ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In the fourth inning of Sunday’s game, the New York Yankees got a glimpse of what they hope their future can be.
Outfielder Everson Pereira took a slider on the outside corner of the plate and poked it into right field for a single, followed by shortstop Anthony Volpe blasting one to right center field for a two-run home run, his 18th of the season. These moments are what matter most in a season that will almost certainly end with the team missing the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
On Sunday, the Yankees had four players 24 years old or younger in the lineup, with Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera joining Pereira and Volpe in the lineup. The kids were a combined 2-for-12 in Sunday’s 7-4 loss but the Yankees have shifted to prioritizing youth experience over wins and losses. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a logical reason why Pereira, who has played fewer than a week’s worth of games, would be hitting cleanup against a team ahead of them in the standings.
“I think it’s huge for them and huge for us and an excellent opportunity to try to get more information and see where they need to continue to make strides and just how they equip themselves up here playing regularly,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said prior to Sunday’s game.
With just over a month of games remaining for the Yankees, the front office will use this time to evaluate who should and shouldn’t be with the team in what they hope is a turnaround in 2024. Volpe’s success, particularly over the past three months, should assure the Yankees that they have a good, cost-controlled player in the middle of their infield. There have been ups and downs with his bat all season long but he’s mostly been steady defensively. He’s tied for the second-highest success rate for all MLB qualified shortstops, but he’s ranked in the middle of the pack in outs above average. That’s mostly because Volpe isn’t the rangiest defender and doesn’t have the strongest arm but if he gets to the ball, it usually results in an out. His power at his age and size is encouraging but long term, the Yankees would like to see his on-base percentage rise so he can take advantage of his base-running instincts more often.
Peraza is seen as the better defender at shortstop but he has mostly played third base because of Volpe’s emergence since spring training. The Yankees still view Peraza as a middle infielder but there’s no clear opening for him in 2024 unless they move on from Gleyber Torres in the offseason. Torres is under contract for one more season before entering free agency. Because he’s one of the better-hitting second basemen in the sport, Torres could find himself getting a nine-figure, long-term deal in free agency. The Yankees have already committed $171 million to their payroll for 2025. One way for the team to keep their payroll down is to move Torres in the offseason, which would also alleviate some of the payroll concerns for this upcoming season and open a spot for Peraza.
“To me, he’s a big league shortstop,” Boone said of Peraza. “Obviously, Anthony is there. I think defensively, (Peraza) can play anywhere. But first and foremost, he’s good enough to be a major-league shortstop. When you have that, that’s the place you want to start from if you have that kind of skill set but the flashes we’ve seen a bit, even at second base and third, I think he’s got a chance to be impactful wherever he is in the infield defensively.”
A concern the Yankees might have in moving off of Torres for Peraza is the latter has yet to show he’s a major league-caliber hitter. It’s a small sample size of 72 at-bats this season, but he currently has an on-base percentage below .300 and a woefully low slugging percentage of .171. Going back to his September stint last season, one of the issues Peraza has faced in the big leagues is he hasn’t been the line-drive, fly-ball hitter he’s profiled as in the minors. In both 2022 and 2023, Peraza’s ground-ball rate has been over 56 percent.
Most alarmingly, Peraza has not been able to handle major-league fastballs. On 116 fastballs he’s seen this season, his batting average is just .040. One thing that may benefit Peraza long term is becoming more aggressive in the box. He has swung at just 62.4 percent of pitches in the zone, which would rank in the bottom 30 of all qualified hitters. He’s also swung at 56 percent of all pitches thrown down the middle of the plate. Better pitch recognition and taking advantage of more favorable pitches to hit could lead to better success.
Even though Peraza has more experience in the big leagues, the path to being on the 2024 Opening Day roster is clearer for Pereira. The Yankees have a hole in left field, and may possibly have one in center field, too, with Harrison Bader’s pending free agency. Pereira has exclusively played left field so far and has already looked more comfortable than what the Yankees have trotted out there for most of the season, but he came up as a center fielder in the team’s minor-league system.
Bader is an interesting player to evaluate long-term for the Yankees because he’s truly gifted defensively; however, his bat is below average, he can’t hit right-handed pitching and he has a lengthy injury history. Since July 4, Bader has been the ninth-worst hitter in MLB with his 59 wRC+. Even with his poor production at the plate, there aren’t many quality center fielders available this offseason, so Bader may end up cashing in a lucrative deal. Giving him the qualifying offer and essentially becoming a stop-gap option until Jasson Domínguez or Spencer Jones is ready would be fine considering it’s just a one-year deal, but the Yankees should avoid a long-term deal at all costs. If the Yankees value Bader’s defense, they could go a cheaper route and sign someone like Toronto’s Kevin Kiermaier, who is league average offensively (but he is left-handed, which would provide the Yankees a bit more handedness balance) and just as special defensively as Bader.
It’s still way too early to know whether Pereira will handle major-league pitching, but the Yankees believe in his hitting ability, as he posted some of the highest exit velocity numbers in the minor leagues. And that’s why he was hitting fourth on Sunday.
“I just feel like he has a chance to impact the ball in there,” Boone said. “Despite not having a lot of results and even taking some lumps here, I do feel like he’s put together some good at-bats, too. He can really impact the ball so hopefully a little bit of a power presence in the middle there.”
With Pereira auditioning for one of the team’s outfield spots for next season, one of the bigger disappointments this year has been Cabrera, who was supposed to lock down left field but has now been surpassed on the depth chart by Pereira. Cabrera entered the season as the team’s starting left fielder but failed to hit. In almost 250 plate appearances, nearly half of Cabrera’s batted balls this season have ended in a ground ball. His launch angle dropped from 21.5 degrees last season to 13.2 degrees this year, meaning he’s failing to lift the ball in the air. That’s resulted in his slugging percentage dropping over 120 points. After losing his starting job, Cabrera was sent down to the minors but was quickly recalled due to various injuries. That’s resulted in almost zero playing time recently. He has just 14 at-bats in August and because of that, he hasn’t been able to develop any rhythm.
“We’re still high on him,” Boone said. “I still think he’s gonna have a long career in front of him in the big leagues, especially with his versatility. It’s a tough league. People make adjustments to you and he’s gone through some bumps here at this level, but that’s also part of it. The guys that are able to make a career out of this and become really good players at this are able to learn. It’s not a straight line up for guys all of the time. Hopefully, this will serve him well, not only moving forward in the short term next year but down the road in his big league career.”
Cabrera could still find himself on the roster next season, especially if the team chooses to not re-sign Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the offseason. Kiner-Falefa emerged as the team’s super utility option over Cabrera, but the former could decide he wants more consistent playing time and a raise elsewhere in free agency. That could open the door for Cabrera but given his lack of playing time now, it’s unclear just how much he’ll be able to show the Yankees. He seems likelier to make the team out of spring training if the Yankees fully commit to a youth movement next season.
With September call-ups beginning on Friday, the youth movement could become even more pronounced in the weeks ahead. Catcher Austin Wells, who’s currently in Triple A, is seen as the likeliest offensive player to join the team for the rest of the season. The Yankees could have an opening at one of the two catcher spots next season, especially if the team chooses to not bring back Kyle Higashioka, who is not seen as a strong game-caller by scouts.
Wells is still a work in progress behind the plate, but the Yankees do employ one of the league’s best catching coordinators in Tanner Swanson, and Jose Trevino, when healthy, is one of the best defensive catchers in the sport and has shown a willingness to be a mentor. Boone said this weekend that the organization would like Wells to get reps at first base, perhaps a sign that his defense behind the plate isn’t where it needs to be in order to be a catcher at the MLB level. But what Wells does offer is a powerful left-handed bat that is sorely needed in the Yankees’ lineup.
One potential move that would certainly create interest in the final few weeks of the season, if nothing else, is calling up Domínguez, the team’s top prospect. The 20-year-old has been electric in his limited playing time in Triple A and the Yankees, as stated above, will not have much to play for record-wise when Scranton’s season is complete. Could the Yankees decide it’s worth it to have Domínguez, who has to be placed on the 40-man roster this offseason, up with the big-league squad? Boone was asked about the possibility on Sunday.
“The downside is it could always not be the best first experience for guys. That’ll be more of the decision (for) player development, the front office — with our recommendations, too. What’s best for their development? It may very well be to be here and getting some of those at-bats.
“I’m in the camp that I think he’s going to be a really good player in this league. I think he’s a really special talent. After getting off to a little bit of a slow start this year in Double A, he’s really played well over the last few months. He obviously impacts the ball and is athletic and can run. I like the fact that at a really young age, he’s really controlling the strike zone. Hopefully, … when he does get up here, that can be something that serves him well.”
(Photo of Anthony Volpe and Everson Pereira: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)