strategy to get four years. The Yankees would love for it to be three. I suspect they would do four to get a piece they feel best about.

What would you think of this 2023 Yankees lineup?

1. LeMahieu, 3B
2. Judge, RF
3. Rizzo 1B
4. Stanton, DH
5. Bader, CF
6. Benintendi, LF
7. Volpe, 2B
8. Peraza, SS
9. Trevino, C

With Cabrera as a 400-plate-appearance super-sub and the switch-hitting Hicks’ lefty bat mixed in when needed? It should be noted I have LeMahieu at third base. My gut is Donaldson actually is with the team at the outset. Let’s set the over/under for his release as May 25, 2023. This scenario also has Torres and perhaps Kiner-Falefa traded as a financial offset to more comfortably allow Steinbrenner to sign Benintendi and Rodon.

What would you think of this rotation? Cole, Rodon, Cortes, Severino and Montas — with German and Schmidt for depth, and perhaps eventually prospects Yoendrys Gomez and/or Randy Vasquez, if needed?

What would you think of a bullpen that had Holmes, Kahnle, King, Loaisiga, Luetke, Peralta, Trivino and Ron Marinaccio? A power lefty not named Aroldis Chapman would look good. Is Britton’s market such that you can get him on a low base salary with a bunch of incentives to see if with further distance from Tommy John surgery he has come all the way back? Do the Yankees feel they could get free agent Taylor Rogers back to his best Twins days or do the same with Aaron Bummer if the White Sox traded a lefty who not long ago looked like Britton 2.0? Would Oakland do an Oakland thing and trade a reliever, A.J. Puk, for future assets?

In all — with Judge certainly back now — do you see a better Yankees team here?