What does Nick Johnson mean for the left field situation?By
Three Yankees who made significant contributions to the 2009 championship filed for free agency this winter: Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Andy Pettitte. By December 18, they’ve essentially replaced all three. Andy Pettitte re-signed last week to fill his own spot. The Yankees traded for Curtis Granderson to replace Damon, and the soon-to-be-announced signing of Nick Johnson fills Matsui’s vacated DH spot. The replacements are not exact facsimiles of their 2009 counterparts, but then again, no one is.
One question many of us had upon hearing of the Yanks interest in Johnson: what does it mean for left field? Melky Cabrera isn’t the worst choice. He was, after all, the starting center fielder on the 2009 team. The problems arise when Jorge Posada needs a day off. That means both Melky and Francisco Cervelli in the lineup. In a normal backup catcher situation that’s not a huge deal, but because we can’t expect Posada to catch more than 120 games (and even that’s very optimistic), it means a lot of both in the lineup.
Had the Yankees re-signed Damon, they could have mitigated the situation for some games. Instead of resting Posada a full day, sometimes he could have played DH, with Damon playing left field. Say Posada catches 110 games this season. Under the current system, the Yankees will have both Melky and Cervelli in the lineup for 52 games, or 32 percent of the season. But, if Posada can DH for 30 more games, for a total of 140, then the Yankees would only have both Melky and Cervelli in the lineup for 22 games. That sounds a lot better.
With Johnson in the fold, that’s not possible. It has made me, and many others, wonder if the Yankees now plan to sign or trade for a full-time left fielder. Though the chances appear remote, the Yankees could still sign Damon, though they’d have to play him in left basically every day. Do they still see him as a full-time left fielder? If not, it creates a logjam at DH, though those usually find a way to become unjammed. In fact, Damon might be the only possibility for another offensive addition. The left field trade market appears bleak, and there aren’t many, if any, free agent outfielders who interest the Yanks.
To not sign another left fielder, however, leaves the Yankees vulnerable. Nick Johnson comes with a long medical history, and is no guarantee to stay healthy the entire season. If something happens to him in 2010, the Yanks would be in a very tough spot. Without any further additions, they’d probably move Nick Swisher to DH and have an outfield of Cabrera, Granderson, and Brett Gardner. Defensively that’s stellar, but offensively it would be among the lightest hitting trios in the league. Further, imagine the lineup when Jorge needs a full day off. It’s not a scenario anyone wants to see.
Many Yanks fans, myself included, dream of Matt Holliday in this scenario. From a pure performance perspective, he represents an ideal fit. Not only does he play left field full time, but he provides a middle of the order bat. Just imagine the Yankees batting order:
The scenario, as of right now, remains unlikely. Without contracts for any of the arbitration-eligible and reserve clause players, the team payroll stands at about $188 million. Add in another $6 to $7 million for Melky, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre, plus the money to fill out the rest of the roster, and the number gets very close to $200 million. Will the Yankees go far above that for a left fielder? It doesn’t sound like it.
Holliday will not come cheap. As he does for all of his clients, Scott Boras seeks the most possible money for Holliday. The Cardinals reportedly have on the table a five-year offer for about $15 million per year. Even if the Yankees matched that and Holliday preferred New York, that would boost payroll to over $210 million, and close to $215 million. Imagine, then, if they wanted to add another starter. They could easily start the season with a payroll over $220 million. From everything the Yankees have said this off-season, that’s not part of the plan.
As we’ve mentioned many times before, adding Holliday doesn’t just affect this year’s payroll, but the payroll for the next five years. The Yankees might not want to add that kind of commitment when they already have $140 million committed to the 2011 team, and that’s before re-signing Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Cashman has also called next year’s free agency class “incredibly more impressive than this one,” so the Yanks might choose to wait this one out, add one more pitcher and call it an off-season. They can then make a move on perhaps a better free agent next off-season.
There’s a chance, as always, that the Yankees see the sense in adding Holliday at this point and decide to increase payroll for him. At yesterday’s Granderson press conference, Hal Steinbrenner seemed open to the idea, but reluctant. “I’m not saying yay (sic) or nay, but I’m saying we’re operating at this number and that’s that.” The chance is open, but given the immense commitment it would require, I doubt the Yankees move in that direction.
If they’re done shopping for an outfielder, the 2010 Yankees enter the season with a big risk. If healthy Nick Johnson is a great addition, but any injury would leave the Yankees offense in a tough spot. Even if they add another good starting pitcher, that’s a rough bottom of the order. I’d like to see them add a higher caliber left fielder, but given the roster and payroll constraints, I don’t expect it.