When Nick Johnson went down with a wrist injury in early May, the Yankees found themselves with a lineup problem. As with any team, they had no back-up plan for the designated hitter spot, and although Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi had spoke of their desires to use the DH as a rotation half-day spot for their aging veteran core, that move meant far too many at-bats for the likes of Francisco Cervelli and Ramiro Pena. It does the team no good if having an above-average designated hitter for a day leads to, in the cases of Pena and Cervelli, a combined 307 plate appearances of well below-average hitting.
As Johnson’s injury morphed into something that will probably be season-ending, the Yankees have scrambled a bit to fill the DH spot. Jorge Posada has earned the bulk of at-bats over the last few weeks, and while Marcus Thames can hit against lefties, his production against right-handed pitcher leaves him on the bench until the late innings. And so a meme emerged: The team needed a more permanent solution to the DH hole.
Recently, those rumblings have turned into full-fledged dissent by the Yankee faithful. Even with the arrival of Juan Miranda — a career minor league slugger with little Major League experience or success — commentators believed the Yankees would look to upgrade the designated hitter spot before the July 31st trade deadline. Adam Dunn could be had for the right price, and if the Yanks got creative, a few other hitters could wind up on the open market.
A funny thing happened on the way to trade deadline though. Down in Scranton, Jesus Montero got hot. His streak isn’t just your average hot streak; it’s a blistering, sweltering, Yankee Stadium-on-Old Timers’ Day hot. In 50 at-bats since the start of July, Montero is hitting .420/.531/.740 with four home runs. He’s walked 13 times and struck out just seven, the last K coming 10 days ago. After a horrendous cold stretch, Montero has, since June 1, poured it on. He’s hitting .329/.402/.584. He’s 20. He’s at AAA. Chew on that.
The drumbeat grew louder. Bring him up to DH, they say. He’ll hit at least as well as Juan Miranda and probably better. He’s truly the real deal, they say. I’ll admit it: I’m very, very tempted by the idea.
Yet, promoting Montero may just be an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. It’s true that the Yankees could use a more permanent solution at designated hitter, but their offense isn’t suffering. As their positional splits reveal, the Yankees have been above average at every position this year except three: 1B because of Juan Miranda and Nick Johnson’s production while in the field; 3B because of Kevin Russo and Ramiro Pena’s inability to hit; and CF because Curtis Granderson is having a disappointing season. Notice that for two of these positions, the rotating DH actually drags down the overall production to below-average totals. Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez individually are both putting up above-average OPSs relative to the league average at their positions.
At the DH spot, the Yankees aren’t suffering. Their make-shift DHs are putting together an sOPS+ of 111, far above the league average. (Considering the combined batting line of .244 with a .779 OPS for Yanks’ DHs, that’s a sad commentary on the state of American League DHs, but I digress.) Take a look at the positional breakdown:
On an individual level, the numbers are too small to draw many conclusions, but Juan Miranda’s and Marcus Thames’ production doesn’t look bad when we isolate their DH totals. In fact, both hitters are faring better than average in very limited plate appearances. At the very least, this platoon deserves an extended look.
This DH/Jesus Montero conundrum doesn’t end there. Right now, I have little doubt that Montero will be a productive bat in the Majors. I’m not sure the Yankees are convinced he’ll be a catcher, and I’m not sure there’s much to gain keeping him behind the dish at AAA for the sake of appearances. The Cliff Lee dealings illustrated how the Yankees value Montero, and if they truly saw him as the catcher of the future, he wouldn’t have been included in that trade. That title will be reserved, for now, for Austin Romine.
But the compelling reason to keep Montero in AAA is one of track record. Take a look at the list of 20-year-olds in the expansion era who had at least 200 PAs at the Major League level. With a few notable exceptions, these players all put up below average numbers. It’s just not easy to be 20 and a Major Leaguer. The Yanks need Montero to be great in the long run; they don’t need him to be merely adequate in 2010.
Barring a big deal, the DH spot will remain in flux for the Yankees. If Montero’s torrid stretch continues throughout August, we can reconsider the issue for September. But the Yanks keep winning, Montero keeps mashing, and we’ll patiently await a designated hitter and eventually Jesus Montero too.