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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Yankees’ infield is complete but comes with questions

Anthony Rizzo came to the Yankees in a deadline trade last season. He is coming back on a two-year deal.

By Benjamin Hoffman

By bringing back first baseman Anthony Rizzo on a two-year contract, the New York Yankees’ 2022 infield is now complete. But some big questions loom for a team that is no longer at the top of baseball’s spending perch.

Rizzo’s deal, which is pending a physi-cal, will pay him $32 million over two years and has an opt-out clause after the first sea-son. It was first reported by Jordan Brown on Twitter on Tuesday night and was con-firmed Wednesday by a person familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to discuss it publicly because the contract had not been finalized.

With Rizzo, the Yankees will have a three-time All-Star at first base, a two-time All-Star at second base (Gleyber Torres), a one-time American League most valuable player at third base (Josh Donaldson) and a Gold Glove winner at shortstop (Isiah Kiner-Falefa). Rizzo’s salary will push the team’s payroll to $241 million, according to the contract tracking website Spotrac, a figure that trails the New York Mets ($249 million) and is likely to trail the Los Angeles Dodgers ($231 million) once the dust of the offseason settles.

Included in that figure is $5.25 million owed to Luke Voit, a power-hitting right-handed bat whom Manager Aaron Boone had referred to as this season’s first baseman but will now presumably seek at-bats as a backup first baseman and designated hitter.

“I know they want to be left-handed. I get it,” Voit said at Yankees camp Tuesday. “They’ve been intent on that since last year. Obviously with our team coming to spring, I know we’ve been pretty righty dominant.”

Rizzo’s signing also means that the Yan-kees, who are frequently associated with the game’s best and highest-paid players, will not bring in any of the top-tier offseason free agents, such as first baseman Freddie Free-man and shortstop Carlos Correa. More con-cerning to the team’s immediate future: The Yankees could run into problems with New York City’s private-sector vaccine mandate, should Rizzo still be unvaccinated.

Rizzo, 32, was at his best when he helped lead the Chicago Cubs to a long-sought World Series title in 2016. That year, he hit 32 home runs — his third of four straight years with 31 or more — and he was second on the team with a .928 on-base plus slugging percentage. He continued to be ex-cellent through 2019 but has declined some over the past two seasons, combining to hit .240 with a .775 OPS for the Cubs and the Yankees.

He also missed time last season after testing positive for the coronavirus. Reaction to that news was complicated by his previ-ous skepticism toward receiving a vaccine. In June, ahead of a July trade to the Yankees, Rizzo, a cancer survivor, told reporters he had not yet been vaccinated, saying he was “taking some more time to see the data” in what he described as a “difficult decision.”

If his vaccination status has not changed, Rizzo would not currently be allowed to play home games at Yankee Stadium, as the Mayor’s Office confirmed Tuesday that New York’s vaccine mandate, which has kept Kyrie Irving out of Brooklyn Nets home games, would apply to the city’s MLB players. Boone said over the weekend that the Yankees “still have a few guys” who are unvaccinated, which could complicate the team’s lineup if the mandate is not lifted or the players con-tinue to remain unvaccinated.

While that issue could be settled in mul-tiple ways, Yankees fans will undoubtedly continue to question the team’s inability to land a top free agent. Freeman, 32, has fin-ished in the top 10 of the National League’s MVP voting in five of the past six seasons, winning the award once, and led the Atlanta Braves to a World Series title last year. Cor-rea, 27, is coming off his best season. He hit 26 home runs for the Houston Astros and won a Gold Glove with an astounding 20 defensive runs saved at shortstop. They re-main unsigned.

The Yankees, as they typically are with major free agents, were linked at various points to both players, as well as to another top free agent, shortstop Corey Seager, who signed a 10-year, $325 million deal with the Texas Rangers just before the lockout.

Instead, the Yankees will enter the sea-son with an infield of Rizzo, Torres, Kiner-Falefa and Donaldson. It does not match the star power some Yankees fans had hoped for, but it is one that is likely to carry the team to baseball’s expanded postseason, particularly if the Yankees’ pitchers and star outfielders remain healthy.

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