Yankees should swing trade for old enemy to fill 2023 left field vacancy

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - APRIL 24: Austin Meadows #17 of the Detroit Tigers reacts against the Colorado Rockies at Comerica Park on April 24, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - APRIL 24: Austin Meadows #17 of the Detroit Tigers reacts against the Colorado Rockies at Comerica Park on April 24, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images) /
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Five years and $75 million for Andrew Benintendi would’ve been a hefty price for the Yankees to pay for continuity — especially considering some remained unsure, all offseason long, about whether Benintendi wanted to be in New York.

That said … who mans left field for the New York Yankees in 2023? Oswaldo Cabrera best serves the Yanks as a utility option. Aaron Hicks is still as good as gone, in a dream world, but several of his underwhelming months in 2022 actually clear Max Kepler’s production. Michael Conforto, a right fielder by trade, is a worthy bounce back option, but does he want to get paid like one? Michael Brantley, predictably, chose to stay settled in Houston.

Options are coming off the board by the day, and most agree the Yankees’ best option to find an everyday starter is the trade market. Most also agree that their target should be Kepler, a frustrating player whose tools haven’t translated to production since the juiced ball 2019 season; in 2022, he posted OPS marks of .649, .667, and .505 from June through August.

The safest prediction? If the Yankees trade for Kepler in January, he’ll be frustrating fans by April. The less-talked-about options are almost uniformly more interesting, from D-Backs standout Daulton Varsho to A’s standout Seth Brown, who you probably didn’t notice while he was posting a 116 OPS+ last year with 25 bombs (and, yes, playing some first base in addition to the outfield).

Perhaps the most intriguing name floating in the ether is Austin Meadows, who raked as a Yankees enemy with the Rays from 2018-2021 before being dealt to the Tigers at what Tampa Bay perceived as the height of his value (just before his cost escalated).

The Rays might’ve been right — and, yes, Meadows is primarily a right fielder — but considering how far the Tigers fell last season, the Yankees should push this particular button and gauge their interest.

Yankees could swing left field trade for Tigers’ Austin Meadows

Playing Meadows over the years has been, uh, no fun, and it’s never been less fun than it was in Game 5 of the 2020 ALDS in an empty stadium in San Diego.

Meadows barely lofted that particular game-tying homer over Aaron Judge’s glove, but he’s got a much longer history of putting a charge into baseballs against the Yankees and carrying them deeper over the fence. Against New York in his career, Meadows has an .899 OPS with a remarkable 14 homers and 32 RBI in 44 starts (47 games).

And if it seemed like Meadows was typically at his best when the Yankees wanted to see him the least, you’re right. His .279 career average/.372 OBP/.895 OPS with runners in scoring position dwarf his bases-empty numbers (.251/.317/.767 OPS). In high-leverage plate appearances? Same story; Meadows hits .283 with 14 bombs and a .921 OPS in 301 PAs of that variety throughout his career. Turn the dial down to lower leverage, and his average falls to .264, while his OPS “craters” to .795 (still pretty good!).

His 2022 season, following a trade to Detroit, occurred largely off the Yankees’ radar; he posted just 128 at-bats, but was still worth 0.7 WAR, hit .250, and OBP’d .347 (99 OPS+) in complete injury-riddled obscurity.

With two seasons of escalating costs ahead of him, the Tigers could attempt to get off Meadows’ contract in case his injury regression continues. Even if he returns to a 30-homer peak, Detroit’s trajectory is pointed only cautiously upward in the most generous reading (thanks to their new decision-maker in Scott Harris), and the team will likely look to trade him at the deadline or next offseason.

Time for the Yankees to see if they can sweeten the pot enough to make an early sale worth the Tigers’ while.