Sleeper pick to make 2023 Yankees roster could steal impact at-bats in outfield

Chicago Cubs v New York Mets
Chicago Cubs v New York Mets / Jim McIsaac/GettyImages

Entering 2023, the New York Yankees still need to find balance in their lineup via impact left-handed bats, as well as a left fielder who isn't named Aaron Hicks -- pending a major reversal of fortune, his days of being a fan favorite and above-average offensive player are in the rear view mirror.

Hicks' switch-hitting ability makes him appealing, until you look at his offensive profile and recall he provides the Yankees with the unique ability to struggle from both sides of the plate. Though he's the most likely candidate by far to be the Opening Day starter in left field, it wouldn't be shocking if an unexpected name emerges and steals reps by May 1.

It probably won't be Oswaldo Cabrera as a full-time option; he's not a left fielder and never was before the Yankees' stroke of genius to get him into October's lineup. His bat was also exposed a bit by playoff pitching; there's still a bit too much swing-and-miss in that profile for him to be a savior, though he should be a utility help in 2023.

That leaves Estevan Florial, who's hoping this time is the charm after being unable to make an effective big-league jump from Triple-A in 2020, 2021 and 2022, as well as NRIs Willie Calhoun and Rafael Ortega.

We'd like to be among the first to say that Ortega's contributions shouldn't be discarded so quickly, as he's been an effective offensive player with left-handed pop more recently than Hicks has, and doesn't have a troublesome (and potentially career-altering) injury to blame for his slide into mediocrity last year. That means it could be fixable.

Former Cubs OF Rafael Ortega could sneak into Yankees left field job

Let's be honest: Ortega regaining his 2021 form and stealing an outfield spot is a lot more likely than Aaron Judge ever suiting up in left with Giancarlo Stanton in right.

That season, the 30-year-old Ortega broke out with a .291 average, .360 OBP, .823 OPS, 121 OPS+ and 11 bombs in 103 games. His underlying metrics were middling (his barrel percentage was a less-than-ideal 5.7% and his K % was an elevated 21.2%), but the results were certainly there.

What's potentially most encouraging about Ortega is that, even in a down year, he managed to walk a significant amount and see the ball well. His 11.9% walk percentage was in the top 10 percent of all MLB players last season, and his whiff percentage fell in the 82nd percentile. Even his rolling xWOBA began crawling into the above-average red by the end of the campaign. In a season to forget, he still took his walks, rarely swung and missed, and wrapped the year with a 95 OPS+, production that exceeds Aaron Hicks' season by a significant margin (86 OPS+, same good eye).

Ortega doesn't have a long track record of success, and will be 32 years old in mid-May. But seeing as the Yankees tolerated a significant amount of Hicks last season and plan to do so again, it's worth noting that Ortega's 2022 struggles profile better than Hicks' likely output, and the best-case scenario for the ex-Cub could be a Gio Urshela-like surprise.

Except ... not quite. Because we've already seen it at the MLB level.