Mailbag: The ones that got awayBy
Daniel says: What I’ve been thinking is that maybe there was no way of preventing this season’s struggles … I really believe it is just one of those years that a lot of problems fell onto the team all at once from injuries to decline to inconsistent performances (and not just a poor approach to free agency). I think it would help to keep it all in perspective by taking a look at the players the Yankees “missed out on,” and speculate exactly what kind of a difference it would have made had they been brought on. I may be one of the few that does not blame this whole joke of a season on Brian Cashman at all, and I place only a fraction of blame on the front office.
(Apologies, Daniel. I trimmed down your submission quite a bit, but hopefully this will still get your point across satisfactorily. Of course, with loaded question comes loaded answer…)
I suppose the best way to approach this topic would be to take a quick visit to MLBTR’s 2013 Free Agent Tracker. From there, we can try to assess whether any of those “lost” free agent candidates would impact the team’s needs enough to make a tangible difference.
Let’s start with 3B, SS, C, and RF as those were all obvious spots of concern this past offseason. Of course, it is worth mentioning that this kind of speculation is somewhat futile as we don’t know whether any of these players would have performed comparably had they been with the Yankees, nor do we know how the other clubs’ rosters would have been realigned if they couldn’t get some of the players they did. But for the sake of vacuum-written posts everywhere, let’s just go with it.
(click every table in this post for a larger view)
The third base market was pretty barren this past offseason. To make matters worse, the Yankees weren’t exactly looking to make major moves at this position heading into the offseason. The decision to repair Alex Rodriguez’s torn labrum surfaced in late-November. He required a month or so of pre-rehabbing prior to surgery, followed by an estimated four to six month recovery time afterward. This resulted in a need for a third baseman who could not only start, but who could potentially handle the rigors of playing all season long should A-Rod‘s return become delayed (which was/is definitely plausible).
Unfortunately, Eric Chavez was already off the table by the first week of December. He signed a one year, $3 million dollar pact with the Diamondbacks, opting instead for a starting gig. Chavez has had a solid season thus far and would have been a decided upgrade over what the Yankees have gotten from their third basemen collectively, though he’s already experienced his first (of what I’m sure will be several) injuries this season.
After Chavez, the alternatives are pretty awful besides Mark Reynolds. We’re talking Brandon Inge (signed a MiLB deal), Drew Sutton (MiLB deal), Mark DeRosa (1 yr/$750k), and the oft-injured Placido Polanco (who’s been terrible with the Marlins). Signing Kevin Youkilis made sense in theory to some degree, but it was an extremely risky move to replace one injury prone player with another. $13M for a fragile Youk plus random assorted parts simply doesn’t cut it.
Derek Jeter sure didn’t do the team any favors when he decided to go break his ankle last October. Man, that screwed things up. The Yankees took a gamble that the Captain would heal by his Opening Day target date (which in retrospect seemed pretty ambitious). Their backup plan, Eduardo Nunez, has been sidelined basically all year which has paved the road for other internal candidate, Jayson Nix who has been serviceable.
Would Alex Gonzalez (1 yr/$1.5M), Ronny Cedeno or Cesar Izturis (MiLB deal) prove a better alternative? None of these options seem particularly appealing to me – then or now. Stephen Drew would have been an upgrade over what the Yankees have for sure, but there was no way Cashman was going to sign him for a part-time gig anyway – remember the assumption was that Jeter would be back by Opening Day. I’m just not sure free agency was the solution for the short stop dilemma in terms of quality. Cash gets a pass here for not biting on any of the alternatives if all the information provided to him at the time suggested Jeter was likely to return on the expected schedule.
That brings us to catcher. The plan was – I can’t believe I’m saying this – to roll the dice with Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. Frankie went down early after contributing at a surprisng pace. Austin Romine came up and played miserably in limited opportunity. This allowed Stewart to secure the starting gig for himself. Now, to be fair, Stewart has surpassed my expectations with his .270/.326/.348 (.299 wOBA, 84 wRC+) line and three home runs, which basically represents career highs for him. Russell Martin, on the other hand, is playing pretty close to his career norm. That is to say seven home runs and a .247/.340/.419 (.336 wOBA, 116 wRC+) line – a rate, mind you, that is sustainable for him … perhaps unlike Chris’ production (or Cervelli’s for that matter).
Pierzynski (102 wRC+) has been pretty good too, and he was signed by the Rangers for a one-year stint. Other FA catchers such as David Ross, Yorvit Torrealba, Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco have all performed generally worse. While Stewart hasn’t been bad, I think it was still a pretty big #FAIL to not re-sign Martin (especially since Martin is also a defensively capable catcher, which is apparently an asset these days). I’ll blame Cashman for this lost production, but who knows. Maybe ownership deserves some of (or the majority of) the blame here too if they either a) passed on Cashman’s recommendation to keep Martin or b) prevented him from retaining Martin because of the proposed austerity budget.
Now … the OF, which as it currently stands, is a complete cluster-f mess. As I mentioned last week, it’s no one’s fault that Curtis Granderson fell victim to two fluky injuries, the first of which happened in Spring Training. However, it is of absolutely no surprise that right field ended up being an offensive void after the team elected to drop Nick Swisher in lieu of some Ichiro/Francisco-headed platoon. Once Grandy went down, the team was doubly screwed as it would then be forced to trade/rely on Vernon Wells in left field. Prior to the start of the season, there were some outfielders available. The Yankees could have tried to replace Swisher with another right fielder, or hire a different outfield position and find a way to reorganize the lineup possibly.
For what it’s worth, Swisher hasn’t been all that great in Cleveland thus far; though even while playing relatively mediocre, Swisher’s 107 wRC+ still manages to sit about 30 points higher than the Yankees not-quite-so-dynamic outfield tandem of Ichiro and Wells. I can totally understand not signing a guy like Josh Hamilton for health concerns or Michael Bourn (might as well just get Swisher if you’re spending almost $50M anyway). Heading into the season, Justin Upton was an appealing option though. Ditto Torii Hunter. Mike’s been endorsing Nate Schierholtz from day one. All of these guys would have felt like a better plan going in, and a few would still be improvements now.
Sure, the actual numbers for some of these outfielders may not have panned out favorably through the first third of the season, but the opportunity for success would have been better heading in, and that’s the real point. The team chose guys whose ceilings were likely to be below average for a few of these positions. Again, these decisions were largely driven by the austerity budget, and we’re examining them in hindsight. But neither of those points makes the outcome an easier one to accept. The Yankees have gotten very little production from their corner outfielders and their third basemen, and it shows. Obviously, the Yankees were betting on their pitching and defense to help shoulder some of the burden, which it has, but the overall lack of offense has put a lot of pressure on the team to generate runs in different ways which isn’t always easy.
Now to be clear, this isn’t to say that if Cashman had hired any of these Free Agents, they’d be instant World Series contenders or definitively better off now than where they currently stand. What we’re talking about here is incremental upgrades. If some of these Free Agents came aboard and translated into even a few extra wins over the course of the season, who knows, maybe that ultimately winds up being the difference between making the playoffs and missing it in the hyper competitive A.L. East.
It’s about trying to mitigate the possibility of failure as much as possible before experiencing diminishing returns on the investment. Frankly, I think even a marginal upgrade in RF and 3B would definitely help considering how awful those spots have been — hence the reason I’m somewhat optimistic about A-Rod when he returns. Short-stop and Catcher haven’t been as bad relatively speaking, even though we’ve seen how Stewart’s skill set compares to a guy like Martin. Or, maybe they wind up right where they are as you suggest even with some of these guys. There’s no way to prevent a disappointing season from possibly happening if a maelstrom of injuries occurs.
I also wouldn’t go so far as to call this season a joke either. Games have been painful to watch at times, but there is a lot baseball to be played and the team is obviously in contention. You are absolutely right, though, in the sense that the perfect storm of injuries has exacerbated an already difficult set of conditions. Ultimately, maybe they get by without some of those Free Agents which is obviously the most desirable outcome as that’s the reality that the team created. In the meantime, keep yourself prepared for some low-scoring ballgames as we find out.