Once the Yankees traded Jesus Montero in January, it became fairly clear that they were going to approach the DH spot differently than they had in the previous few years. For so many years they employed, or planned to employ, a full-time DH. From Hideki Matsui to Nick Johnson to Jorge Posada, it was a plan that seemed to work for the high-powered Yankees’ offense. Raul Ibanez, however, is no full-time DH. That works well for the Yankees plans though, as they have a number of bench players they want to work into more regular roles.
During opening weekend we got a glimpse of what is to come. It started on Friday, when we learned that Eduardo Nunez would start in the field on Saturday against lefty David Price. That afforded Derek Jeter a half-day at DH. On Sunday Girardi went with his regular lineup, but placed Raul Ibanez in right field while using Nick Swisher as the DH. Both times the irregular player committed costly mistakes, but we shouldn’t judge the system based on individual plays. Is this something the Yankees can sustain throughout the season?
In favor of the rotation DH
It is clear that the Yankees are intent on using the DH spot to give a half-day rest to players who need it. Alex Rodriguez figures to be a beneficiary; he’s spent time on the DL in each of the last four seasons and could use the small break that DHing affords him. Jeter, who missed about a week in camp with calf issues, can probably also use the break every now and then. In the outfield the Yankees can mask Brett Gardner’s relative weaknesses against lefties with Andruw Jones’s strength. Additionally, as we saw yesterday, they can use this to give a break to the slightly wounded. Remember, Swisher missed time during the spring with a pair of groin injuries, so using him as the DH sometimes early in the season seems like a reasonable idea.
The problem with a rotation DH is that in many cases, it means inserting an inferior bench player into a lineup spot that could go to a more powerful hitter. For the Yankees this isn’t exactly the case. Jones ranks among baseball’s best fourth outfielders, so using him in place of Gardner, or even Swisher, isn’t a huge drop-off. In fact, in the case of Gardner it can create a net advantage. In the infield Nunez clearly isn’t at the level of Jeter or Rodriguez. But the Yankees have been vocal in their desire to get him more playing time, and as Mike said on Friday this seems like the most sensible way to do so.
Absent a DH in the mold of Hideki Matsui circa 2009, this might be the best way for the Yankees to fill the DH spot. It lets them take advantage of Jones’s skills, and also provides an opportunity to get a better read on Nunez. At the same time, they can manage the physical toll on more fragile players, such as Rodriguez, and players who have minor ailments, such as Jeter and Swisher. That kind of flexibility is always useful during the course of a six-month MLB season.
Against the rotating DH
While, as I said above, we shouldn’t judge anything based on a few individual plays, it’s difficult to get the images of Nunez’s and Ibanez’s blunders out of our heads. They were just so egregious. And, in a way, they were to be expected. Ibanez is a notoriously poor defender in the outfield; his misplay yesterday resembled so many plays from his recent past. Nunez, as we saw, committed 20 errors last year in just 753 infield innings — roughly one every four games. That takes away many of the rotating DH’s advantages.
At The Captain’s Blog, William Julano covers the dark side of Girardi’s scheme. It’s not so much about the idea itself, but rather the personnel. Yes, the Yankees can perhaps keep everyone healthier by employing the rotating DH, but at the same time they’re hurting their pitchers by trotting out inferior defenders behind them. As we saw on Saturday and Sunday, those plays can be costly.
Working out the kinks
The good news is that the Yankees have a few options. First and foremost, they can refuse to play Ibanez in the field unless absolutely necessary. They’re paying him just $1 million, so he’s not a guy they have to trot out there against every single right-handed pitcher. If they want to give Swisher a half-day off to keep him fresh — something that will likely happen less frequently as the season wears on — they can simply use Andruw Jones out there. Since 2009 he does have a 101 wRC+ against right-handers, so he’s not completely useless. Given Ibanez’s nonexistent defense, he’ll provide a net positive in those situations.
In the infield the situation is a bit tougher. Nunez will continue to get playing time when Rodriguez and Jeter DH, and for now that’s fine. It might cost them a few runs in the short term, but it will give them a better idea of what Nunez can bring to the table in a more regular role. If by mid-season they judge that he’s not the prospect they’ve made him out to be, they can swing a trade for someone who fits more appropriately. There is, of course, always the possibility that Nunez settles in, cuts down his errors, and adds a little value with his bat vs. left-handed pitching. But the Yanks won’t know until they try.
The idea of a rotating DH is nothing new. Teams have tried it, but because of limited resources it rarely works out as expected. That is, bench players are bench players for a reason. Subbing one of them in and using a starter at DH takes away a spot from someone who can actually hit. The Yankees are in a position, however, where they can give it a whirl for an extended period. They have high-quality hitters in their lineup, and at least one of their rotation guys is a solid, above-average hitter. They might have some growing pains with Nunez, and they’ll have to keep Ibanez out of the outfield. But in the far view of a 162-game season, this could work out for the Yankees.