The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Friday, November 14, 2008

 

Swish!

I've got an AL East Hot Stove preview up at Baseball Prospectus and mirrored at SI.com. In the preview I address four basic questions for each team. Here they are in the context of what I had to say about the Yankees:
What Do They Have? The Yankees' top asset is money, including more than $75 million in 2008 salaries coming off the books via the free agencies of Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano and Andy Pettitte. They'll need cold, hard cash to fulfill their biggest needs, since the values of their most tradable young players, Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano, are so depressed as to make selling low inadvisable. They have young, unproven pitching to deal, starting with Ian Kennedy, who fizzled (0-4, 8.17 ERA in nine starts) following a promising late-2007 showing. Phil Hughes, who will compete for a starting slot, is likely off limits, but names like Mark Melancon, a potential future closer, and Dellin Betances, a 6-foot-8 behemoth, could surface -- not that they'll be moved.

What Do They Need? In missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993, with an offense that slipped from an AL-best 6.0 runs per game in 2007 to a mid-pack 4.9 last year, the Yankee lineup looked increasingly outmoded. With Giambi and Abreu both free agents, they have holes at first base and right field, and it's imperative that they get younger at one position if not both. Further down the wish list is upgrading center field; Johnny Damon is in a defensive decline and Cabrera is taking a Triple-A refresher course. No less glaring is the need for starting pitching, given that 13 pitchers started for the Yankees last year, with the blueprint hinging on youngsters Joba Chamberlain, Hughes and Kennedy having blown up in GM Brian Cashman's face; all three got hurt, with the latter two so ineffective that they failed to garner a single win. Chamberlain and Chien-Ming Wang (also coming off injury) are assured spots, but the rest is up for grabs, and Cashman plans to overstock the larder to avoid repeating last year's Sidney Ponson-ocalypse.

What Are They Likely To Do? They'll pursue the biggest of big game, namely CC Sabathia, who will command a nine-figure deal, but will face competition from multiple teams including the Brewers, who have a $100 million offer already on the table. Expect them to chase former Red Sox nemesis Derek Lowe as well as A.J. Burnett, who opted out of the remainder of his five-year, $55 million deal in Toronto after setting career highs in innings, wins and strikeouts. They won't net all three but they'll shoot for two and augment that by re-signing either 20-game winner Mussina (if he surprises everyone and shuns retirement) or Pettitte, who's coming off his highest ERA since 1999. As for the lineup, [Mark] Teixeira is an ideal fit both offensively and defensively; he would also be the youngest regular aside from Cano and Cabrera. They'll need to break the $100 million mark to outbid the Angels, the Red Sox and others for his services. In right field they may offer the 35-year-old Abreu arbitration, a route that could net him a higher salary than he would average via the three-year deal he seeks but won't get here. They may also explore swapping Cabrera for the Brewers' Mike Cameron, but may have to sweeten the pot to get Milwaukee to bite.

What Should They Do? If the Yanks can only go nine figures on one player it should be Teixeira, given the need for youth and the dearth of A-list first basemen in the free-agent pool. Otherwise they face unappealing solutions like Kevin Millar or an aging Giambi. One alternative would be to trade for the aforementioned [Nick] Swisher, who can play first base, right field or even center field; he would provide flexibility as the winter market evolves. As for the pitching, Burnett's legacy of injuries should make a team still smarting from the Pavano and Jaret Wright debacles think twice. Lowe, by contrast, is a reliable groundballer who's every bit as effective and much more durable, with at least 32 starts in seven straight years.
Mere hours after that went up at BP, word came over the wire that the Yanks had in fact acquired Swisher in a five-player deal with the White Sox, sending futilityman Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez (a second-line pitching prospect whose stock fell with a lousy year in Triple-A) and Jhonny Nunez (a live arm acquired from the Nationals for infielder Alberto "Attorney General" Gonzalez) and receiving another live arm, Kanekoa Texeira (no relation to the first baseman; note the different spelling), in return.

This is a great first move by the Yanks given the switch-hitting Swisher's versatility. Though his .219 batting average was the lowest among batting title qualifiers (502 plate appearances), his .332 OBP and .410 SLG (via 24 homers) show that his raw skills are intact. As noted in the Rays' section of the BP piece (cut from the SI version, apparently, grumble grumble grumble), "He maintained his good power and plate discipline despite suffering through a season in which his BABIP [Batting Average on Balls In Play] fell by 52 points for no good reason given his line-drive rate." In other words, Swisher's drop in batting average was primarily due to bad luck, mainly via a .204 BABIP versus lefties; it was a still-low .266 versus righties. If the problem persists, he can be platooned with lefty-mashing Xavier Nady. Swisher, who'll be 29 later this month, is owed about $22 million including the buyout of his 2012 club option ($10.25 million); the Yanks' ability to take on salary strikes again.

As for Betemit, having watched him closely for the better part of the past two and a half years as a Dodger and a Yankee, I have to admit that I've turned bigger cartwheels upon him leaving than upon him arriving in both instances. A switch-hitter who can play all four infield positions in a pinch is a handy asset to have, but the guy is just less than the sum of his parts, a league leader in Equivalent Underwhelming. Granted, some of that may be managerial misuse; he needs a restraining order against lefthanded pitching, and his defensive numbers at third base are consistently below average via the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus system, totaling -17 over the last three years. He may have a big year in the homer-friendly confines of U.S. Cellular Field, and playing under Spanish-speaking Ozzie Guillen instead of crusty old farts like Bobby Cox, Grady Little, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi may indeed help his cause; I've started to wonder how much his frequent travels are related to makeup issues (he looks horrible in eyeliner!). I have no first-hand knowledge, but the way he stumbles into opportunties and then quickly gets cast aside leads me to believe he's got a lousy work ethic, a bad attitude or suspect hygiene. I wish him the best but won't be surprised at all if he continues sliding off the map.

Bac to the Yankees, what that means for their winter going forward is unclear. All signs indicate that they intend to blow Sabathia away with an offer that could be in the neighborhood of six years and $150 million once he hits the open market at midnight on Friday. At the very least it signals that Teixeira is a lower priority, which I think is a mistake. But Swisher prevents the Yanks from coming off as desperate in their pursuit; they no longer have the "Teixeira or Bust" sign around their necks, and that's a good thing.

Finally, I had plenty more to say about Teixeira on Wednesday's WWZN "Young Guns" radio spot, albeit more in the context of the Red Sox, as well as lots of other Hot Stove chatter. Check it out.

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