Kamil Krzaczynski | USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees need a left fielder and the Twins’ Max Kepler sounds like the favorite.

The rumors rumbled once Andrew Benintendi signed a five-year deal with the White Sox. Once former Yankee Joey Gallo signed with the Twins, they became deafening. Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported the calls were coming for Kepler mere hours after Gallo signed.

But there’s another name the Yankees should be considering, and we’ve already discussed it. Cubs outfielder Ian Happ just won a Gold Glove in left field and is a more effective hitter than Kepler.

Let’s take a look at the two side by side, starting with Kepler. He checks all the defensive boxes that general Brian Cashman loves. Kepler has never played left field in MLB, but holds a career outs above average (OAA) of +60. He also has a strong throwing arm, doesn’t strike out or chase bad pitches, and draws tons of walks to drive up that OBP.

The problem is for someone who hit .252 with 36 home runs in 2019, Kepler’s bat has since tailed off. Also, take a look at his hard-hit metrics over the last few years:

  • 2019: 68th percentile
  • 2020: 43rd percentile
  • 2021: 61st percentile
  • 2022: 49th percentile

A look at his Fangraphs page solves the mystery: Kepler had a 53.4% pull rate in 2019. It’s ranged from 42.5%-44.1% in the years since as he’s shifted to whole-field hitting. It doesn’t help that he was also injured in 2022 and hit just .227 with nine home runs.

The Yankees, if they acquire him, will likely shift his swing to take advantage of the short porch in right field, take advantage of his bat-to-ball skills, and hope the power comes back. This could work in theory, but sounds a bit too much like Gallo waiting to happen all over again, just minus the strikeouts.

Happ carries risk too, but arguably less so than Kepler. He hit .271 with 17 home runs and 72 RBI, and had 42 doubles too. Happ struck out an unfortunate 149 times, but his chase rate was in the 65th percentile and can be better. This means that even if Happ strikes out a lot as a Yankee, it won’t be because he swung at bad pitches.

Happ’s issue is that much of last year’s success seems to have come from luck. Like Kepler, hard contact can be a bug-a-boo for him and his expected batting average (xBA) was only in the 35th percentile. This is the story of Happ’s career, as the highest his xBA has been for his career is the 68th percentile in 2020. Otherwise, it’s never been higher than last year.

As to defense, he has a +16 DRS in left field and last season was really his one great year in the field.

Quickly pivoting, we should note that whomever the Yankees acquire to play left field won’t be in the Bronx long. Probably just a one or two-year commitment while Jasson Dominguez develops. In this case, Happ is an expiring contract while Kepler’s deal has a $10 million club option for 2024.

So who should Cashman prioritize in a trade? Kepler has his perks, but the switch-hitting Happ might be the smarter bet. Kepler has the superior glove and low strikeout rate, but the Yankees will basically ask him to change his whole approach as a hitter. That’s not only tougher than it sounds, but depends on Kepler and hitting coach Dillon Lawson being a good match.

In Happ’s case, it sounds like his issue is more he might actually need Lawson. The Cubs have had 14 hitting coaches in ten years, four of whom have worked with Happ in his six seasons. Not exactly a recipe for success for a young player, right?

Rather, in Happ, the Yankees would have a player who succeeds despite some shortcomings. Lawson’s aggressive emphasis on hitting strikes hard could be a boon for Happ. He’s certainly similar enough a player to Aaron Hicks that there could be something to unlock. He just won’t have the juiced balls illusion and massive investment/downside attached.

Kepler has upside, but the holes in the swing could be tough to correct. And even if the power doesn’t return, his contact hitting isn’t there like, say, Benintendi’s is.

Both will cost about the same in a trade, but Happ might cost slightly less since Chicago isn’t a playoff team. Let the Yankees pursue him instead of Kepler and get maybe one year of the switch-hitter they hoped to get with Hicks.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.