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January 20, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

A Big Bopper for the Bombers

by Jay Jaffe

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Last Friday, the Yankees pulled off a major trade, sending Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos. The move shores up the pinstripes' rotation both for 2012 and beyond, but it does create a vacancy at designated hitter, since the 22-year-old Montero was penciled in as the presumptive starter after a September audition in which he hit a searing .328/.406/.590 with four homers. While finding an adequately productive DH shouldn't be all that hard—the average AL DH hit .266/.341/.430 in 2011, while the Yankees’ DHs contributed a .251/.336/.450 line—Brian Cashman and company are up against some self-imposed financial constraints that make their task somewhat more challenging.

Via the Cots Contract figures and this week's arbitration avoidance news, the Yankees have $195.35 million already committed in salary, with the arbitration figures for Russell Martin, Boone Logan and Brett Gardner adding somewhere between $11.1 and $13.5 million to the payroll, and the salaries of pre-arbitration eligible Pineda, Ivan Nova, Eduardo Nunez, and Francisco Cervelli costing at least another $2 million, taking them to somewhere between $208.5 and $210.9 million. Based upon their recent payrolls and the remarks of team officials, the Yankees' ceiling is apparently around $213 million. Furthermore, they're determined to avoid long-term entanglements that threaten their ability to pare down to a $189 million payroll by 2014 in order to avoid steep luxury tax penalties—a 50 percent marginal tax rate as repeat offenders. That's why they're not simply going to throw money at Prince Fielder, even via a short-term, high-dollar deal.

The loss of Montero also closes off any likelihood of injecting youth into the lineup, which ranked as the league’s oldest at 30.6 years old in 2011. Just three starters are on the sunny side of 30—Brett Gardner (28), and Russell Martin and Robinson Cano (both 29)—though to be fair, just two are over 32, Derek Jeter (38 in June) and Alex Rodriguez (37 in July). Given the nature of the aging DH beast, the likelihood is that the Yankees will wind up with another player in that age bracket, particularly given their desire for a minimal expenditure of resources. With that in mind, here's a baker's dozen of options, some of them sensible, some of them farfetched, some of them downright impossible at this juncture.

Internal Options
The Tenth Man: Eduardo Nunez
One school of thought holds that given the ages of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees would be well-served by allowing each to spend a significant amount of the season getting a half-day's rest by DHing, with Nunez taking the field at either shortstop or third base in their place. As a 24-year-old rookie last year, Nunez hit .265/.313/.385 with five homers in 338 PA, for a .246 True Average, though he was a bit more effective (.282/.330/.406 from July 1 onward) with more regular play as both Jeter and Rodriguez served DL stints. The problem is that Nunez’s production is too light to fill the DH slot, and it's compounded by the fact that he's not a great defender either (-4 FRAA, and 20 errors in just 90 games at shortstop and third base). Based upon the current roster, the righty Nunez doesn't even fit into a platoon that would amplify his strengths and protect his weaknesses, so this option—like the player himself—is pretty much a nonstarter.

The Unknown Organizational Soldier: Jorge Vazquez
Vazquez spent nine years in the Mexican League before the Yankees signed him in 2009, and since then, he's bopped 63 homers for their Double-A and Triple-A affiliates in 1,058 plate appearances, including 32 last year for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Despite that power, Vazquez's lopsided .262/.314/.516 line and 166/25 strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio in 500 PA at Dunder Mifflin hint at the size of the holes in his swing and his game, holes that big-league pitchers can more easily exploit. The going-on-30-year-old righty is more likely doomed to another year as organizational depth instead of getting a chance to play regularly in the Bronx.

The Short Half of a Platoon To Be Named Later: Andruw Jones
Jones spent 2011 with the Yankees and wielded a potent bat off the bench, hitting .247/.356/.495 with 13 homers in just 222 PA. It wasn't a fluke, either; in three seasons since bottoming out with the Dodgers, he's hit .228/.338/.478 with 49 homers in 881 PA; all of his slash figures have increased each season. When he's not whipping up his patented slugger shakes, Jones remains capable of filling in at the outfield corners, and he’s particularly adept at mashing lefties; he has battered them at a .254/.374/.492 clip in 398 PA over the past three seasons, compared to .208/.308/.467 against righties. He’s already under contract with the Yankees for $2 million plus incentives (the Dodgers are still paying him $3.2 million a year in deferred money as well), so he doesn't cost anything extra, but the question is the identity of his platoonmate.

The Long Goodbye Long Half of a Platoon To Be Named Later: Jorge Posada
The 40-year-old Posada recently stated his intention to retire, but that was before Montero was traded. While his overall numbers last year weren't so hot (.235/.315/.398, for a .251 True Average), Posada did hit .269/.348/.466 with 14 homers in 316 PA against righties, and .294/.371/.474 after the Big Sitdown. If the desire to remain a Yankee were still there, he'd obviously have to accept a salary considerably less than the $13.1 million he made in each of the past four years. It makes a certain amount of sense, but Posada has since reiterated that he’s not coming back.

The Devil They Know
When Johnny Comes Marching Home: Johnny Damon
Damon spent 2006-2009 with the Yankees, helping them win a world championship with a memorable bit of baseruning derring-do before departing as a free agent. In the two seasons since then, he's seen his power evaporate, hitting .266/.340/.409 with 24 homers—as many as he hit in 2009 alone—while playing half his games in the pitcher-friendly parks of Detroit and Tampa Bay. Once you adjust for that environment, his .280 True Average and 4.1 WARP in that span don't look nearly so bad. Given his left-handedness and history of success at NuYankee Stadium (.270/.370/.524 with 19 homers in 363 PA), he looks like an exceptional fit even at age 38.

Godzilla vs. Father Time: Hideki Matusi
Like Damon, Matsui helped the Yankees win in 2009; in fact, he was the World Series MVP. Like Damon, his stats have sagged since then—a virtually identical .262/.340/.415 for a .282 TAv and 3.4 WARP—while playing in a pair of pitcher-friendly environments in Anaheim and Oakland. Like Damon, he's entering his age-38 season, though he doesn't turn 38 until June, whereas Damon celebrated his birthday in November. Like Damon, Matsui has hit well at NuYankee Stadium (.268/.353/.485 with 17 homers in 343 PA). The one discernible advantage Matsui may have on Damon is a stronger track record as a DH, .270/.349/.453 in 2,007 PA, most of them over the last three years, compared to Damon's .268/.342/.407 in 1,632 PA, most of them over the past two years. Given that Matsui made just $4.25 million plus incentives last year, he'd probably fit into the Yankees’ budget without too much trouble, though the same could be said for Damon, who made $5.25 million. Either option is hardly the worst out there.

The Utility Drawer: Wilson Betemit
Another possible Bronx reunion would be to bring back the free agent Betemit, who spent part of 2007 and all of 2008 as a pinstriped reserve before being sent to the White Sox in the Nick Swisher deal. Now 30 years old, the switch-hitting utilityman has enjoyed a renaissance over the past two years, hitting .290/.359/.479 with 21 homers in 674 PA for the Royals and Tigers, good for a .295 TAv and 3.4 WARP. Much stronger against righties (.292/.363/.486 from 2009-2011) than lefties, he would fit into a platoon with Jones, and has the virtue of being able to spot at the infield corners as well; he’d just as easily fill the Eric Chavez role if a better option comes along in-season. Betemit made just $1 million last year, and hasn't made more than $1.3 million in a single season; an offer of $2 million with a guarantee of playing time might feel like a winning lottery ticket.

The Devil They Don’t Know
The One That Got Away: Jack Cust
On Tuesday night, the Internet spontaneously burst into flames at the news that Jack Cust had netted a two-year deal from the Astros. That turned out to be an exaggeration; it was simply one year plus an option, and for a measly $600,000 salary at that. After hitting .247/.381/.457 for a .307 TAv during four years in Oakland, the 33-year-old Cust is coming off a rough year in which he hit just .213/.344/.329 with three homers in 270 PA for the Mariners (a .254 TAv) before drawing his release. Obviously, he'd have worked cheap, but when his agent came calling, the Yankees weren't ready to strike a deal. Alas.

The Stiff: Raul Ibanez
In the finale of a three-year, $31.5 million deal with the Phillies, the 39-year-old Ibanez flatlined, hitting just .245/.289/.419 with 20 homers in 575 PA. Most disconcertingly, his unintentional walk rate collapsed from 9.0 percent in 2010 (when he hit .275/.349/.444) to 5.2 percent, suggesting that pitchers felt much more emboldened to challenge him, that he expanded his strike zone considerably, or both. Furthermore, Ibanez’s road performance, which had been awful in 2010 (.246/.321/.384), was downright ghastly in 2011 (.210/.261/.317). Yankee Stadium is a more hitter-friendly environment than Citizens Bank Park, but age and sagging production make Ibanez a much less appealing option than some of the alternatives.

The Outer Borough Headache Exchange Program: Jason Bay
After missing the last two months of the 2010 season due to a concussion, Bay hit just .245/.329/.374 with 12 homers for the Mets last year, for a .263 True Average and just 1.2 WARP. The 33-year-old righty is owed $35 million for 2012-2013, with a $3 million buyout for a $17 million club option that can vest with either 600 PA in 2013 or 500 PA in both 2012 and 2013. Even with Citi Field's fence adjustments likely to help his cause, the Mets don't have much need for an expensive, defensively limited outfielder. They also lack depth in their rotation—assuming Johan Santana starts the year on the disabled list, rookie Chris Schwinden appears to be the number five—whereas the Yankees now have Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes, and A.J. Burnett to squeeze into the fifth spot. Burnett's $33 million in remaining salary is close enough to Bay's to make this work, though Bay would have to waive his no-trade clause (perhaps not a hard sell given the unlikelihood of the Mets contending before his deal is over), and Burnett would likewise have to remove the Mets from his limited no-trade list, if indeed they're on there. The Yankees could easily avoid letting Bay's option vest, and might get a rebound from a player who hit .267/.384/.537 with 36 homers for the Red Sox back in 2009.

The Outlaw: Manny Ramirez
Speaking of headaches… After being informed that he had violated MLB's drug policy, Ramirez abruptly retired last April. He has since filed for reinstatement, and will only have to serve a 50-game suspension, which would make him available sometime in late May. If he's healthy—something he definitely was not in 2010, when he nonetheless hit .298/.409/.460 in 320 PA while serving three separate DL stints and undergoing off-season surgery to repair a sports hernia—he may still have some life in his bat. Ramirez will turn 40 in May, and since most AL teams have already ruled him out, he won't cost much, particularly on a minor-league deal prorated to account for his suspension. He also won't have a long leash for conduct that is anything short of model citizenship.

The Itinerant Engineer: Carlos Pena
Pena has passed this way before; back in 2006, he spent four months with the Yankees' Triple-A Columbus affiliate, waiting for a call that never came. Since then, he's done time with the Red Sox, Rays, and Cubs, reestablishing his credentials as a low-average, high-walk, high-power hitter after fizzling in Detroit. The going-on-34-year-old hit .225/.357/.462 with 28 homers and 101 walks for the Cubs last year, good for a .288 True Average and 2.2 WARP. He's well-acquainted with the AL East wars, and his lefty power would be a good match for the Bronx ballpark; in 55 plate appearances there thus far, he's bashed six homers. The question is how much of a pay cut he's willing to take from last year's $10 million salary, and whether a player who's a more or less average defender at first base would be content with a DH spot.

The Future Hall of Famer: Vladimir Guerrero
Back in the winter of 2003-2004, Vlad the Impaler was the top free agent on the market, but the Yankees’ financial inflexibility limited their ability to offer him a long-term deal. They instead turned to Gary Sheffield, while Guerrero signed with the Angels; with a monster September in the heat of a tight division race, he beat out Shef for that year's AL MVP award. That's ancient history, though, and while Guerrero's name still has a certain cachet—with nine All-Star appearances, 2,590 hits, and 449 homers, he's Cooperstown-bound—he's approaching his 37th birthday, and coming off a .290/.317/.416 season in which he set career lows in on-base and slugging percentages as well as homers (13) and WARP (0.1) despite playing half his games in hitter-friendly Camden Yards. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 0.9 WARP per year on .295/.332/.458 hitting, with two seasons in hitter havens (2010 in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington being the other). It has been a less-than-worthwhile return on the $29 million base salary he's been paid during that stretch, including $8 million last year. This is where the Yankees' financial limitations work in their favor, since Guerrero is more expensive but not appreciably better than several of the other options on this list.

Tiger Rag
The Yankees aren’t the only team suddenly in the market for a designated hitter. Earlier this week, the Tigers announced that Victor Martinez could miss the season due to a torn ACL suffered during off-season workouts. With a few obvious exceptions (the internal options and Cust), most of the players listed above could help the Tigers; Damon, Betemit and Pena have all played there in the past. Comerica Park is much more pitcher-friendly than Yankee Stadium, and it particularly hurts lefty hitters. Via The Bill James Handbook 2012:

Park

LHB-AVG

LHB-HR

RHB-AVG

RHB-HR

Yankee Stadium

102

143

102

117

Comerica Park

100

89

103

102

 As such, the righty options above—Vlad, Manny, and Bay—are the more relevant ones for Detroit’s needs, though Pena, Damon, or Matsui could at least make sense in the context of a platoon with Ryan Raburn (.282/.355/.547 vs. lefties from 2009-2011) or Delmon Young (.308/.345/.503 vs. lefties from 2009-2011), neither of whom is much of a defender. The Tigers had a payroll of just under $107 million last year, and they’ve got about that much committed for 2012 once you include pre-arb players, but they don’t have to contend with any luxury tax issues when it comes to increasing their payroll. Given their interest in Yoenis Cespedes, they’ve got at least some amount of flexibility.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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