In recent years, the best free agent the Yankees have signed was DJ LeMahieu. The Yankees received two MVP caliber seasons without breaking the budget. Finding hidden gems is critical for success in baseball.
Last year, we saw Howie Kendrick propel the Nationals to their first World Series despite a modest contract. Finding a free agent that can enter the lineup and bring value to the organization without breaking the bank is likely one of the top goals this offseason for Brian Cashman. While it is unfair to expect production similar to LeMahieu, one of these free agents could be the next sleeper.
Since his major league debut in 2009, Brantley has been one of the most consistent players in baseball. He hits .297 while averaging 15 long balls a year while playing good defense in the outfield. He doesn’t strike out a lot and it always seems to find a way to get on base. Unfortunately for Brantley, he has also consistently had injury issues, and turning 34 in May will likely impact his earning potential. With that said, his bat would give the Yankees another line drive hitter to pair with LeMahieu. As we are seeing players staying productive later in their careers, Brantley could be a nice lineup addition and give the Yankees a little more versatility at the plate. If the Yankees decide to move on from Brett Gardner, Brantley could split time at both corner outfield spots.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
Staying in the outfield, the Yankees could look to their closes rivals to add to their outfield depth. While Bradley Jr. has never been a threat with the bat, he did hit a career high .283 last season and is highly graded in the outfield. Bradley Jr. is practically a human highlight real in center and would be a great late game defensive replacement for any position. Bradley Jr. will be entering his age 31 season and his average will likely regress to his .239 career number. Also a concern is that he strikes out a lot. Over the course of a 162 game average, he averages just about one strikeout a game.
Moving to the infield, Simmons is basically the infield version of Bradley Jr. A career .269 hitter, Simmons wouldn’t add much power to the lineup but he does bring a little bit of speed and his defensive abilities are unmatched. Simmons has exclusively played shortstop during his MLB career, earning three Gold Gloves, but would be asked to play around the infield in New York. And while he isn’t the biggest threat at the plate, he does not strike out anywhere near the same rate as Bradley Jr. Like Brantley, injuries have limited Simmons during his career, and at age 31 he likely will not find a big contract during the offseason.
Tommy La Stella
Sticking with former Angels, Tommy La Stella is an interesting target due to his recent successes at the plate. After playing in a strict utility role with the Cubs, La Stella enjoyed a break out season with the Angels in 2019. Unfortunately, he broke his leg on a foul ball and missed his only All-Star game. In 2020 La Stella saw similar success and a trade to Oakland. But La Stella will be entering his age 32 season, and grades as a below average defender. His market could be limited but his ability to play multiple infield positions could make him an intriguing fit.
A few years ago, Quintana was the darling of the trade deadline. He moved north in Chicago and unfortunately, so did his ERA, rising from a 3.51 with the White Sox to a 4.24 with the Cubs. A freak dish-washing injury shelved Quintana for most of 2020 and likely further impacted his next contract. Now, the former Yankee minor leaguer is probably headed for a new home.
If Quintana is looking to settle for a one or two year contract, the Yankees make a lot of sense. After Cole, the Yankees have quite a few rotation needs, especially if Deivi Garcia is placed on an innings limit. The Yankees would also love to have a player with Quintana’s durability. He’s pitched in exactly 32 games in every season since his rookie season except in 2013 when he pitched in 33. Perhaps Quintana could serve as a reclamation project for Matt Blake and the Yankees pitching coaches.
A few years ago, the Yankees thought they were getting a potential ace when they traded for the Mariners southpaw. After two years, Paxton still serves as a mystery. Is he the pitcher that went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA and dominated the Astros in the 2019 playoffs? Or has his frequent injuries derailed his career? As Paxton, 32 in November, looks to answer this question for himself, he may be willing to settle for a one year prove it deal. If so, the Yankees could be a natural fit. The Yankees would still like the trade to be a success while Paxton seems to have been a good fit in the locker room.
As the Yankees move towards free agency, I expect the team to seriously consider these players. While they are unlikely to play to the level of DJ LeMahieu, they each fill a roster need and should be relatively cheap.