Yankees have alternatives to fall back if they miss Cody Bellinger
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The Yankees are currently seeking a left-handed-hitting center fielder, and Cody Bellinger emerges as the most apparent solution. However, the 28-year-old former MVP’s appeal to the Yankees is mirrored by considerable interest from other teams in free agency, making the competition for his services intense.
Moreover, there are uncertainties surrounding Bellinger’s underlying analytics and how they might impact the outcome of a potential long-term deal. In essence, the prospect of Bellinger becoming the Yankees‘ center fielder for the upcoming season is not guaranteed.
If not Bellinger, then who would fill that role?
Alternatives for the Yankees
Kevin Kiermaier and Jung Hoo Lee emerge as two alternative options to handle center field, contingent on the Yankees’ offseason strategy and their perception of Jasson Dominguez‘s eventual position. Kiermaier, an experienced defensive player who has exclusively played in the AL East throughout his career, presents a shorter-term solution.
The 33-year-old left-handed hitter is coming off a notable offensive season, batting .265 with a .741 OPS and contributing 14 steals for the Blue Jays. Kiermaier is anticipated to secure a salary increase from his previous one-year, $9 million deal, making him a viable candidate to hold down center field, at least until Dominguez completes his recovery from Tommy John surgery, likely around midseason.
If the Yankees envision Dominguez as their permanent left fielder instead of center fielder, Jung Hoo Lee becomes an appealing option for the center field role.
The 25-year-old left-handed hitter is scheduled to be posted by his KBO team in early December, potentially attracting even more suitors than Bellinger, given his more cost-effective nature.
Lee, named the KBO MVP in 2022 despite missing time with a fractured ankle this year, is renowned for his high-contact, low-strikeout approach—a type of hitter the Yankees have been lacking lately, with the exception of DJ LeMahieu.
Over the period spanning 2022 to 2023, Jung Hoo Lee demonstrated exceptional plate discipline, accumulating a mere 55 strikeouts in 1,014 plate appearances across 228 games, translating to an impressive 5.4 percent strikeout rate. In addition to his minimal strikeouts, Lee drew 115 walks during this timeframe. It’s noteworthy that the league-wide strikeout rate in the KBO over the same duration was significantly higher at 18.2 percent.
At the GM meetings last month, Scott Boras, Lee’s agent, emphasized Lee’s exceptional bat-to-ball skill and highlighted a particularly striking aspect: his incredibly low 5 percent strikeout rate, which is considered unprecedented. Boras pointed out that alongside Lee’s power, speed, and top-tier center-field defense due to his athleticism, his exceptional strike zone control and remarkably low strikeout rate have generated considerable interest among teams.
The Yankees will need to assess how Jung Hoo Lee’s remarkable plate discipline, coupled with his power, will translate to the MLB.
Recent players transitioning from the KBO, such as Padres infielder Ha-Seong Kim, have experienced an adjustment period to the distinct pitching style in the majors. Kim encountered challenges in his initial season stateside in 2021 but rebounded in the subsequent two years.
The intended strategy for Lee involved arriving in the United States this month to undergo training at Boras’ institute for approximately three weeks. The superagent planned to organize workouts, providing teams with the opportunity to evaluate Lee before initiating the signing period.
Boras mentioned that Jung Hoo possesses strong attributes for a center fielder, highlighting his defensive skills and power. He expressed the belief that Jung Hoo’s abilities could bring elements akin to K-Pop to Major League Baseball.
Beyond Bellinger, Kiermaier, and Lee, the available options in the free-agent center-field market become limited.
Before the trade deadline, discussions had taken place between the Yankees and the Cardinals regarding potential deals. The Cardinals, possessing an excess of outfielders, were considering the possibility of trading one, with switch-hitting center fielder Dylan Carlson being a potential candidate.
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