The Yankees made a big trade over the weekend, acquiring Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Ben Rortvedt from the Twins for Gary Sánchez and Gio Urshela.
This was a pretty controversial move considering how high the expectations were for this offseason. The trade all but shuts the door on the dream of Carlos Correa and Trevor Story. With Matt Olson getting traded to the Braves and Freddie Freeman signing with the Dodgers much of the fanbase is disappointed with the lack of a splash move being made.
My perspective on this move is that while it is understandable to be disappointed with not signing a top shortstop, the Yankees did get better with their moves. By detaching the emotional connection the fanbase had to Sánchez and especially Urshela, it is pretty easy to see where the Yankees got better.
Let’s start with a comparison of Donaldson to Urshela. While Donaldson is not at his peak like he was in his days in Toronto, he is still a formidable bat that will fit great in the middle of the lineup. Over the last three years Donaldson has posted a 131, 130 and 124 wRC+. Anything over 100 is above league average. He has also only posted a wRC+ of under 120 one time since 2013, and that was in 2018 when he missed a lot of games due to injury.
Donaldson’s advanced metrics are also very good. He was in the 92nd percentile or higher for average exit velocity, max exit velocity, xwOBA, barrel rate, hard hit rate, expected slugging and walk rate. He still produces to a high level offensively.
Urshela’s two best offensive seasons were in 2019 and 2020 with the Yankees. He saw a big regression in 2021. He posted a 96 wRC+ and was below the 50th percentile in many of those categories that Donaldson is above the 90th percentile in.
Donaldson is a big upgrade offensively and it is not really a debate.
One of the concerns has been Donaldson’s ability to stay on the field. But let’s take a look at the amount of games played over the last three seasons compared to Urshela.
Donaldson games played over the last three seasons: 318
Urshela games played over the last three seasons: 291
This goes to show that Urshela has struggled staying healthy at times. To go even further, a large amount of games Donaldson missed was during the weird 2020 season. He played 155 games in 2019 and 135 in 2021.
Now on to the defensive comparison. Urshela has a great reputation among Yankees fans defensively. The metrics do not agree with that. Urshela makes flashy plays and his glove work is great, but his range is lacking. That leads to the disconnect between the perception of Urshela defensively and what the metrics say.
It is the classic eye test vs metrics debate. The area Urshela lacks is something that does not necessarily stick out like a sore thumb, so it is understandable that fans would believe he is a great defender. This illustrates how unreliable the eye test is for defense. While defensive metrics are not perfected, they are better to go off of than just the eye test.
So it will be shocking to some when it is revealed that Donaldson is actually a better defender at third base than Urshela. Donaldson was in the 63rd percentile for outs above average and had one defensive run saved in 2021. Urshela was in the 13th percentile for outs above average and had negative one defensive runs saved.
Donaldson is a clear upgrade from Urshela on both sides of the ball.
Kiner-Falefa is an interesting case. He will not bring much offense. Sure, his average might not look bad. But his wRC+ was 85 last year and has never been above 100. Where Kiner-Falefa will improve the Yankees is that they now have a legitimate shortstop defensively. While outs above average does not like him, he had 10 defensive runs saved last year. That is good for third in the league behind only Andrelton Simmons and Carlos Correa.
The 2021 Yankees spend much of the season playing their best third baseman at shortstop and their best second baseman at third base. So Kiner-Falefa will improve the defense at shortstop from what they had last year.
The Yankees have improved the left side of the infield defensively and made a significant upgrade offensively at third base. This allows Gleyber Torres or DJ LeMahieu to mainly play second base, where they both play their best. A full year of Anthony Rizzo is also better than the Yankees had defensively in 2021.
There is not much available on Rortvedt, but he is known to potentially be a good defensive catcher. The Yankees will lose offense with the departure of Sánchez, but he was right around league-average in wRC+ in 2021 and that is just not good enough to justify his defense behind the plate. It seems like the Yankees will roll with a platoon of Kyle Higashioka and Rortvedt, but there is no ruling out another move to acquire a catcher.
The Yankees did not make the big splash moves the fanbase wanted, and there is justified frustration regarding that. But the Yankees did get better and there is reason for optimism in 2022.
Photo: Corey Sipkin