Yankees should let Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza play shortstop

Tony Fernandez was a far superior player to Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

That is not a sentence you expected to read today, right?

Let’s see if I can connect the dots.

Fernandez had been the primary shortstop on the 1995 Yankees — the organization’s first playoff team since 1981. Fernandez did not play well in 1995. He was down from his Gold Glove Blue Jays peak. But I am comfortable writing this sentence regardless of the difference in age or the difference in Wins Above Replacement: I would take Fernandez going into 1996 over Kiner-Falefa going into 2023.

During the 1995-96 offseason, the Yankees committed to prospect Derek Jeter being their starting shortstop for the 1996 campaign. Jeter was among the handful of best prospects in the sport. But he was just 21, and had just a cup of coffee in the majors in 1995.

That was a different type of Yankees organization, namely because George Steinbrenner was George Steinbrenner. One reason the Yankees committed to a prospect was because The Boss was infuriated that the Mets were getting so much attention for their Generation K trio of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. Steinbrenner wanted to be able to brandish something shiny from his farm system.

But Jeter had an abysmal spring training. Included in the badness was that Jeter botched what should have been an inning-ending double play in an exhibition game on March 24, 1996, against Houston. That extended the fourth inning and brought James Mouton to the plate. Mouton hit a grounder that Fernandez — playing second base because Jeter was at short — dove for, landed awkwardly and fractured his elbow. He was lost for the year, and with him went the Yankees’ security blanket for Jeter.

Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees goes down to field a ground ball during an Major League Baseball game circa 2002 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Jeter has played for the New York Yankees from 1995-2014.
Derek Jeter spot as the Yankees’ starting shortstop in 1996 was secured when Tony Fernandez suffered a season-ending injury during spring training.
Getty Images

These being George’s Yankees, they convened a meeting not long after this because one of Steinbrenner’s confidants, Clyde King, had told the owner the Yankees could not win with Jeter at shortstop. The Yankees went into that meeting contemplating a trade with Seattle to obtain veteran shortstop Felix Fermin for either Bob Wickman or an unproven young hurler named Mariano Rivera.

The dynasty could have died before being born if the Yankees had traded Rivera and demoted Jeter in favor of Fermin — who, by the way, played 11 games in 1996 and then never played again in the majors.

But more reasonable folks such as Gene Michael, Willie Randolph and others supported Jeter, and, well, you know the rest was baseball history. Jeter won the Rookie of the Year, Rivera became the most dominant reliever in the sport and the Yankees in 1996 won the first of four titles in five years.

The franchise has not seriously considered starting a rookie at shortstop since — until now.

GM Brian Cashman has described an open competition among Kiner-Falefa, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe. But why is Kiner-Falefa even part of this discussion? He needs to be Fernandez here — moved to make room for a rookie. When I asked Cashman about this, he said:

“Ultimately, we’re just not ready to make those types of commitments. We do like Kiner-Falefa. We think there’s value there. I know that other teams that are contending knocked on our door about [Kiner-Falefa] this winter, as well. And we do have these young pups that we are really excited about pushing up the ladder, but that doesn’t mean we have to make any commitment to anybody in December or January.”

Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees goes down to field a ground ball during an Major League Baseball game circa 2002 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Jeter has played for the New York Yankees from 1995-2014.
Though George Steinbrenner pushed to start Derek Jeter as a rookie, concerns over Jeter’s readiness almost prompted the team to trade away Mariano Rivera.
New York Post

Cashman noted that Jeter ultimately became a Hall of Famer. But in the moment, the offseason of 1995-96, he was closer to a composite of Peraza and Volpe today than Cooperstown-bound.

Like Jeter in 1995, Peraza had a strong Triple-A season in 2022 and a cup of coffee in the majors. Like Jeter, Volpe was a first-round draft pick whom the organization loves — and not just because of his on-field abilities. Somewhere among the two, the Yankees have a better option than Kiner-Falefa. If not, their decision-making needs an overhaul because — among other things — they have ignored two of the most star-loaded free-agent shortstop classes ever largely because Peraza and Volpe have been looming.

Jeter was Baseball America’s No. 6 prospect going into the 1996 season. Volpe is No. 14 going into this year and Peraza No. 62. These are obviously not perfect evaluations. After all, Jeter was not even the top-rated prospect on the Yankees going into the 1996 season — Ruben Rivera was at No. 3. But this is about providing a snapshot, and if you think that picture — because it involves Jeter — is unfair, let’s try this:

Going into last year: Philadelphia’s Bryson Stott was Baseball America’s No. 67 prospect. Houston’s Jeremy Peña was No. 72. Both made Opening Day rosters and ultimately were the starting shortstops in the 2022 World Series. Peña replaced Carlos Correa, the lone star shortstop who was in both of the starry free-agent classes the Yankees shunned. Stott took over for former Yankee Didi Gregorius.

I would look upon Peraza/Volpe as trying to usurp a player a lot closer to the 2021-22 version of Gregorius than to Correa. That isn’t a high bar. The defensive metrics liked Kiner-Falefa more than the eye test did. His offense was contact-heavy and low-impact. Just by fielding the position and offering some pop, wouldn’t Peraza, for example, be better from the outset — with a chance to grow into more than that?

New York Yankees shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa strikes out off a pitch from Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Andres Munoz (Not Pictured) in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York, Tuesday, August 02, 2022.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa didn’t make an impact in the Yankees lineup last season, and defensive metrics favored him more than the eye test did.

“Let’s do it the old-fashioned way,” Cashman said. “Whoever earns it, let them earn it for ’23 and then defend it all year.”

One potentially complicating factor is the logjam the Yankees might have in the infield. Cashman has declared Josh Donaldson the starting third baseman because he believes Donaldson’s defense was Gold Glove-caliber last season and that his offense is not as problematic as it appeared in 2022. Gleyber Torres is at second. Cashman said DJ LeMahieu’s recovery from a broken sesamoid bone in his right big toe that wrecked his second half last year has been exemplary and he envisions LeMahieu as an everyday player who moves among first base, second and third.

Then there are Kiner-Falefa, Peraza, Volpe and Oswaldo Cabrera, who also can play the outfield. Cashman described the team’s infield depth/quality “as the strength of our organization.”

What happens if Peraza and/or Volpe — or both — show in spring that they are ready to play in the majors? Do they play in the majors? Or to preserve the other assets, do the Yankees just option them to the minors to wait for injury/underperformance? Or does Cashman trade Kiner-Falefa and/or Torres? Perhaps he finds a team to take on as much of Donaldson’s $27 million as possible (put that in the unlikely category)?

“I’m not gonna fast-forward to that,” Cashman said. “Let’s just see how things shake out. Teams have expressed interest in our players. We’ve had engagement throughout the wintertime and clearly didn’t make any moves based on what we were looking for and what teams are offering, so we’re more than comfortable staying online as is and letting it play out that way. And if things make more sense to us in our conversations as we move forward, then maybe there’s some good that happens. But other than that, you know, we’re happy with what we’ve got.”

New York Yankees Oswald Peraza can’t field a ball by Yuli Gurriel #10 of the Houston Astros for a single during the 6th inning.
Oswald Peraza registered a .832 OPS in 18 games with the Yankees in 2022 while playing promising defense at shortstop and second base.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Fully healthy, I believe the Yankees’ best infield to start the season would have Anthony Rizzo at first, Torres at second, Peraza at short and LeMahieu at third. That would mean Volpe, who has just 22 games at Triple-A, is back in the minors for a touch more seasoning and Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa are on the bench.

That plan, however, raises some issues:

• Is LeMahieu, who turns 35 in July and is coming off a foot injury, still rangy enough to regularly handle second with the removal of extreme shifts in 2023? Thus, is third base — where LeMahieu played well last year — the best spot to get the most out of his bat?

• If he doesn’t play regularly, does Donaldson become problematic to Aaron Boone?

• If Volpe is everything the Yankees believe he is, that could mean he shines in spring training and forces all kinds of difficult decisions. Volpe is not even on the 40-man roster yet.

But I also wonder this: Should that matter? Again, Jeter did not play well in the spring of 1996. The Yankees stuck with him anyway and were rewarded.

And that was with the impetuous George Steinbrenner owning the team. With the more thoughtful Hal Steinbrenner in charge, shouldn’t the Yankees just declare the competition is between the high ceilings of the two kids and that Kiner-Falefa is a backup or traded? Is it risky to trust kids? Sure. But this isn’t replacing Correa — though the Astros did that successfully with a kid who ultimately won the ALCS and World Series MVPs.

Anthony Volpe #7 of the New York Yankees looks on during batting practice prior to the 2022 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Dodger Stadium on Saturday, July 16, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
Anthony Volpe has played just 22 games at Triple-A, but a strong spring may complicate the Yankees’ decisions about their Opening Day infield.
MLB Photos via Getty Images

What are the chances that one of Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe — or some combination of them — does not outperform the 2022 version of Kiner-Falefa?

More importantly, there might be a Jeremy Peña-like upside play here as the Yankees try to create a team that could finally outdo Peña’s Astros.

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