Every offseason, there are huge moves that grab headlines and have the ability to transform franchises. Top free agents get nine-figure deals while other high quality players are traded for top prospects. Though there are also transactions that might fly under the radar but still go on to play an important role in the future, such as waiver claims and minor league deals.
The Yankees are illustrating the importance of those minor league deals this year, as various injuries have forced them to turn to players that weren’t on the roster initially. Let’s highlight some players who had to settle for non-roster pacts but have gone on to earn meaningful playing time for the Yanks in 2023.
The Yankees have dealt with a number of significant injuries this year. Aaron Judge went on the injured list in early May due to a hip strain and is now there again thanks to a toe sprain. Harrison Bader began the season on the IL due to an oblique strain. Though he eventually returned, he’s now back on the IL a second time because of a hamstring strain. Giancarlo Stanton and Josh Donaldson are with the club now but have missed significant time with their own ailments. In addition to those injuries, they also dealt with the struggles of Aaron Hicks, which eventually led to his release. All of that has created opportunities for other players, with each of Calhoun, Bauers and McKinney getting roster spots.
Calhoun had previously received chances from the Rangers and Giants but had continued to struggle. He had a career batting line of .240/.299/.404 as of this winter for a wRC+ of 84. But he had always hit well in the minors and was a former top 100 prospect. He’s now been given a roster spot with the Yankees and has received 140 plate appearances for the season. He’s walked in 9.3% of his plate appearances while striking out at just a 12.1% clip, launching five home runs in the process. His .238/.307/.413 batting line amounts to a 98 wRC+, indicating he’s been just barely below league average. For an emergency fill-in guy, that’s not half bad, and he might even get better results if his .238 batting average on balls in play ticks up closer to the .297 league average.
Bauers was in a fairly similar situation, having once been a top 100 guy who struggled in auditions with Tampa, Cleveland and Seattle. He hit .213/.307/.348 in the majors prior to this season, leading to an 82 wRC+. But in 104 plate appearances as a Yankee this year, he’s hitting .222/.308/.456 for a wRC+ of 109. He’s striking out in 32.7% of his trips to the plate but is also walking at an 11.5% clip.
Like those two, McKinney had also been on top 100 lists in the past. He had been put into action with the Yankees, Blue Jays, Brewers, Mets, Dodgers and Athletics, but had hit .206/.277/.387 for a wRC+ of 77 by the end of 2022. He was called up recently and has only been in seven games so far this year, but he’s put up a huge .320/.320/.640 showing in that small sample. His ability to play center field is huge for the club, with each of Bader, Judge and Greg Allen on the injured list.
The bullpen is another area where the Yanks have dealt with significant challenges. Scott Effross seemed to be emerging as a key piece for them last year but required Tommy John surgery in October, effectively ruling him out for 2023. Jonathan Loáisiga made just three appearances before requiring surgery for a bone spur, with his return still several months away. Lou Trivino began the year on the injured list and ultimately required Tommy John surgery in May, which will prevent him from contributing anything this year. Tommy Kahnle was supposed to play a meaningful role after signing a two-year, $11.5MM deal in the offseason but he was on the IL for the first two months of the schedule.
Those injuries have opened the door for the minor league signees listed above. Cordero was signed way back in the 2021-2022 offseason but the Yankees selected his contract at the end of last year to prevent him from becoming a free agent. He’s tossed 27 2/3 innings with a 28.2% strikeout rate, 8.2% walk rate and 55.9% ground ball rate. He has a 3.58 ERA but probably deserves even better since he has a 66.4% strand rate, leading to a 2.70 FIP and 3.07 SIERA. Ramirez has a 1.64 ERA in a smaller sample of 11 innings. Hamilton is currently on the IL but has a 1.23 ERA in 22 innings thus far on the season. Weber’s season is now in jeopardy as Tommy John surgery might be required, but he posted a 3.14 ERA in 14 1/3 innings before landing on the 60-day IL.
None of these players is going to be voted the Most Valuable Player or the Cy Young winner, but they have nonetheless showed the importance of depth. The Yankees been without key players like Judge and Bader while others have been slumping badly, but they haven’t been buried in the standings. They are 39-30 and still holding onto a playoff spot. Despite having one of the highest payrolls in the league with plenty of high-paid stars on the roster, they have had a few games recently where their entire outfield was guys whom they’d signed to minor league deals. Thanks to the contributions of these various players, they are hanging in the race with the all-important trade deadline just over the horizon. There’s an old saying that there’s no such thing as a bad minor league deal, and these pacts are looking quite good for the Yanks right now.