The New York Yankees will begin their 2023 season in less than a week, hosting the San Francisco Giants on Thursday afternoon. It remains unclear who, exactly, will be jogging to shortstop when the Yankees take the field. The Athletic’s Brendan Kuty reported on Friday morning that some “high-level voices inside the organization” are campaigning for prospect Anthony Volpe to win the job over fellow youngster Oswald Peraza and incumbent Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who has been deployed recently in a utility capacity.
This seems like a perfect time, then, to break down the candidacy of each of the three players vying for the Yankees starting shortstop job by highlighting how they’ve performed this spring and the arguments for and against them taking the position to begin the season. Scroll slowly with us as we do just that. (Do note that the players are presented in alphabetical order.)
1. Isiah Kiner-Falefa
How he’s played this spring: Kiner-Falefa entered Friday batting .241/.324/.379 for the exhibition season. His performance has come against pitchers who, on average, spent last year in Triple-A.
The argument for: We’re not sure there is one. Kiner-Falefa had a polarizing first season in the Bronx, hitting for an 84 OPS+ and receiving mixed reviews defensively. Some public metrics thought his glovework was fantastic while others, like Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, ranked him in the 17th percentile. If you put more faith in the former group of measurements, then maybe you can build an argument around individual defensive traits being more important than before now that the overshift is banned. Otherwise? Eh.
The argument against: Let’s keep this simple. Kiner-Falefa had an opportunity last season and failed to take advantage of it. He’s had his share of boosters within the game who believe there’s more offensive potency to his game than his statistics suggest, but he’s had more than 2,000 trips to the plate to prove as much. If the Yankees are serious about maximizing their roster — and Kuty reports that they are — he’s probably best served filling a bench role that avoids overexposing his bat and places an emphasis on his versatility.
Verdict: We would be surprised if Kiner-Falefa was the Yankees’ Opening Day shortstop. All signs point to him being used in a reserve capacity. Strange things happen in baseball, but he feels like a distant third in this race.
2. Oswald Peraza
How he’s played this spring: Peraza has played the worst of the three, hitting .188/.316/.344. This comes after debuting last season and posting a .306/.404/.429 slash line in 18 games down the stretch.
The argument for: There’s no sense overreacting to 38 spring plate appearances. The Yankees know Peraza is a better hitter than he’s shown (even if he’s not as good as his play in last year’s small sample suggests), and they know that he’s a high-quality defender. On paper, he looks like a perfect compromise between Kiner-Falefa and Volpe: he’s a better hitter than the former and a better fielder than the latter. CBS Sports ranked him as the 41st best prospect entering the spring, highlighting his bat-to-ball skills and above-average speed, both of which could play up under the new rules.
The argument against: There’s no sense overreacting to 38 spring plate appearances … unless the Yankees see something off about Peraza’s swing that would benefit from time in the minors. Giving Peraza the nod over Volpe after a rough spring would look poor optically, to the point where you can bet people would wonder if the Yankees were partaking in service-time manipulation. Teams can’t and shouldn’t make their decisions in cases like these based on public relations, yet they should be mindful of how the players might feel.
Verdict: As noted above, Peraza feels like the “Goldilocks” candidate. The Yankees presumably entered the spring with the belief that he would be their Opening Day shortstop. That his struggles (and Volpe’s hot play) have kept this conversation alive this late in the spring is probably an annoyance. Even so, we still give Peraza the slight edge, albeit something like 55-45 instead of 70-30.
3. Anthony Volpe
How he’s played this spring: Volpe has performed the best of the three, and it’s not particularly close. He’s hit .308/.438/.590 in his first 39 at-bats, though he’s done so while facing pitchers who, again on average, were in Double-A last season. We knew entering the spring that he could hit Double-A-caliber pitching; he proved as much with an .820 OPS at that level in 2022.
The argument for: Besides Volpe being the only of the three to show a pulse at the plate this spring, he’s one of the top prospects in the game. CBS Sports recently ranked him No. 12 overall, noting that he “projects as an above-average hitter who can contribute in each of the slash line categories.” Evaluators have had their concerns about how his arm will play at shortstop, but the Yankees stomached Kiner-Falefa’s weaker arm at the six last season, and weak arms haven’t prevented Dansby Swanson or Corey Seager from cashing in. Plus, Volpe would fetch the Yankees a draft pick if he were to open the season on the roster and then win the Rookie of the Year Award.
The argument against: One thing you don’t want to do when you have a touted prospect is rush them to the majors. It’s easy to forget since Volpe has played well this spring, but he ended last season with a 22-game stretch in Triple-A that saw him strike out in more than 30 percent of his trips to the plate. While it’s possible that he’s since made an adjustment, starting him in Triple-A and letting him prove that he’s back to good for a few weeks would still allow him to contribute to the big-league club for most of the year. Having Volpe begin the year in the minors would also give the Yankees a chance to look at Peraza, and perhaps slide Volpe to second base, where he may end up anyway, without having to do it under the big-league microscope. This is just nitpicking, but Volpe isn’t currently on the 40-player roster.
Verdict: Volpe seems to be in a legitimate two-player race with Peraza for the job. His play this spring, as well as his prospect pedigree and his offensive upside, make him the more exciting of the two. That doesn’t mean he’ll get the job, but you can understand why the Yankees are thinking about it.