Juan Soto and the Third Base Fill-Ins Start the Yankees on the Right Foot

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Juan Soto era of Yankees baseball is off to a resounding start. The 25-year-old superstar put on a tour de force as his new team swept a four-game series against the Astros in Houston to open the season, most notably by throwing out the potential tying runner at the plate in the ninth inning on Opening Day and then driving in the decisive runs in each of the next three games. The sweep would not have been possible, however, without a couple of unheralded reserves rising to the occasion, namely Oswaldo Cabrera and Jon Berti, both filling in for the injured DJ LeMahieu at third base.

First, let’s note Soto, who absolutely wore out Astros pitchers by going 9-for-17 with a trio of walks and a quartet of RBI, one in each game. He began with a fifth-inning single off Framber Valdez that brought home the Yankees’ first run of the season and started a comeback from a 4-0 deficit. Then with one out in the ninth and the Yankees up 5-4, he scooped up Kyle Tucker’s single and nabbed Mauricio Dubón at the plate. In the seventh inning on Friday, he worked a bases-loaded walk against Rafael Montero to break a 1-1 tie, and in the bottom half of the frame followed with a sliding catch off an Alex Bregman bloop that could have brought in the tying run. In the seventh inning on Saturday, he broke a 3-3 tie by poking an opposite-field solo homer into the Crawford Boxes at the expense of Bryan Abreu. And in the ninth inning on Sunday he again broke a 3-3 tie, capping a three-hit day by slapping a two-out, full-count RBI single off Josh Hader. Oh, is that all?

The Yankees couldn’t have asked for more from their latest marquee addition, who helped them to their first 4-0 start since 2003 (also on the road) and their first four-game series sweep ever in Houston. Including their three-game sweep at Minute Maid Park last September, they’ve won seven in a row against the team that has tormented them for most of the past decade by eliminating them from the postseason in 2015, ’17, ’19, and ’22. For a Yankees team that missed the postseason last year, that has to be a boost.

They did it all while scrambling to fill the shoes of the 35-year-old LeMahieu, who was slated to be their leadoff hitter and regular third baseman to start the season. On March 16, LeMahieu fouled a ball off the top of his right foot in an exhibition game, and was initially diagnosed with a bone bruise after X-rays, a CT scan, and an MRI all came back negative. His slow recovery made apparent his need to start the season on the sidelines; on Opening Day, the Yankees made it official by placing him on the IL retroactive to March 25. A follow-up MRI on Saturday revealed that he had actually suffered a fracture.

This is the second year out of three that LeMahieu has contended with an injury to his right foot. In 2022, he broke a sesamoid bone in his right big toe that led to ligament damage in his second toe; he needed a cortisone shot at the All-Star break and played through the injury for most of the second half, hitting just .228/.308/.327 over that span, spiraling into a 1-for-31 slump before missing three weeks in September, and getting left off the postseason roster. He never underwent offseason surgery to alleviate the issue, which may have contributed to his first-half struggles in 2023 (.220/.285/.357, 77 wRC+), but thanks to former hitting coach Sean Casey, who helped LeMahieu improve his lower body positioning, he hit for a 129 wRC+ in the second half, though he still finished with a thin .243/.327/.390 (101 wRC+) line.

While the Yankees did not announce a full timeline for his return, manager Aaron Boone said the infielder would work out at the team’s spring training facility in Tampa as his pain allows, and that he would be re-imaged in two weeks; a best-case scenario might put his return at the end of April, though the team isn’t going to rush him back. LeMahieu’s slow recovery from his previous foot injury is an “added concern, which is why we’re not pushing it,” Boone said, “It’s not something that he’s going to play through. He’s going to be 100 percent.”

The Yankees hadn’t confirmed the fracture until after the season started, but they knew LeMahieu would be out and also that Oswald Peraza would begin the year on the IL with a right shoulder strain. Both injuries prompted New York to pulled off a three-team trade just 24 hours before Opening Day, acquiring Berti from the Marlins, trading 18-year-old outfielder John Cruz — a “prospect of note” on the Yankees’ Top Prospects list — to the Marlins and 26-year-old out-of-options backup catcher Ben Rortvedt to the Rays, with 23-year-old outfield prospect Shane Sasaki going from Miami to Tampa Bay, as well. In 2023, the 34-year-old Berti, who spent the past five seasons with the Marlins, batted .294/.344/.405 (103 wC+) with seven homers in a career-high 424 plate appearances en route to 2.1 WAR; his batting average was a career high, and he just missed setting full-season highs in the other slash categories. One oddity about his numbers is that he went from stealing a major league-high 41 bases in 46 attempts in 2022 to just 16 in 22 attempts in ’23 despite the new rules that had so many players running wild; even so, his sprint speed still placed in the 95th percentile, according to Statcast.

The righty-swinging Berti can play second base, shortstop, and third base, and also has experience at all three outfield positions, though 29 of his 30 starts in the outfield over the past three seasons were in left field. He didn’t see his first action for the Yankees until Sunday, when he went 1-for-4 with a fourth-inning single off Astros starter J.P. France; the hit brought home Anthony Rizzo to put the Yankees ahead 2-1, but they couldn’t hold that lead. It was in the ninth inning where Berti came up bigger. With the Yankees having taken the lead thanks to Soto’s RBI single, the Astros began the inning with back-to-back singles by Jeremy Peña and Victor Caratini against closer Clay Holmes. Jose Altuve then ripped a hot grounder down the third base line, but Berti prevented what could have been an RBI double with a diving, backhanded stop, then recovered to beat Peña to third for the force out.

Berti didn’t get to play until Sunday because the 25-year-old Cabrera had done such a strong job holding down the hot corner. A 45-FV switch-hitting prospect who was more or less crowded out of the middle infield by the rises of Peraza and Anthony Volpe, both younger and with higher ceilings, Cabrera reached the majors first, on August 17, 2022. He hit .247/.312/.429 (111 wRC+) with 1.5 WAR in 171 PA in a utility role over the final third of the season, learning the outfield corners on the fly but starting key games at shortstop as well, including two against Houston in the ALCS. He made the team out of spring training last year and spent most of the season in the majors but struggled mightily, hitting just .211/.275/.299. His 60 wRC+ tied for the sixth-lowest mark among players with at least 300 PA, and he finished with -0.6 WAR. He struggled from both sides of the plate, with a 61 wRC+ against lefties and a 60 against righties.

While he started spring training in a 1-for-23 slump, Cabrera overhauled his swing and approach. He ditched a high leg kick in favor of a toe-tap that he had previously used mainly in two-strike situations in order to reduce his movement and simplify his path to the ball. He also focused more on contact and on hitting line drives after observing Soto in batting practice. Cabrera told The Athletic’s Chris Kirshner:

“The one big thing that I see from that guy is he doesn’t try to hit fly balls… He’s not trying to hit the ball in the air every time. His hands just get quick to the ball. That’s what got my attention. He’s always trying to hit line drives. When I saw Soto hitting in the cage for the first time, it was low line drives all of the time, so what am I doing trying to hit homers all of the time? I talked with the hitting coaches about it — obviously, Soto and I are not the same. But I’ve been trying to take some of the things he does into my game.”

On Opening Day, Cabrera batted ninth and collected a fifth-inning infield single off Valdez and then a game-tying solo homer off Montero in the sixth. On Friday, he went 4-for-5, with a single and a double off Cristian Javier, then an RBI single off Tayler Scott, and a two-run single off Parker Mushinski. While he batted right-handed against Valdez, he went lefty-on-lefty against Mushinski, something the team is having him do against certain southpaws. He had less success with that approach against Josh Hader, striking out against him on both Saturday and Sunday, but in the first of those games he had already hit a game-tying two-run homer in the seventh off Abreu, a righty. He started at shortstop on Sunday, filling in for Volpe, who sat due to a stomach bug.

Cabrera’s .438/.471/.875 across 17 PA is a clear signal that we’re in small-sample territory, but it’s worth at least a passing note regarding how much harder he’s hit the ball. Last season, he averaged just 87.8 mph in exit velocity, with a 3.5% barrel rate and a 32.5% hard-hit rate. Through his first 10 batted balls, he’s averaged 91.6 mph with one barrel and five hard-hit balls.

Obviously, the samples will have to get much larger before we have any real idea whether Cabrera truly has improved. Nonetheless, his rising to the occasion in timely fashion offers hope that the Yankees are a deeper team than last year, one that will be able to weather the absence of LeMahieu.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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20 days ago

The Yankees might be 1-3 or 2-2 if DJ LeMahieu were healthy, ironically enough. I love DJ, but he’s probably a league average hitter at this point in his career, and I doubt he has the impact Cabrera did in those few games. The Yankees won this series with Judge, Torres, and Rizzo basically doing nothing all series which would be unheard of last year. They also don’t have Gerrit Cole either. This Yankees team is much deeper with a much better lineup than they’ve had in years. Judge not doing anything for a whole series usually meant either a sweep or the Yankees maybe stealing one game. Still lots of baseball left to be played, but this team looks like they will compete for a playoff spot at a minimum. Juan Soto really is a transformative player and is going to be worth every penny of his new contract.