The Brandon Laird OptionBy
Alex Rodriguez will miss the next month or so after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee today, leaving the Yankees will a huge hole in their lineup. Even though he hasn’t been hitting for power, A-Rod was still very productive from the cleanup spot, hitting .333/.387/.417 in 93 plate appearances since his last homerun. The Yankees can replace his stats (they may luck out and find someone to match that production but the odds are against it), though they won’t replace the way his presence impacts the game. Alex is one of those rare players that changes the game from the on-deck circle, and no backup infield does that.
Reports over the weekend indicated that the Yankees prefer to replace A-Rod from within, but they’ll at least kick the tires on outside options. The most popular trade candidate seems to be Aramis Ramirez, but he’s a complete non-option. He can definitely hit, no doubt (.298/.346/.497), but his contract says his $16M club option for 2012 turns into a player option if he’s traded. That’s a total deal breaker, there’s no reason for the Yankees to take that on for a six-week stopgap. More realistic options include Melvin Mora and Kevin Kouzmanoff, but they’re not guaranteed to outperform the guys already have in the organization.
The obvious in-house replacement is Eduardo Nunez, who did a fine job filling in for Derek Jeter a few weeks ago. The team has already indicated that he’ll get the bulk of the playing time in A-Rod’s absence, but there is one other option: Brandon Laird. Gerald’s little brother is already on the 40-man roster and is having an okay but not great season at Triple-A. He’s hitting .268/.297/.418 overall with ten homers, though it’s worth noting that he’s been playing better of late: .299/.325/.470 in his last 243 plate appearances, .292/.320/.503 in his last 153 plate appearances, and .311/.321/.584 in his last 78 plate appearances. No, he’s doesn’t walk much, but that’s life.
Laird does his best work against southpaws, tagging them for a .300/.337/.525 line this year (.258/.284/.383 vs. RHP) with a similar platoon split through his career. Not only does have a plethora of experience at third base, but he’s also played plenty of first base and the Yankees have had him dabble in left field over the last ten months or so. It’s probably not a coincidence that his first career game in right field came two days ago. Laird won’t win any Gold Gloves, but he won’t embarrass himself and should make all the routine plays, just not the spectacular onces. My guess is that with a full season’s worth of playing time, he’d probably be 5-10 runs below average with the glove. Not awful, but his bat is good enough that he should be better than replacement level.
For all intents and purposes, this is why the Yankees protected Laird from the Rule 5 Draft last winter. He’ll never ever ever be a starter on this team (barring disaster, anyway), so he serves two purposes: trade bait and an injury fill-in. If he performs well enough at the latter, maybe he snags a bench job for a while. There’s no doubt he’s better than Ramiro Pena, especially offensively, so the Yankees could swap the two and use Laird two or three times a week, primarily against lefties. That way Nunez could spell Jeter and Robinson Cano (or even get a day off himself) without completely sacrificing offense. He’d also be the fifth outfielder and backup first baseman as well.
This is exactly the kind of situation teams carry players like Laird, to fill a temporary hole on the big league roster. ZiPS projected a .250/.297/.424 batting line at big league level before the season, which would be a minor miracle in my eyes. The minor league equivalency of his Triple-A performance is .234/.261/.355 overall and .268/.285/.398 over his last 243 plate appearances. That’s a .295 wOBA or so, and maybe optimal usage (i.e. limited exposure to righties) gets him up to a .310-.315 wOBA, basically league average. I’d rather give Laird a chance to do that than stick with Pena, who we all know will be awful. Sorry Ramiro, nothing personal.
This isn’t quite a long-term fill-in situation but it’s not short-term either, let’s call it medium-term. It’s the perfect chance to try Laird out and see what the kid can do. If he flops, then fine, the Yankees will have essentially lost nothing because his replacement (Pena) is also terrible. If mean really, if not now, then when? Come Thursday (when the games start back up), there are two moves I want to see: Pena down and A-Rod to the disabled list, replaced by Laird and (I guess) Chris Dickerson. Nunez gets the majority of the playing time but Laird sees semi-regular at-bats against lefties. The bench would be the non-useless quartet of Laird/Nunez, Dickerson, Andruw Jones, and Frankie Cervelli. This is why they put Laird on the 40-man during the offseason, to use him in spots like this.