What Went Wrong: Nick The (Injured) Stick

Report: CC set for minor surgery on right knee
Prospect Profile: Cito Culver

Over the next week or two or three, we’re going to recap the season that was by looking at what went right as well as what went wrong for the 2010 Yankees.

(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

In the aftermath of their 2009 World Series celebration, the Yankees were facing several tough decisions with stalwart players. Both Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui were free agents after their identical four-year, $52MM contracts expired, but Brian Cashman and the rest of the brain trust remained in “get younger and more athletic” mode. Despite all of their postseason heroics, Damon and Matsui were still a pair of 36-year-olds last winter, with the latter having significant concerns about the health of his knees.

The first domino fell barely a week into December, when the Yankees swung a three-team trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York. That filled the vacant outfield spot, leaving the designated hitter’s job the only one left open. Matsui took himself out of the running five days after the Grandy trade by signing a one-year deal with the Angels at 50% pay cut. His reason for signing quickly was sound; he didn’t want to be shut out in a market that getting more and more unkind to DH types. Understandable.

Damon and Scott Boras were sticking to their guns about a multi-year deal without a significant pay cut, and the two sides were still worlds apart on a deal after the Grandy trade. With Johnny and Boras playing hard-to-get, the Yankees moved on to a familiar face to fill the DH hole, signing Nick Johnson to a one-year deal a week after Matsui went to SoCal. The contract was worth just $5.5M with incentives tied to plate appearances, very reasonable considering the $13M both Damon and Matsui made last year.

Everyone knew about Johnson’s laundry list of injury trouble, but there were reasons to be optimistic about his ability to stay on the field in 2010. After missing all of 2007 and most of the 2008 season, he stayed on the field for 574 plate appearances in 2009, his most since 2006 and the second most of his career. Getting him out of the field and resting comfortably as a designated hitter also figured to help him stay fresh and in the lineup. And, of course, a man with a .402 career on-base percentage (.426 in 2009, third best in baseball) figured to make baseball’s best lineup even more potent. The Yankees had their new DH, and Damon eventually found a one-year deal in Detroit.

The trouble for Johnson started almost right away. He missed the team’s second Spring Training game with a stiff back, brought about when he caught a spike in batting practice. The lower back issue popped back up in late April, causing NJ to miss two games and three days. Through the season’s first 27 games, Johnson remained a strong on-base threat (.396 OBP) but he wasn’t doing much with the stick (.171 AVG, .143 ISO). The Yanks were in Fenway Park on May 7th, and Johnson was in the lineup as the DH and in his customary second spot in the lineup. His first at-bat resulted in the second of three straight Josh Beckett strikeouts, and his second trip to the plate resulted in a weak groundout to the second baseman to lead off the fourth. That was the last time we would see Johnson in 2010.

Marcus Thames pinch hit one inning later, replacing Johnson who was sidelined a sore wrist. It was the same wrist he had surgery on in 2008, causing him to spend 137 total days on the disabled list. An MRI revealed an inflamed tendon, and the original diagnosis had NJ missing several weeks. Less than two weeks later, Johnson was on the surgeon’s table after a cortisone failed to do the trick. Three months after that, the same wrist was sore yet again, and one week later he was again having surgery. All told, Johnson spent 166 days on the disabled list in 2010, falling short of the very modest 100 plate appearance plateau, finishing with just 98.

Looking back, it’s clear the team (and us fans as well) was mesmerized by the potential of having someone reach base 40+% of the time in front of Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, and who wouldn’t be? The problem was that Johnson offered little in the way of power (though 20 homers in Yankee Stadium was very possible) and even less in terms of dependability and durability. Even if the Yanks declined to meet Damon’s demands, better (and cheaper) DH targets like Jim Thome ($1.5M) and Russell Branyan ($2M) didn’t come off the board until late in the offseason. That obviously comes with the benefit of hindsight, however.

For all intents and purposes, what played out was the worst case scenario for both the Yankees and Johnson. The team had to scramble to find a replacement DH, eventually trading a pair of young players at the deadline to fill the hole, and Johnson now faces an uncertain winter coming off surgery. Cashman admitted during Monday’s press conference that Johnson was his Plan C at DH, behind Damon and Matsui. He might as well have called him Plan K, because the 2010 edition of Nick Johnson was a big fat whiff.

Report: CC set for minor surgery on right knee
Prospect Profile: Cito Culver
  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    Damon and Scott Boras were sticking to their guns about a multi-year deal without a significant pay cut, and the two sides were still worlds apart on a deal after the Grandy trade.

    “Worlds apart” may be underselling it. They were galaxies apart.

    • Andy In Sunny Daytona

      Inhabitable worlds apart.

  • Fair Weather Freddy

    Its safe to say Johnson and Vazquez were the biggest mistakes of 2010. Gladly, its time to forget them and move on.

    • http://www.secondavenuesagas.com Benjamin Kabak

      Vazquez was a throw-in part of the Boone Logan trade, right?

      • Joe West’s Music Career

        I lol’d. At work. They’re all looking at me funny now.

    • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

      Vazquez ended up having about a 0.0 WAR, which (considering how bad he was early at late) shows that he did have value in the middle months. He was as much a reason as any that the Yankees were able to coast through June and July, giving them enough of a buffer to play poorly later and still make the playoffs comfortably. Johnson really didn’t do much of anything. Call me a Javy defender or whatever, but he wasn’t a total failure.

      • Mister Delaware

        Wow. I thought I was the last of the Vazquez defenders and even I chuckled (with admiration) at that attempt.

      • Slugger27

        dude… come on

        even darrell rasner is laughing at how bad javy pitched this year. the guy didnt make the postseason roster… you wouldn’t call that a failure?

        He was as much a reason as any that the Yankees were able to coast through June and July, giving them enough of a buffer to play poorly later and still make the playoffs comfortably

        if you typed that with a straight face, im thoroughly impressed

        • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

          if you typed that with a straight face, im thoroughly impressed

          Javy Vazquez, June and July: 6-2, 3.28 ERA. The Yankees were 8-3 in games he started during those two months. So yes, I say it with a straight face. I’m not saying the guy wasn’t awful at times, but to call him a total failure is too extreme, in my opinion.

          • Slugger27

            you really don’t see the humor in a statement like that?? it would be like me saying “jeter hit like melky cabrera all year, but that stretch he had in may that was pretty good really helped the yanks”… or “aj was replacement level for most of the season, but for those 4 games in april he was really good… at that enabled the yanks to play like shit in september and still coast to the playoffs”

            you’re taking a stretch of good starts and saying theyre a big reason why the yanks could suck in september and it not matter… and ignoring the seemingly infinite amount of shitty starts that was a huge reason why 1. they didnt win the division (therefore no HFA) 2. had to start guys like nova/moseley down the stretch and 3. he didnt make the postseason roster

            is chan ho park not a failure cuz he had that 1 game in the opening series where he threw a few scoreless innings?

            • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

              So anyone who sucks at any point is a total failure? Sorry I’m trying to take something positive out of his season. This wasn’t an at-bat or two, or a few pitches, he was solid for two full months. If you can’t acknowledge that then I don’t know what to tell you. Did I ever say he didn’t have shitty starts? Like it or not he WAS good for awhile. I fail to see how it’s funny when it’s true.

              • Slugger27

                So anyone who sucks at any point is a total failure?

                no, guys that suck as a whole on the entire season is a failure… such as javy

                If you can’t acknowledge that then I don’t know what to tell you. Did I ever say he didn’t have shitty starts? Like it or not he WAS good for awhile. I fail to see how it’s funny when it’s true.

                i’m not arguing the good stretch didnt happen… im laughing at you pointing at this small sample and claiming its reason not to label the season a failure

                javy was brought in to:
                1. pitch well
                2. eat up innings
                3. stabilize our rotation in the postseason so that we didnt have to go 3-man like last year
                4. net us 2 draft picks

                he went 0 for 4 on those…. literally did none of the things he was brought in to do, and in all cases but no. 2, he failed in flying colors

                a few starts in june/july doesnt mean his season was atrocious…just as burnetts few starts in april doesnt mean his season wasnt awful

                how anyone can view javy’s season as anything but a failure, i have no idea…. we can agree to disagree

                • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

                  Do you think Josh Beckett was a failure? Because by the WAR metric, he was worth even less than Vazquez was.

                  • Slugger27

                    Do you think Josh Beckett was a failure?

                    in you mean for just this season, absolutely. josh beckett’s 2010 campagin was a complete disaster

                    don’t tell me you’re gonna argue it wasn’t.

                    Because by the WAR metric, he was worth even less than Vazquez was.

                    fangraphs has him above javy in WAR, but thats beside the point… they both had tremendously sitty seasons, and both seasons were a failure

            • http://twitter.com/AndrewLeighNYC Andrew

              I took his point more that Vazquez did contribute something in spite of all his overwhelming sucktitude, which the metrics back up considering he wasn’t way in the red in terms of WAR value. I don’t think it’s totally absurd, the case Ross is making.

              • Slugger27

                i get what the point was, i just dont think the good stretch of starts he had masks anything on the season overall. we could look at just about any replacement level player in the big leagues and point to a good stretch they had, and ignore the 4/5 months of shittiness they had.

                so if you’re saying that because every single start he made wasn’t completely shitty, and therefore hes “as big of reason as any” that the yanks could coast in september, then i just find that a MASSIVE stretch… and one we will just have to agree to disagree

                • Mike HC

                  I’m with you Slugger. It is laughable to say Javy was anything but a huge failure. We actually gave up good prospects for the right to that season.

            • Sayid J.

              Well the big difference here is that we are talking about more than 33% of his starts, where all of your examples (CHP, Jeter, and Burnett) account for much less of their playing time. Not that I am saying in any way that Javy was a successful move, but i think Ross is trying to say the Yankees did get more than what we thought we were getting out of Javy for about 1/3 of the season, while we got pretty much 0% production from NJ.

              • Mike HC

                So Ross is saying that getting nothing out of Javy was a success because we thought he was a massive negative?

                You don’t see the delusion in that statement?

                • Mike HC

                  Also, just because Javy had his good starts consecutively means nothing. Actually, it is probably better if the good starts were more mixed in throughout the entire season. Maybe he would have been useful in the postseason, but because he only had one good stretch, he was useless when the real season starts, the playoffs.

                • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

                  When did I ever say he was a success? Don’t try to twist my words, thanks.

                  My exact quote was “he did have value in the middle months” which is absolutely 100% true. It doesn’t absolve him of the shitty starts, it doesn’t make trading Viz hurt less, it doesn’t mean I want him back. It’s simply stating a fact that he wasn’t completely worthless to the team, and in fact actually contributed for 2 months, unlike Nick Johnson.

                  • Mike HC

                    So if you are not saying he was a success, what are you saying exactly?

                    We are saying that Javy was a “total failure.” So you are saying that he was, a, what, just a “failure?”

                    We understand that Javy had good starts throughout the year. The fact that they were consecutive means just about nothing, and is probably actually worse then spreading the good starts around.

                    You are defending Javy by saying he was better than a guy who was out for basically the entire year? That is a positive?

                    • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

                      If you bothered reading my original post and the comment it responded to, it’s pretty clear that I was arguing that Vazquez actually contributed something whereas Nick Johnson did not.

                    • Mike HC

                      I did read it. Maybe you should re read it and all your subsequent posts.

                      Not looking to get into some stupid argument here. Safe to say that we just see things differently.

            • http://www.blogs.thetenthinningstretch.com the tenth inning stretch

              Javy was awful this season, but thanks to that brief run of quality starts, his season wasn’t quite as abysmal as it could have been. Right?

          • bonestock94

            He didn’t make the postseason roster due to pure suckitude, he is a complete failure.

  • AndrewYF

    Sure Nick got hurt, but it’s not like his absence crippled the team. He was arguably the least-important player of the starting 9. Also, Thames really stepped up.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      All of which validated Cashman’s decisionmaking process to not prioritize or overpay for the DH slot. It wasn’t a critical spot on the team, we could survive without excellent DH production, and we could find alternatives if we wanted to cheaply upgrade the slot if it ended up underproducing.

      We signed Johnson and Thames, then plugged in ARod and Posada on occasion, and when the Johnson gamble went belly-up, we added Berkman midseason. All those pieces together probably equaled or even slightly bettered what we would have gotten from Damon, and we did it without any contractual obligation for 2011 and probably did it at an equal price for what Damon would have cost this year as well.

  • kosmo

    My List

    1) Vasquez
    2) Burnett

    Burnett really screwed NY especially in the playoffs.If Vasquez pitches to his career norms of 13-12 and a 4.20 ERA and maintains his effectiveness throughtout the season and into the playoffs instead of putting undue pressure on Hughes NY might still be playing.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      I bet if Vazquez had a 13-12 record and a 4.20 ERA, Phil Hughes still starts (and loses) games 2 and 6 of the ALCS.

      You may be right that he would have been a better option than AJ in Game 4 and maybe we play a Game 7 against the Rangers, but I doubt a slightly better Vazquez bumps Hughes from his role as one of our top 3 playoff pitchers. Javy would have to be better than a 4.20 ERA to start one of the first three games of a postseason series.

    • Mister Delaware

      Burnett was one pitch away from “really stepping up” in the playoffs.

      • Clay Bellinger

        Seriously…the overall stat line wasn’t good, but anyone who watched this game could see that he really did throw pretty well. 2 runs scored without a ball leaving the infield and then 3 on the Molina HR…granted AJ completely missed his spot, but the ball was inside, too inside to even be a strike, still not sure how Molina hit that out…dude kills us though.

        • dalelama

          7.50 ERA…absolutely spectacular!!!!!

      • http://www.blogs.thetenthinningstretch.com the tenth inning stretch

        True story. He got big strikeouts when he needed them, he (for the most part) located the curveball, and even the pitch to Molina was, according to the pitch tracker, up and inside, out of the strike zone. He gave me a small morsel of hope for his 2011 season.

      • Neil

        I was already counting outs (it was 10 at the time) but rigid Joe wouldn’t use his 6th inning guy in the 5th or something like that.

    • Slugger27

      how would the pressures of a playoff game to phil hughes be “undue”

      • Clay Bellinger

        yeah…i really doubt that Hughes himself would even blame it on the pressure. Dude came out of the pen in game 3 of the ALDS in ’07 down 2-0 and pitched fine and he was great in this year’s ALDS start. He just had a couple of bad starts at the wrong time.

        • Slugger27

          ya i definitely agree that pressue isnt the reason hughes struggled this year… im just confused as to why it would be “undue” if it was the reason

  • Jake

    I had no objections to this signing at the time. But the thought that we could have had Thome in this lineup all season does sting a bit.

    • CBean

      It’s ok. Thome left the playoffs a lot earlier than we did.

    • http://twitter.com/AndrewLeighNYC Andrew

      Thome also needs to be closely monitored health-wise due to being old and creaky, much like Matsui with his knees. He has to deal with all kinds of stretching and exercises to just be healthy enough to hit 4 times a game, and even DHing only, I think Thome required some rest periods throughout the season, i.e. he wasn’t penciled in for 162 DH starts.

      So he could have flamed out as badly as Johnson did, if signed to DH. Granted NJ’s injury history is a lot uglier than Thome’s, but both carried red flags with them last offseason. Hindsight, it ain’t kind.

      • Clay Bellinger

        I doubt the Yanks really intend to spend any money on the DH spot this off-season. They have to expect Montero to enter into the mix this year and Jorge is getting a little to old to catch regularly…creating a Posada/Montero/maybe Thames DH situation…along with the occasional Jeter, ARod, day at DH.

    • http://www.blogs.thetenthinningstretch.com the tenth inning stretch

      Thome is basically Damon/Matsui with more power. Old, creaky-kneed, and terrible in the field. So it would’ve made more sense to bring back one of them as opposed to letting them walk and bringing in Thome. With that said…Thome hitting balls at that right field short porch? Poetry.

  • Frank

    If the Twins don’t pick up his option, what about Jason Kubel for DH?

    • Andy In Sunny Daytona

      He’ll need to be indoctrinated in the “Kevin Long School For Lefties Who Can’t Hit Lefties Good (and Want to Learn to do Other Things Good Too)”

      • Mike HC


    • http://twitter.com/joero23 The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      Before even getting into whether the Yanks would be interested, we kind have to acknowledge that the Twins will, in all likelihood, exercise their option on Kubel. The buyout is $350,000, so it’d only cost them $4.9M to keep him in 2011.

      Am I missing something (have the Twins indicated they’ll buy-out Kubel’s contract, etc.)? If not, then I’m not sure it’s even worth talking about.

      • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

        He has a pretty bad platoon split. .225/.311/.344 against lefties on the year, and he didn’t even crack an 800 OPS against righties. To be a DH I would want a better, more balanced hitter than he is.

  • Luis Sojo the Pasta Eating Machine

    I might take some heat for this, but I would like to see Giambi as DH next year. He still gets on base at a good clip, has some power, he should be cheap and he should take a one year deal.

    • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

      Not a bad idea, but you’d have to platoon him with Thames. The big G’s line against lefties last year was .233/.374/.364. Decent on base, but he doesn’t hit for any power against them.

    • Mike HC

      I would put that at basically at 0% chance. There is no way in hell that Cashman would resign Giambi, especially after the off season he had reacquiring Javy and Johnson. Plus, he has not exactly been reliable as of late.

      • Clay Bellinger

        As much as I like the Big G, there’s no way that this happens…and he can’t play the field either, he’d be strictly a DH.

        Same for Kubel…no chance…he’s productive enough for the Twins to pick that option up anyway and there’s no sense in the Yanks spending money to create an eventual logjam at DH. I would expect it to be somewhat of a revolving door in 2011…Posada, Montero, Thames..even Arod, Jeter, Tex, and Swish at times to give them a half-day off during the summer.

  • Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Blog

    We had high hopes for a guy that was the Yankees third choice, and it could have been a homerun, but it turned into He might as well have called him Plan K, because the 2010 edition of Nick Johnson was turned out to be a big fat whiff.


    It’s your blog, but it would be cool if the conclusion reflected the sentiments at the time as well as how the then unforseen future ended up unfolding.

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    The new “Plan K”???

    That’s our third starter, Kei Igawa.

    You’re welcome.

  • Jerome S

    They replaced one DH with long-term injury concerns (Matsui) with another DH with long-term injury concerns?


  • andypettitteisastartingpitcher

    I think Cashman gets trigger happy sometimes. I think he reacted to Boras in a “we’re moving on” way and kinda eeny meeny miney mo’d his way to NJ. It was sort of the same thing he did with the Igawa kneejerk to DiceK.

    I think Boras/Damon were wrong to hold out and I know Johnny wanted to be back. Maybe keeping Matz would have been a good idea.

    • AndrewYF

      But Matsui was Plan B. He signed shortly after the Granderson trade, when Damon (Plan A) was still a possibility for the Yankees.

      Now, you could argue that Matsui should have been Plan A, but it wouldn’t be a good argument.

  • http://www.superkyle.tk Fat Abbot

    It still pains me that the Yankees wouldn’t have gone after a guy like Thome. So many teams aren’t taking a gamble with older players, yet once again Thome showed why he’s one of the greatest hitters of his generation. The Yankees ended up with all of 40 at bats from a fat loser while Minnesota had a great DH-platoon system and eventually full-time proven DH. Oh well, heres to 2011