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Nothing But Net?

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On November 14, 2008 @ 1:23 am In Cliff Corcoran,Hot Stove | Comments Disabled

“Swisher is a rare point of agreement between Paul’s computer and the interal compass of an old baseball guy. He has the raw athletic ability the scouts adore; but he also has the stats Billy [Beane] and Paul [DePodesta] have decided matter more than anything: he’s proven he can hit, and hit with power; he drew more than his share of walks. . . .

“Swisher is noticeable, isn’t he?” says Billy, hoping to hear more about what Swisher looks like. How Swisher really is.

“Oh, he’s noticeable,” says an old scout. “From the moment he gets off the bus he doesn’t shut up.”

–from Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Nick Swisher was the first player taken in the Oakland A’s 2002 “Moneyball” draft and the 16th overall, a pick the A’s received as compensation when the Red Sox signed Johnny Damon. With the 17th pick, the Phillies drafted a left-handed high school pitcher named Cole Hamels. The son of major leaguer Steve Swisher and a product of Ohio State University, Swisher needed just two and a half seasons to work his way up the A’s ladder and in 2005 he was their starting right fielder at age 24. Swisher spent the next two seasons splitting time between first base and all three outfield positions. By his 27th birthday, a little less than a year ago, he was had established himself as the best hitter in the A’s weak offense with a career .251/.361/.464 line, a tick below his .261/.379/.476 career line in the minors.

[1]The A’s had signed Swisher to a five-year deal the previous May, buying out his arbitration years for what amounted to $24.55 million over four years with a $10.25 million option for 2012, but on January third of this year, the rebuilding A’s traded Swisher and his new contract to the White Sox for outfielder Ryan Sweeney and a pair of pitching prospects.

Swisher began the 2008 season as the White Sox’s center fielder, almost by default. After a quick start, his average and power numbers began to plummet, soon followed by his signature on-base percentage. Swisher hit rock bottom at the end of May, then recovered with a strong June (.315/.402/.630), but hit the skids again in July only to see his playing time diminish after the trading-deadline arrival of center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. With the White Sox in a pennant race, Swisher made just six starts over the season’s final two weeks and appeared only as a defensive replacement at first base in Chicago’s one-game playoff against the Twins. He started just once in the Chisox’s four-game ALDS loss to the Rays, going 1 for 3 with a pair of walks in their Game 2 loss and popped out in a Game 4 pinch-hitting appearance.

All together, Swisher hit just .219/.332/.410 while splitting his season between center and first base, with some additional work in the outfield corners. According to ESPN’s Keith Law [2], Swisher suffered through:

. . . a horrific year, looking slow and even apathetic, almost as if his patience at the plate was the result of indifference rather than a desire to work the count. He can still run into a ball if a pitcher makes a mistake, but his bat was slow and he would foul off average fastballs and miss plus heat entirely.

Our YES pal, Steven Goldman [3] sees Swisher’s down year differently:

If you look inside Swisher’s stats, you will see that his line-drive rates were actually up from 2006 and 2007, but his batting average on balls in play dropped by 52 points from 2007 to 2008. In other words, he was still hitting balls hard, but they were caught at an abnormally high rate. We call this bad luck, maybe very bad luck. If he doesn’t overreact by tying his swing into a pretzel, he’s an extremely good candidate to rebound.

Steve also points to Swisher’s bizzare home-road split, which saw him hit a typical .247/.361/.517 at U.S. Cellular, but a miserable .189/.301/.294 on the road, this a year after hitting .270/.376/.474 in his road grays for the A’s, as another likely indication of a fluky season.

The Yankees certainly hope Goldman, not Law, has the right take on Nick the Swish, because he’s their problem now. The Yankees acquired Swisher and the $21.05 million over three years remaining on his contract from the White Sox yesterday along with minor league closer Kanekoa Texeira for infielder Wilson Betemit, Triple-A starter Jeff Marquez, and Double-A reliever Jhonny Nuñez.

If Swisher does indeed rebound from his lost season, the Yankees will have acquired a very handy player. Soon to be 28, Swisher is a switch hitter with more power from the left side, but superior contact and on-base skills from the right side. He’s also a very versatile defender, capable of good-to-excellent work at first base or the outfield corners, who can play center in a pinch (though he really oughtn’t). Best of all, the Yankees gave up little of significance to get Swisher, a fact they likely owe to the White Sox’s disappointment in his 2008 performance and resultant desire to unload his contract.

Once a shortstop prospect with the Braves, Wilson Betemit is now an offense-first utility infielder who hit .253/.285/.425 as a Yankee. Though ostensibly a switch-hitter, Betemit has hit just .232/.276/.360 from the right side in his major league career. He’s also a poor defender and is entering his second year of arbitration at age 27. A good indication of his remaining value is the fact that the Yankees seemed likely to favor minor league veteran Cody Ransom as their primary utility man even before this trade went down.

Jeff Marquez is a right-handed sinkerballing starter whose stock dropped precipitously upon his debut in Triple-A last year. The Yankees first supplemental-round pick in 2004, Marquez was taken right after Phil Hughes and was expected to follow Hughes into the major league rotation, but he’s been undone by nose-diving strikeout rates, and a decline in his groundball rate. He was awful in his first two months at Triple-A this year, and once he started to right his ship in June, he suffered a strained lat that robbed him of July. He pitched well after being activated in August, but found himself stuck back at Double-A, a victim of the organizational pitching crunch that has rendered him expendable chafe. Marquez is just 24, so he still has some time to get back on track, but he’s beginning to look more like a future middle-reliever than a major league starter.

Finally, Jhonny Nuñez was the righty reliever acquired from the Nationals for utility infielder Alberto Gonzalez at this year’s trading deadline. A lanky Dominican who will turn 23 at the end of the month, Nuñez could prove to be the best player the Yankees gave up in this deal as he struck out 116 men in 108 1/3 innings across three teams and two levels in 2008. Newly converted from starting, he posted a 1.65 ERA while striking out 34 in 27 1/3 Double-A innings this year and could move quickly into the White Sox’s pen if he’s able to keep his walks under control (as it were).

Compensating for the negligible loss of Nuñez, the Yankees got an even better righty reliever in return from the White Sox in Hawaiian Kanekoa Texeira. A slim sidearmer with a put-away slider, Texeira (who, despite his strengths is more than just an “i” short of being the player the Yankees most need right now) was a late-round draft pick out of Saddleback College in 2006. He dominated the Appalachian Rookie League that summer, acquitted himself well as the Sox’s Sally League closer in 2007, and graduated from closing in the Carolina League this summer to turn in 15 strong outings for Double-A Birmingham. Like Nuñez, Texeira strikes out more than a man an inning, but with fewer walks, virtually no homers (three in 144 1/3 professional innings), low hit rates, and experience closing ballgames. Texeira might feel like a throw-in right now, but he could start the season at Triple-A (if there’s room) and could make his way onto the major league roster by the end of the season. However, if he doesn’t come that quickly, he won’t require a spot on the 40-man roster this eason, whereas Marquez was already taking one up, and Nuñez would have required one lest he be left available in next month’s Rule 5 draft. Thus the Yankees have effectively opened up two roster spots in with this swap.

On a pure accounting level, this trade is an easy win for the Yankees, but the true impact remains to be seen. Right now, Brian Cashman [4] is propping Swisher up as the Yankees’ starting first baseman in 2009. That’s a sign of trouble. Swisher is a 30-VORP player at his absolute best and is coming off a poor season in which he was just 4.2 runs above replacement. Jason Giambi gave the Yankees 32.5 VORP at first base last year. Swisher makes the Yankees younger and improves their defense almost by default, but if he’s charged with replacing Giambi, he won’t make them better.

Next to his solid on-base ability, Swisher’s defensive versatility is his greatest asset. Indeed, he would be most useful as a roving outfielder able to play right field against righties–thereby platooning with Xavier Nady, who has little hope of replacing Bobby Abreu’s 36.1 VORP in right field by himself–and left field against lefties, giving Johnny Damon and DH Hideki Matsui some much needed days off. Perhaps better still, Swisher’s presence should allow the Yankees to pull off a subsequent deal that would rid them of the rapidly aging and increasingly immobile DH Matsui, the currently overvalued Nady (trading high just as they bought low on Swisher), or even Damon, who is the most valuable of those three incumbents, but seems capable of a Bernie Williams-type collapse at any time.

None of that, however, includes a solution to the Yankees gaping hole at first base, which is custom-made for the real Teixeira. That’s a topic for another post, but to my mind, failing to sign Teixeira would be a Beltran-level blunder, a crippling blow to the Yankees’ team-building that it would take them years to overcome, just as they are still struggling to solve their hole in center field. If the acquisition of Swisher turns the Yankees’ attention away from Teixeira, the trade will be a disaster, no matter how advantageous it might appear on paper.

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URLs in this post:

[1] Image: http://bronxbanter.arneson.name/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/swisher-nick-2008.jpg

[2] ESPN’s Keith Law: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/blog/index?entryID=3701258&name=law_keith

[3] Steven Goldman: http://www.yesnetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080925&content_id=1455903&oid=36019&vkey=6

[4] Brian Cashman: http://yankees.lhblogs.com/2008/11/13/cashman-talks-about-the-swisher-deal/

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