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Musical Chairs: The Outfield and DH

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On November 25, 2008 @ 11:17 am In Cliff Corcoran,Hot Stove | Comments Disabled

The Yankees have a lot of parts that could use some fixin’. The team has decided to focus on the starting rotation despite the many young starting pitching prospects working their way up through the organization. Last week, I largely focused on first base, where the Yankees have a big hole and the free agent market offers the perfect player to fill it. During the 2008 season, two major areas of concern were second base and catcher, but the Yankees have very talented players signed to long-term contracts at each of those positions, both of which are very shallow in terms of the talent available league-wide. Third base is not broken, nor, for the moment is shortstop or the bullpen, but the Yankees’ outfield and designated hitter situation very much is.

Here are the players who started for the Yankees at the three outfield positions and DH last year:

Player Starts LF CF RF DH Stats OPS+
Bobby Abreu 152 - - 148 4 .296/.371/.471 120
Johnny Damon 133 75 33 - 25 .303/.375/.461 118
Melky Cabrera 112 1 109 2 - .249/.301/.341 68
Hideki Matsui 88 20 - 2 66 .294/.370/.424 108
Xavier Nady 58 45 - 6 7 .268/.320/.474 105
Brett Gardner 32 15 17 - - .228/.283/.299 53
Jason Giambi 26 - - - 26 .247/.418/.506 140*
Jorge Posada 15 - - - 15 .231/.365/.385 97*
Justin Christian 10 6 3 1 - .250/.320/.325 65
3 others 13 - - 3 10
Total LF 162 162 - - - .284/.349/.427 98*
Total CF 162 - 162 - - .261/.320/.391 89*
Total RF 162 - - 162 - .290/.362/.451 104*
Total DH 153 - - - 153 .282/.378/.461 118*

*adjusted for position

Center field was a disaster, the aggregate numbers at the position having been inflated slightly by Johnny Damon’s .294/.378/.529 line in 33 starts there. With Damon helping out in center and DH, the team’s performance in left field dipped below average. Designated hitter was also buoyed by Damon, but even moreso by the outstanding work of Jason Giambi, who has since departed as a free agent, as well as seven strong starts from Alex Rodriguez (.333/.414/.625). Meanwhile, Bobby Abreu, who started all but ten games in right field and kept that position in the black, has also headed off to find perhaps his final fortune as a free agent, leaving right field in the hands of Xavier Nady, whose .268/.320/.474 line as a Yankee was a far more accurate representation of his abilities than the .330/.383/.535 he hit in Pittsburgh over the first four months of the season. Last year, the average right fielder hit .276/.347/.451. Nady’s career line is .280/.335/.458, and he’s a sub-par defender.

Here are the Yankees’ other in-house options in the outfield:

Player Age* Level LF CF RF DH 2008 Stats OPS+
Johnny Damon 35 MLB 75 33 - 25 .303/.375/.461 118
Hideki Matsui 34 MLB 20 - 2 66 .294/.370/.424 108
Xavier Nady 30 MLB 45 - 88 8 .305/.357/.510 128
Nick Swisher 28 MLB 16 69 11 - .219/.332/.410 92
Melky Cabrera 24 MLB 1 109 2 - .249/.301/.341 68
Brett Gardner 25 AAA 20 71 - - .296/.414/.422 -
Justin Christian 29 AAA 44 19 3 1 .306/.357/.444 -
Shelley Duncan 29 AAA 3 - 21 17 .239/.365/.483 -
Austin Jackson 22 AA 2 111 - 17 .285/.354/.419 -
Colin Curtis 24 AA 92 23 1 14 .255/.329/.368 -

*on Opening Day 2009

The problem with this list is that the Yankees’ best outfielder (setting aside the career year Nady won’t repeat) is their oldest, while their youngest (from among those with major league experience) is their worst. As it stands now, the Yankees have a giant hole in center field, a rapidly aging DH coming off knee surgery who is no longer viable in the field (Matsui), an average-at-best right fielder, and a 35-year-old Johnny Damon in left with little on the way other than Austin Jackson, who just hit .246/.298/.377 in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League and has yet to play above Double-A.

The good news is that there are some free agent solutions out there, but the Yankees need to clear the decks a bit to make room for them. Specifically, the Yankees should try to trade any or all of their thirty-something outfielders, with particular focus on selling high on Nady, whose value will never be higher than it is right now coming off that career year while still in his arbitration years. Such a trade would be less about what the Yankees could get in return for Nady, or Matsui, or even Damon, and more about getting something for them while making room for better, younger players.

First compare the career lines of Nady and switch-hitting Nick Swisher, the latter of whom is two years younger and both a superior and more versatile fielder (though he’s not really a viable full-time option in center field):

Player Age Hits Career Stats OPS+
Nick Swisher 28 Both .244/.354/.451 112
Xavier Nady 30 Right .280/.335/.458 108

Note that those career rates follow a season in which Nady played far above his established level, while Swisher played well below his. The Yankees did the right thing by buying low on Swisher, now they need to finish the job by selling high on Nady.

Matsui and Damon are both entering the final year of their matching four-year contracts. Damon is a candidate for trade because of his value. Some teams might still be willing to play him in center, he’s coming off a career-high OPS+ in 2008, and despite hitting the DL for the first time in his career last year, he played more games than in 2007 and hasn’t played fewer than 141 games since he was a rookie in 1995. Matsui is a candidate for trade because he’s gumming up the works because his knee problems have rendered him a full-time DH, thus impinging the Yankees’ roster flexibility. Unfortunately, his value is likely as low as it’s ever been.

With Nady, Matsui, and/or Damon out of the way, the Yankees could cast their net toward one of the three reliably productive free agent outfielders on the market:

Player Age* 2008 Stats OPS+ VORP Games-Position
Manny Ramirez 37 .332/.430/.601 164 84.1 119-LF, 31-DH
Adam Dunn 29 .236/.386/.513 129 37.4 119-LF, 23-RF, 19-1B, 2-DH
Pat Burrell 32 .250/.367/.507 125 34.8 155-LF

*as of June 1, 2009

Ramirez dominates the competition in terms of pure production, though it’s unclear exactly what the Yankees would get out of Manny when he’s not playing for a new contract. In his final season and a half with the Red Sox, Ramirez hit .297/.392/.508, which is much closer to the 2008 lines of Dunn and Burrell, who are two of the most consistent hitters in baseball. In each of the last four seasons, Burrell has posted an OPS+ between 122 and 128 and played in a minimum of 144 games, playing between 154 and 157 in three of those seasons. Dunn, meanwhile, has hit exactly 40 home runs in each of the last four seasons, has posted an on-base percentage between .386 and .388 in four of the last five seasons, and has played in fewer than 152 games just once since 2002.

None of the three are good fielders, but Ramirez is alarmingly erratic, and Burrell is a statue, while Dunn saw an uptick in his fielding stats last year and has the flexibility to play left, right, or first base. Dunn also averages about eight stolen bases a year at a 75 percent success rate, which suggests he’s not quite as immobile as his big frame would suggest. Given the fact that the Yankees have no long-term solution in place for their outfield issues, there’s no reason for them not to offer Dunn, the youngest player on the above list and the only left-handed hitter, a four-year deal, particularly given the fact that Dunn tends to be undervalued around the game due to his low batting averages and high strikeout totals, stats the Yankees should be able to look past. That said, the Yankees will want to maintain some flexibility as Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, and Carl Crawford are all due to become free agents after the 2009 season.

Of course, none of that solves the biggest problem the Yankees have entering the 2009 season, which is their hole in center field. Brett Gardner is an excellent defender and a tremendous weapon on the bases. If can he hit like he did in Triple-A last year, he’ll be a tremendous upgrade over the Yankees’ center fielders of 2008, but that’s a huge “if,” particularly given the fact that he was one of those 2008 center fielders. Then again, Gardner hit .300/.347/.414 in his 18 games in center field for the Yankees last year, so there is some hope there. There’s less hope for Melky Cabrera, who was largely responsible for the Yankees’ poor showing in center last year and whose production at the plate has only gone backwards since he made his proper debut playing primarily in left field in 2006. Jackson needs at least a full year at Triple-A. What the Yankees need, then, is a stop-gap, a veteran who could be had on a one-year deal who can offer high upside while allowing Gardner to be Plan B rather than the default center fielder.

Enter Jim Edmonds. Edmonds will be 39 in June, has a dreadful injury history, and was actually released by the Padres early last year, but after catching on with the Cubs in mid-May, he hit .256/.369/.568 (136 OPS+), while blasting 19 homers in 85 games. He’s no longer the highlight-reel gold glover he used to be, but he’s still a capable defender. No one is going to give him a multi-year deal, but he was still healthy at the end of the year, and the Yankees have very little to lose by bringing Edmonds in and hoping the future Hall of Famer has one more outburst like that left in his bat. While the Yankees would have to balance an offer for Dunn with their other big-money offers to players such as Mark Teixeira or any of a number of starting pitchers, a one-year deal for Edmonds wouldn’t impact their ability to sign any other free agents. It’s a move they’d be foolish not to make.

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