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February 20, 2008

Prospectus Today

Putting the Right Pegs in the Right Holes

by Joe Sheehan

The Yankees appear to have come around to the only proper solution to their convoluted outfield/first base/DH situation: Jason Giambi at first, Hideki Matsui at DH, and Johnny Damon in left field. This is far and away the best of the available options, largely because the non-Giambi choices at first base resemble little more than the stuff available in the reserve rounds of the AL LABR draft.

To review, Shelley Duncan's late-2007 impersonation of Shane Spencer aside, he's an inadequate solution as a first baseman. Prior to 2007 he had two weeks of experience above Double-A, and hadn't posted an OBP above .334 since A-ball, or slugged .500 as a professional. His .295/.380/.577 line at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre screams "peak," and his more typical .250/.330/.470 minor league numbers translate to "awful" in the majors. Morgan Ensberg may have been slighted by the Astros; even at that, only his very best years would have made him a viable first baseman, and he's a long way removed from those. Eric Duncan is in camp; he has a career .342 slugging average at Triple-A. Juan Miranda is 25-ish and posted acceptable numbers at High-A and Double-A last year, and is arguably the best of the second-tier candidates.

No, Jason Giambi is the best bet, even coming off a lousy .236/.356/.433 campaign, the second-worst year of his career. With his batting eye and some of his power intact, a .260/.375/.475 line is well within his reach, with below-average defense. That's not good, but it's also considerably better than anyone else in the mix will do. Note that PECOTA disagrees slightly: our projection system sees no bounceback for Giambi, projecting him for .235/.363/.453. Given that the difference between the two lines is a handful of singles, it's not worth going crazy over.

The difference between 2007 and 2008 is that in '07, the Yankees had Doug Mientkiewicz on hand. It was certainly a misguided notion, but signing Mientkiewicz to play first base was an attempt to sacrifice offense for defense by playing a known glove man at first. Remember just how badly Giambi had looked towards the end of '06, when Gary Sheffield and Johnny Damon were called in from the outfield to play first base. Also, Melky Cabrera had not established himself in center field a year ago, leaving that position open for Damon. Now, the idea of not having Cabrera-whose arm is a godsend for a team that played Damon and Bernie Williams for a decade-in center field is folly. His defense justifies his playing time.

Bobby Abreu is established in right field; even in decline, he brings OBP and a strong arm. That leaves Damon and Hideki Matsui. Damon is clearly the better left fielder, having retained his speed, even if it's a bit less than what he needs for center. That leaves Matsui and Giambi, and the former hasn't played any first base since coming to the US in 2003.

Once you start with the premise that Cabrera has to be the everyday center fielder, the rest of the dominoes fall naturally. Left unsaid, of course, is that Damon, Matsui, and Giambi are all signed to contracts that are unmovable, and there's no stomach for releasing any of them. In fairness, none of the deals are excruciating; the Damon deal has predictably looked worse two years in than it did on the day it was signed. The two years left on Matsui's contract are a tough call-his production, from a DH, isn't special, and he's not as durable as he was three years ago.

Joe Girardi will have options on a daily basis, of course. When a Chien-Ming Wang starts, you can sacrifice some outfield defense, using Damon in center and Matsui in left. Ensberg or Duncan should make the roster as a righty bat, someone Girardi can also use at first base or DH. Ensberg's OBP, past track record, and ability to fake playing third base or shortstop all make him the better option in that role. Given the age and recent histories of these players, the Yankees could actually use a fifth outfielder on the roster, although it's unclear if a 12-man pitching staff will allow for that. Oddly, while Brett Gardner is never going to develop into an everyday player, the skill set he currently possesses would make him an asset in that job right now.

Joe Girardi's true test isn't the position players, but the pitching staff, where he'll be challenged to contend in a tough division under crushing expectations while also developing three very good young pitchers. It is good to see, however, that he has alighted on the right answer to an early question. For a manager we really don't know very much about, every decision carries a little extra weight this spring.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Hideki Matsui

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