07 February 2012

Yankees Search for Lefty DH

Rumors this morning indicate, not surprisingly, that the Yankees are looking to add a lefty bat to their roster and that the candidates for said position include Former Yankees Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, as well as Raul Ibanez.


OK, so Damon's not terrible. He hit .261/.326/.418 last year, including 29 doubles and 19 steals. Though not the youngest of the trio, he clearly has the youngest legs. Ibanez has not stolen more than four bases in a season since 2005 and Matsui has only 13 steals in his nine-year MLB career. Which means that Damon stands the best chance of being a useful bat next year, especially given the struggles of the other two in 2011.

Matsui hit a paltry .251/.321/.375 last year with only a dozen homers, though it's worth noting that some of that was the result of the Oakland Mausoleum. Baseball-Reference.com's park factor adjustment tool suggests that he'd have hit .271/.343/.403 in Yankee Stadium, making his 2011 numbers slightly more palatable, of not actually any more valuable. According to B-R, he was worth exactly ZERO Wins Above Replacement (WAR) last year and while mediocrity isn't useless on a baseball field, it's hardly something for a team competing for a championship to aspire to. Besides that, he's 37 years old now and hasn't played a full, healthy season since 2005.

Ibanez was signed by the Phillies as a free agent before the 2009 season for three years and $30 million, which resulted in significant amounts of laughing and mockery of the Phillies front office by almost anyone with a computer and an internet connection. But then something funny happened: Ibanez was awesome.

Well, he was awesome for two months, anyway. Despite having a career slash line of .286/.346/.472, Ibanez started his age-37 season hitting .312/.371/.656 with 22 homers in 62 games. Then he sustained a groin injury and when he came back he was a shell of his former self, sputtering to a .232 average with only 12 homers after the All-Star break. In fact, his overall performance in almost 400 games since mid-2009 has been .255/.321/.435 with 21 homers per 162 games, well-below his career averages and not likely to improve significantly as he approaches his fourth decade on Earth.

While not as injury-riddled as Matsui has been, Ibanez was frequently benched last year due to ineffectiveness and so only played about 140 games. The Yankees wouldn't need him to start every day, since he can't hit lefties at all anymore (.211/.232/.353 against them in 2011), but even his line against right-handers last year (.256/.307/.440) was uninspiring. Overall, expecting a full, productive year out of Ibanez seems foolish. 

And any thoughts of him spelling Nick Swisher or Brett Gardner at the outfield corners once in a while are misguided at best. Ibanez was a terrible defensive left fielder last year, 1.2 wins below a replacement level player, according to B-R, and this at perhaps the easiest defensive position on the field. That's what Justin Maxwell and Chris Dickerson are for. Even Andruw Jones (+0.4 defensive WAR in limited playing time) is a better option than Ibanez would be.

The trouble with Damon, apparently, is that he wants five million dollars, and the Yankees aren't comfortable with that. Hard to blame them, given that Damon himself is already 38 years old and has no defensive value at all, having not played more than a couple of dozen games in the field since 2009. And of course, if those legs of his give out, he'll be the next thing to worthless. 

The irony in all of this is that if the Yankees weren't The Yankees, they would have their pick of younger, cheaper options to fill this void. The Indians, for example, recently picked up the 2011 MVP of the International League, Russ Canzler, for "cash considerations" which is to say, almost nothing. No players, just money, and not very much of it, we presume. Maybe a million. Pocket change to a major league GM, even one from Tampa.

Canzler hit .314 with 18 homers and a .401 OBP for Durham last year, and will make the MLB minimum. He'll be 26 just after Opening Day, so he should be entering his prime as a hitter, and while it's possible that he's a "Quadruple-A" player, who can mash in the high minors but will get swallowed up by major league pitching, it's also possible that he'll be the next Erubiel Durazo or Brian Daubach, a minor league journeyman who just needed enough of a chance at the major league level to prove he could contribute.

The high minors are full of guys like Canzler. Aaron Bates, for example, was signed by the Twins to a minor league contract last year as roster filler, and promptly hit .316/.408/.439 for Rochester. He doesn't have a lot of power, but if he can produce like that in the majors he's an asset, even as a first baseman.

Cleveland's own AAA team featured OF Jerad Head, who hit .284 with 24 homers last season. Journeyman Dallas McPherson hit .283 with 20 homers for Charlotte in 2011. Jeremy Hermida hit .319 with 17 homers for Louisville last year, is 28 years old, is patient, a left handed hitter, and will come cheaply. John Bowker hit .306 with 15 homers for Indianapolis and also hits from the left side. Even the Yankees themselves have such a player: Jorge Vazquez, an almost 30-year old corner infielder who hit 32 homers for Scranton Wilkes-Barre last year, albeit with only 30 walks and 166 whiffs.

None of these guys is on their major league affiliates' depth charts, according to ESPN, and presumably any of them can be had for a song. One of them may give as much value or more to a major league team than the likes of Matsui and Ibanez, at this point in their careers, though they'll be no favorites of the sports betting types. The Yankees, however, rarely go in for the economically sound option, preferring instead the low-risk, known quantity types for such roles.

They can afford to spend a little more cash on a known entity like Damon or Ibanez and then, if they flop, just write them off and trade for someone else in July. Especially when considering that whomever they bring in for this role will only need to play one position for two-thirds of the season (against righties) and won't be expected to be a long term solution to this problem, it would seem that the Yanks have little reason to break from their usual patterns.

But it sure would be nice to see some Cinderella story make a dent in the Bronx this year.

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