Yankees Continue to Swing Left, Adding Anthony Rizzo

In their quest to jump-start an underperforming offense that ranks second-to-last in the American League in scoring, and to balance a lineup that has gotten virtually no production from its left-handed hitters, the Yankees continued to upgrade on Thursday. After acquiring Joey Gallo in a blockbuster deal with the Rangers, they landed Anthony Rizzo from the Cubs in exchange for two prospects, righty reliever Alexander Vizcaíno and outfielder Kevin Alcantara.

The Cubs are reportedly picking up the remainder of Rizzo’s $16.5 million salary, about $5.5 million. That will help to keep the Yankees below the $210 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, while improving the return for Chicago. Rizzo will become a free agent at the end of the season.

Rizzo, who will turn 32 on August 8, has fallen off somewhat relative to the form that helped him make three All-Star teams from 2014-16, but even his current performance (.248/.346/.446 with 14 homers and a 115 wRC+) represents a massive upgrade on the wheezing .201/.292/.326 (73 wRC+) production the Yankees have received from their first basemen this season, one that landed them on the position’s list of Replacement Level Killers last week. While Luke Voit led the majors with 22 homers and a 152 wRC+ last season, he’s made three trips to the Injured List this year, first for a torn meniscus in his left knee, then an oblique strain, and most recently a bone bruise in the same knee. He’s played just 29 games while failing to produce his usual power, and in his absence, fill-ins Chris Gittens and Mike Ford were dreadful (the latter was traded to the Rays in mid-June) and even DJ LeMahieu has been far short of his 2020-21 form.

The only thing the Yankees’ first basemen have done well is field (4.2 UZR, 2 DRS, 5 OAA). Rizzo, though he’s won four Gold Gloves including three consecutive ones, hasn’t had his best year afield (-0.8 UZR, -2 DRS, 7 OAA) but is hardly a liability. If moving him back to first base means that LeMahieu plays second regularly instead of Odor, the Yankees’ defense will be the better for it.

Adding Rizzo doesn’t just shore up first base for the Yankees, it gives the team another left-handed threat to go with Gallo, as well as another contact-oriented hitter to counter the high strikeout rates up and down their lineup. The Yankees entered Thursday having received a .196/.296/.337 (78 wRC+) performance from their left-handers, who have combined for just 855 PA, fewer than every team except the Blue Jays. The surprisingly resilient Rougned Odor (.232/.303/.454, 107 wRC+) and the last-legs version of Brett Gardner (.194/.311/.306, 77 wRC+) have been their only lefty regulars; neither was projected to be full-time players at the outset of the season, but the injuries of Voit, Clint Frazier, and Aaron Hicks opened up playing time, and the pair stumbled through the door. To make matters worse, the Yankees’ lefties haven’t even been able to hit right-handed pitching; their 70 wRC+ (.185/.286/.319) is tied for dead last in the majors.

Gallo and Rizzo should improve that situation markedly, and while the former is somewhat infamous for his penchant for striking out (32.2%, even having trimmed it to a career low), the latter has struck out just 15.7% of the time, a lower rate than any Yankees regular save for LeMahieu (15.2%), and one at least nine percentage points lower than four other lineup regulars (Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sánchez, Aaron Judge, and Gio Urshela).

One more way in which the Yankees benefit from acquiring Rizzo: they kept him from going to the Red Sox, who were reportedly interested in bringing back a player whom they drafted in 2007. Like the Yankees, Red Sox first basemen (mainly Bobby Dalbec and Michael Chavis) made the Replacement Level Killers list; they’ve combined to hit .218/.262/.390 with a 72 wR+ and -1.0 WAR. For what it’s worth, the Red Sox did land a big bat on Thursday night, acquiring Kyle Schwarber from the Nationals.

Rizzo should particularly benefit in the move from Wrigley Field, a park that generally favors righties, to Yankee Stadium, a park that favors lefties. Our most recent park factors by handedness show Wrigley with a lefty home run factor of 91, while for Yankee Stadium, it’s 109; by Statcast’s three-year park factors, the figures are 90 and 116. Via Statcast’s Expected Home Runs By Park feature, which accounts for different wall heights and distances but not environmental effects, Rizzo’s drives would have produced 23 homers if they were all hit at Yankee Stadium. His heavy pull tendency (47.9% this year and last) should play well in the Bronx.

To get Rizzo, the Yankees gave up a pair of Dominican Republic-born prospects who entered the season ranked seventh (Alcantara) and 11th (Vizcaino) on their most recent Top Prospects list. Alcantara, who signed for a $1 million bonus on July 12, 2018, is now 19 years old, a center fielder built like an NBA small forward (6-foot-6, 188 pounds), with a gigantic power projection. He slots in at No. 2 in the Cubs system. Here’s some of what Eric Longenhagen wrote about him in February:

Athletic 6-foot-6 outfielders who can rotate like Alcantara can are rare, and this young man might grow into elite power at maturity. He is loose and fluid in the box but does have some swing-and-miss issues, though it’s not because lever length is causing him to be late — it’s more of a barrel accuracy issue right now. This is one of the higher ceiling teenagers in the minors, but of course Alcantara might either take forever to develop or never develop at all.

Alcantara did lose a year of development time due to the pandemic, and a hamstring injury delayed his debut until June 28, so he’s played just eight games in the Florida Complex League. As for Vizcaino, who signed for just a $14,000 bonus in May 2016, when he was nearly 19, he’s a 6-foot-2, 160-pound righty who’s now 24 years old. He broke out in 2019 thanks to an increase in velocity and in the quality of his changeup, and spent last year at the alternate site despite having not pitched above High-A previously. He now ranks 11th in Chicago’s system. From Longenhagen in February:

While he now has 70-grade fastball velocity, his long arm action and three quarters slot create sinking action on the pitch that ends up generating groundballs more than swings and misses. The whiffs are going to come from the changeup, which bottoms out as if a trap door has opened beneath it just as it approaches the plate. At this age, I think the breaking ball refinement necessary to make Vizcaino a starter is unlikely, but I would have said the same thing about his fastball and changeup last year.

Vizcaino missed the first two months of the season due to a shoulder impingement, and didn’t debut until July 8 in the Florida Complex League, but he soon moved up to the Yankees’ High-A Hudson Valley affiliate. His velocity has returned, with plenty of 98-99 mph showings, but his control has been lacking, as he’s issued 10 walks in six innings. If healthy, he could be a candidate for a bullpen spot next spring, not that the Cubs need to rush him.

As much as any move they’ll make in the final hours before the deadline, the Rizzo trade marks the end of an era for the Cubs. In January 2012, three months after resigning as the Red Sox general manager to become the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein traded Andrew Cashner and another prospect to the Padres to acquire Rizzo and another player. Rizzo had struggled mightily as a rookie in San Diego, but he became the first pillar of the Cubs’ rebuilding effort, developing into a star who helped the team to four straight postseason berths, and most notably catching the throw from Kris Bryant to record the final out of the 2016 World Series, ending the franchise’s 108-year championship drought. By the time this year’s deadline rolls around on Friday afternoon, Bryant and Javier Báez could be dealt as well, as could Craig Kimbrel, who wasn’t part of that championship team but who helped the championship holdovers to another playoff berth last year.

One team’s teardown is another team’s fortification, and the Yankees seized an opportunity to grab the best first baseman available on the trade market. What remains to be seen for the Yankees is the fate of Voit, who’s nearing a return to action and whose name has been mentioned in trade discussions. Voit, who’s only about 18 months younger than Rizzo, crushed at a .279/.372/.543 clip for the Yankees from late 2018 through ’20, homering 58 times in 892 PA. Between that kind of production, and the fact that he still has three years of club control remaining, he could be a desirable acquisition for a team in need of a first baseman beyond this year, one that might be able to tolerate him shaking off the rust over the season’s final two months. Freeing up the remaining portion of his modest $4.7 million salary would give the Yankees a bit more breathing room under the tax threshold; RosterResource estimates they’re about $4.33 million below. Then again, with Rizzo departing, the Yankees could keep Voit around as a bench piece and give him a do-over next year, and it’s not as though his talents don’t merit that. Stay tuned.

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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2 years ago

Cant wait to see this lineup with all hands on deck on Saturday (?)