Left field was a major problem area for the New York Yankees in 2022 — just ask any Yankees fan — and, heading into 2023, not much has changed.
Last season, Aaron Hicks largely manned the position, leading the team with 46 starts in left field, but the team tried multiple solutions throughout the year to fill the black hole in the lineup, from Joey Gallo to Andrew Benintendi — who missed September and October due to injury after being acquired at the trade deadline — to Miguel Andujar, Marwin Gonzalez and Oswaldo Cabrera.
Hicks consistently drew boos at Yankee Stadium and hit .216/.330/.313 with eight homers, nine doubles and 109 strikeouts in 385 plate appearances across 130 games. He routinely looked lost at the plate by September, and defensive miscues got him pulled from games. The Yankees signed Hicks to a seven-year, $70 million extension in February 2019 after a career year in 2018, where he hit .248/.366/.467 with 27 homers and 4.7 bWAR. But since, the 33-year-old outfielder has not replicated the success, has become a target of fan ire, and the team owes Hicks more than $30 million over the final three years of his contract. If he’s still a Yankee on Aug. 8, he will be able to veto any trade due to his 10-and-5 rights.
According to team sources, the Yankees have made efforts throughout the offseason to acquire a left-handed hitting left fielder, but so far have fallen short. As things currently stand, Hicks remains on track to be standing in left field for the Yankees on Opening Day.
“I suspect he will be the guy that emerges [in left field] because he is still really talented and everything is there,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said on SiriusXM MLB Network Radio. “Hopefully we can get the Aaron Hicks we know is in there back as a consistent player for us.”
Last season, both Cashman and manager Aaron Boone routinely expressed their confidence in Hicks and his skill set, but that hasn’t stopped the team from looking to trade him this winter.
“We have lines out on certain opportunities,” Cashman said. “If it happens in February or March, so be it. Or we go with what we have.”
Here are five options the Yankees are considering instead of Hicks, either to fill his spot before the regular season begins or during it, according to team and league sources.
Two main possibilities loom via trade.
Bryan Reynolds asked the Pittsburgh Pirates to be dealt ahead of the winter meetings, but no deal has been struck. According to multiple sources, the Yankees have shown interest in Reynolds but the two sides have not been able to come to an agreement. Pittsburgh is looking for starting pitching prospects, while the Yankees can mostly offer position players. According to league sources, the Pirates are looking for a package of multiple top prospects from the Yankees, including one or more of Anthony Volpe, Oswald Peraza and Jasson Dominguez.
The 27-year-old Reynolds has been a star for Pittsburgh since his rookie season in 2019, when he hit .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers in 135 games, producing 3.9 bWAR. After a down 2020 campaign where he hit .189/.275/.357, Reynolds had the best year of his career in 2021, hitting .302/.390/.522 with 24 homers and 6.0 bWAR1. He put together another strong season in 2022, hitting .262/.345/.461 with 27 homers and 3.0 bWAR.
The other option being considered is Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins. Kepler has shown flashes of stardom, finishing 20th in MVP voting in 2019 while hitting .252/.336/.519 with 36 homers and 90 RBIs with 4.0 bWAR. He’s locked in through the 2024 season after Minnesota signed him to a five-year, $35 million contract extension in 2019.
But Kepler hasn’t kept up that level of production, posting seasons of 1.0, 2.1 and 2.1 bWAR since 2020. The Twins have a crowded outfield, and have been fielding calls from other teams. But according to team sources, the Yankees and Twins have been unable to come close on a package of players that would satisfy both sides and are far from an agreement.
Profar is the best free agent outfielder remaining. The 30-year-old had the best season of his career in 2022, hitting .243/.331/.391 with 15 homers, 58 RBIs and 36 doubles for the San Diego Padres. Over the course of his nine-year career, Profar has played every position except pitcher and catcher. The switch-hitter’s power profile would also project well to Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch — his expected home run mark at Yankee Stadium in 2022 was 20, according to Baseball Savant.
The Yankees, though, are hoping to stay below the $293 million threshold, known as the “Steve Cohen tax” after being created to rein in the free-spending New York Mets owner, and with the team currently at about $292.3 million according to Roster Resource, there is a reluctance to sign a player who would push them over the limit.
Let Oswaldo Cabrera take over
The in-house option, Cabrera quickly became a favorite among fans and the coaching staff during the last few months of the 2022 season. The versatile switch-hitter made a strong impression with his upbeat attitude and his ability to play multiple positions. In a limited big league stint, Cabrera hit .247/.312/.429 with six homers in 44 games while flashing a strong glove.
Cashman praised Cabrera’s stint in the big leagues.
“You have the young buck, Cabrera, that wants to stake a claim,” Cashman said last week. “He showed a lot of positive things for us, especially on the defensive side, being a jack-of-all-trades.”
The Yankees were initially hesitant to train Cabrera, predominantly an infielder in the minors, to play the outfield. But the 23-year-old decided to take the matter into his own hands, training in the outfield in his free time and adding the position to his repertoire. When the Yankees called him up from the minor leagues, he immediately made an impact by playing every infield position, in addition to right and center field. According to multiple sources, Cabrera will be given every opportunity to build upon his strong first impression in 2022, and could take over as a starter or be used in a platoon with Hicks.
Since 2018, Stanton has not played more than 72 games in left field. Given his injury history in the last few years, it seems unlikely he will ever play the position full-time again.
Stanton, however, has talked about being in a better rhythm at the plate when he’s playing defense versus being the designated hitter. Earlier in the offseason, Boone said he preferred to use Stanton in the outfield “in spurts” when Aaron Judge is the designated hitter or in more defender-friendly ballparks like Boston or Houston.
Although this would only be a solution for a small number of games, if Stanton stays healthy and it helps him at the plate, too, it’s a win-win.
While both the Yankees and others like Florial’s makeup, he hasn’t produced in the big leagues. The 25-year-old has struggled with injuries and has only played 29 games in the majors over three seasons.
Florial performed well in Triple-A for the Yankees in 2022, hitting .283/.368/.481 but struggled when he received a big league opportunity, hitting .097/.200/.097 across 17 games and 31 plate appearances.
New York will face a crossroads as Florial is out of minor league options. If he does not make the team, he could end up as a trade piece before the end of spring training — perhaps even for one of the players at the top of this list.
Ohio gaming regulators ban NCAA player props
The Ohio Casino Control Commission (OCCC) on Friday granted a request by the NCAA to prohibit wagering on prop bets involving collegiate athletes. Ohio sportsbook operators have until March 1 to implement the ban on any wager on “an individual athlete’s performance or statistics participating in a sporting event governed by the NCAA.”
Examples of prop bets include the over/under on a basketball player’s points or a quarterback’s passing yards. More than 20 states with legal sports betting prohibit or limit player-specific prop bets on collegiate athletes, according to the OCCC’s announcement. The OCCC announced the ban three weeks after Baker made a written request to its executive director Matt Schuler, which received support from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
“Today’s decision by the Ohio Casino Control Commission to prohibit player-specific prop bets on collegiate competitions marks a significant step in the protection of student-athlete well-being and game integrity,” NCAA president Charlie Baker said in a statement. “I thank The Commission for recognizing the serious threats posed by prop bets and implementing controls to help safeguard student-athlete mental health from the risks of sports betting harassment and abuse.”
Schuler agreed with the NCAA’s concerns that prop bets on individual player performance can lead to bettors harassing athletes, the solicitation of insider information and attempts to manipulate small events during games.
“I have determined that good cause supports the NCAA’s request to prohibit player-specific prop bets on intercollegiate athletics competitions because the NCAA’s request will safeguard the integrity of sports gaming and will be in the best interest of the public,” Schuler wrote in his decision.
Ohio passed a law in 2023 that aims to ban anyone who threatens athletes with violence or harm from participating in sports gaming in the state. The OCCC estimates Ohio sportsbooks received $104.6 million in bets on NCAA player props in 2023, or 1.35% of the total amount wagered last year.
McGee leaves UGA to be Georgia St. head coach
McGee’s deal is for five years, sources told ESPN’s Pete Thamel.
McGee, 50, was the Bulldogs’ run game coordinator and running backs coach and has deep ties in the state from years as a high school coach. He joins the Panthers after spending the past eight seasons as a Georgia assistant, primarily working with the running backs while helping the team to College Football Playoff titles in 2021 and 2022. He played college football at Auburn and had a brief NFL career as a defensive back, appearing in three games for the Arizona Cardinals in 1998.
McGee also previously coached at a rival of Georgia State, spending two seasons as an assistant at Georgia Southern and serving as the interim head coach for a win in the GoDaddy Bowl (now called the 68 Ventures Bowl) in the 2015 season.
McGee replaces Shawn Elliott, who agreed earlier this month to return to South Carolina as tight ends coach and run game coordinator.
Georgia State is coming off a 7-6 season that included a win over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The school had postponed spring practices and its spring game after Elliott’s departure.
Judge grants preliminary injunction over NIL rules
A federal judge in Tennessee granted a preliminary injunction Friday afternoon that prohibits the NCAA from punishing any athletes or boosters for negotiating name, image and likeness deals during their recruiting process or while they are in the transfer portal.
The injunction is not a final ruling in the case, but the judge’s decision will likely have an immediate and dramatic impact on how NIL deals are used in the recruiting process.
“The NCAA’s prohibition likely violates federal antitrust law and harms student-athletes,” U.S. District Judge Clifton Corker wrote in his decision Friday.
NCAA rules prohibit student-athletes from signing NIL contracts that are designed as inducements to get them to attend a particular school — one of the few restrictions in place for how athletes can make money. For example, the NCAA recently announced sanctions against Florida State football because a member of its coaching staff connected a prospect with a booster collective that works closely with the Seminoles. The collective made a specific offer to the player, who was considering transferring from his current school to Florida State.
The attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia argued that the NCAA is illegally restricting opportunities for student-athletes by preventing them from negotiating the terms of NIL deals prior to deciding where they want to go to school. The lawsuit was filed Jan. 31, one day after University of Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman revealed in a letter to the NCAA that the school’s athletic department was being investigated for potential recruiting rules violations.
In Friday’s ruling, Corker determined that the attorneys general have a reasonable chance of winning their case and that student-athletes could suffer irreparable harm if the restrictions remain in place while the case is being decided.
“Turning upside down rules overwhelmingly supported by member schools will aggravate an already chaotic collegiate environment, further diminishing protections for student-athletes from exploitation,” the NCAA said in a statement. “The NCAA fully supports student-athletes making money from their name, image and likeness and is making changes to deliver more benefits to student-athletes, but an endless patchwork of state laws and court opinions make clear partnering with Congress is necessary to provide stability for the future of all college athletes.”
Anthony Skrmetti, Tennessee’s attorney general, said in a statement Friday that his office plans to litigate the case “to the fullest extent necessary to ensure the NCAA’s monopoly cannot continue.”
“The NCAA is not above the law, and the law is on our side,” Skrmetti said.
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares called the win in court “rewarding” and saw it as an extension of the Supreme Court ruling in the NCAA vs. Alston case in 2021, which he said should have put the NCAA “on notice” for its legal vulnerabilities.
“We’re finally getting to the point where you’re seeing real student-athlete empowerment at the collegiate level,” Miyares told ESPN in a phone interview late Friday. “The NCAA in an arbitrary and capricious manner was trying to restrict that.”
Miyares said the NCAA model has gotten to the point where it’s unsustainable, pointing out the billion-dollar NCAA tournament television contract that was signed without the players getting any cut of it. The potential of change to NIL rules that would come with this ruling could be just the start.
“I think could be the first steps of significant change,” he said. “And I think it’s been coming for a long time.”
College athletics attorney Tom Mars, who worked with a Tennessee collective, Spyre Sports Group, on this case, said the ruling could mark the beginning of the end for the NCAA.
“I think this will be one more brick in the wall that is the end of the NCAA,” Mars said. “Short of intervention by Congress, the demise of the NCAA now seems inevitable based on nothing but a financial analysis, as it appears the NCAA is poised to lose all of its upcoming antitrust cases. The cumulative effect of which could make the NCAA financially insolvent.”
“A bad case is a bad case, and they’ve put all their defenses forward,” Mars added. “And there’s no precedent anywhere in the United States that supports their defenses.”
Corker said the NCAA’s lawyers did not make a compelling argument for why using NIL contracts as recruiting inducements would undermine the academic side of college sports.
“While the NCAA permits student-athletes to profit from their NIL, it fails to show how the timing of when a student-athlete enters such an agreement would destroy the goal of preserving amateurism,” the judge wrote.
Earlier this week, Skrmetti told ESPN that he was willing to work with the NCAA to find some middle ground on how it could enforce some of its recruiting rules while the case is resolved.
“If they want to talk about possibilities for finding a workable solution in the short term, we’re always open to conversation,” Skrmetti said, noting he had not discussed the case with NCAA leadership. “There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to reach an agreement, but if there’s a mutually agreeable path forward as we work to get these issues figured out, we’re open to that.”
In an interview with ESPN on Tuesday, NCAA president Charlie Baker said the restriction on recruiting inducements was written because the association wants athletes to choose their future schools based on the best educational opportunities rather than where they could make the most money.
“I also think it makes it enormously challenging, as we are currently seeing in the existing NIL environment, for kids and families to figure out what the right choice is in the first place because an enormous amount of information flows their way that may not in fact be accurate,” Baker said.
ESPN asked Baker if having contracts that the prospective athletes could sign before committing to a school would help ensure that the offers they were receiving were accurate or could provide some way to hold a booster or school accountable for false promises.
“I don’t know,” Baker said.
Since adopting new rules that opened the door for NIL deals in 2021, the NCAA has issued two sanctions related to how boosters used NIL opportunities as an inducement in the recruiting process: the recent Florida State case and one involving the Miami women’s basketball team in February 2023.
The NCAA has struggled to enforce the inducement rules despite widespread acknowledgement and complaints from coaches, players and administrators that offers for NIL money have become a central discussion in recruiting players out of high school and the transfer portal. The rules allow coaches and collectives to share information about a prospect’s potential earning power as long as they don’t make specific offers or promises. Without documented evidence of a violation or cooperation from parties directly involved in an offer, the NCAA’s enforcement staff doesn’t have the power to compel the information they need to levy sanctions.
Plowman, Tennessee’s chancellor, said in her letter to the NCAA that it was “intellectually dishonest” to have rules that allow collectives to meet with recruits and enter into contracts with recruits but prohibit “conversations that would be of a recruiting nature.”
“Any discussion about NIL might factor into a prospective student-athlete’s decision to attend an institution. This creates an inherently unworkable situation, and everyone knows it,” Plowman wrote. “Student-athletes and their families deserve better than this.”
Baker told ESPN that he didn’t think the NCAA was ignoring reality by asking athletes to pick their schools based on academic and athletic opportunities and worry about NIL opportunities after they arrive.
“I think the most important thing here is let’s deal with some of the issues around accountability and transparency and consumer protections first,” Baker said. “And if we then want to have a conversation about other stuff, about how this should all work, especially if we get to the point where we give schools the ability to do more in this space, I’m all-in on that.”
In a separate case about the NCAA’s rules that restrict an athlete’s ability to transfer to a new school without penalty, a federal judge decided in December to grant an injunction. That ruling compelled the NCAA to change its rules to allow athletes to transfer as many times as they would like during their college careers while the case is pending.
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