The Yankees have spent roughly $62M this offseason, but the vast majority was spent on players who were with the team last season. Outside of various waiver claims and minor league contracts, Kevin Youkilis is the only new player the team has acquired this offseason. They downgraded in right field, downgraded behind the plate, and probably downgraded at third base as well. One spot where they did make an upgrade was left field, and they accomplished that without even making a roster move.
Last season, New York’s left fielders managed a .253/.315/.444 (103 wRC+) batting line that was highly dependent on the power of Raul Ibanez and (first half) Andruw Jones. Depending on your fielding metric of choice, the club’s left fielders were either very good (+12.2 UZR), average (+0 Total Zone), or a bit below-average (-2 DRS) defensively. I tend to agree with Total Zone and DRS on this one, especially since Ichiro Suzuki only started 26 games in left following the trade. Between the offense and defense, the Yankees basically had a league average (or slightly worse) left field unit last season.
Of course, the only reason the team had to rely on guys like Ibanez and Ichiro last season was because Brett Gardner hurt his elbow barely a week into the season. He missed almost the entire year, save for a handful of at-bats down the stretch. Gardner, 29, is no star, but the lack of outfield defense and overall team speed was painfully obvious while he was out of action. His ability to work the count — we’re talking high-end walk (11.0%) and pitches per plate appearance (4.29) rates for his career — was noticeably absent as well. The Yankees lost a lot when he got hurt, no doubt about it.
Super early ZiPS projections pegged Gardner as a true talent .259/.355/.362 hitter heading into next season, which is right in line with nearly league average career performance (.266/.355/.368, 98 wRC+). I don’t think we’re ever going to see a repeat of the .277/.383/.379 (112 wRC+) line he put up back in 2010, but he’s also not at an age where a performance drop-off would be expected. Heck, at age 29 Gardner is more likely to outperform his projection than fall short. The left field offense was about league average and power heavy last season, with Gardner it will be about league average and on-base heavy. If I had to pick between the two, I’d take the latter.
The upgrades on defense and on the bases will be drastic. Not only does Gardner average 47 steals per 162 games, he’s also taken the extra base (first-to-third on a single, etc.) a whopping 51% of the time in his career. That’s far better than the league average (~40%). In the field he’s a defensive monster, a true ballhawk who should (and hopefully will) play center field and push Curtis Granderson to left this coming season. The various metrics have rated Gardner at roughly 20 runs better than the average left fielder in recent years, and even with the shift the center he should still be good for +10 runs or so. The overall shape of that left field production will be so much different, going from all-power and no speed or defense to no-power, OBP, speed and defense.
As I said before, Youkilis is the only notable new player the Yankees have brought in this offseason, and the only reason they signed him was because Alex Rodriguez got hurt. Maybe they would have pumped that $12M into someone else had A-Rod not blown out his left hip, but we’ll never know. Any shot at overall team improvement in 2013 will come from the guys who were here in 2012 improving their performance. It doesn’t stand out as a “move” because no one was acquired via trade or signed as a free agent, but swapping Ibanez & Co.’s one dimensional game for Gardner’s speed, defense, and willingness to work the count stands to be New York’s biggest upgrade of the winter.