Building a bench to plug a DH hole

Vlad gives it his all. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Vladimir Guerrero played no small role in torturing the Yankees this past weekend. The one hitter the Yanks never signed but should have twice, Vlad knocked out six hits in 13 at-bats and even walked once for a cool .500 OBP. He swung at pitches at which he had no business swinging, but it’s always worked for him. Making just $6.5 million, he’s hitting .305/.348/.503 with 26 home runs, and the Yanks could have had him for $1 million more than Nick Johnson is making.

Johnson, of course, was the Yanks’ choice for the DH spot. With three free agent options — Guerrero, Matsui, Johnson — for that empty hole, the Yanks went with the youngest guy coming off a season in which he played 133 games and got on base 42.6 percent of the time. For $5.5 million, it seemed like the best choice, but Johnson played all of 24 games before coming down with a wrist injury. He won’t be back in 2011.

For the Yankees, though, the designated hitter spot hasn’t been a problem this year. Led by Marcus Thames, A-Rod and, to a lesser extent, Jorge Posada, the team’s DHs are hitting a combined .263/.348/.459 with 23 home runs in 583 plate appearances. Their sOPS+ — the overall OPS relative to the league split — is 114.

In fact, Nick Johnson’s injury allowed the Yankee braintrust to exploit the DH spot as they seem to prefer. Without a full-time designated hitter, the slot became one of rest. The DH hole allowed the Yanks to keep Jorge Posada, banged up and bruised all season, in the lineup more frequently than they could have. It allowed them to give A-Rod’s balky legs some time off the turf. It allowed them to ride a very hot Marcus Thames during the team’s recent eight-game winning streak.

Yet, that rotating DH spot has a residual impact on the rest of the lineup, and through it, we can see the weaknesses in the Yanks’ current roster construction. When, for instance, Alex Rodriguez DHs, someone else has to play third base, and that someone else — Ramiro Peña, Eduardo Nuñez, Kevin Russo — isn’t a very good hitter. In fact, Yankee third basemen are hitting .252/.316/.418 this season with an sOPS+ of 95. A-Rod’s contribution to that is a 116, which just goes to show how bad the rest of the team’s third base options are offensively.

The same problem arises behind the plate. Jorge Posada as a catcher has a .906 OPS and a 156 sOPS+. Francisco Cervelli, a fine player if used properly, has an sOPS+of 96 and nearly 300 plate appearances behind the plate. Against right-handers, in particularly, Cervelli is an offensive liablity, but he’s been pressed into service because Jorge Posada is 39.

For now, this imbalance brought about by the rotating DH is a problem that should plague the Yankees only in 2010. In fact, because of Jesus Montero‘s development and Jorge Posada’s contract, the Yanks have the DH situation largely in hand next year. Montero ought to be the primary catcher with Posada as the primary DH. Francisco Cervelli, then, will serve as the late-inning defensive replacement for Montero who can also start against left-handers when need be.

That three-headed DH/catcher platoon solves half of the problem. The Yankees still need to keep an eye on their bench for 2011, and they should go into and play out the season with a back-up infielder better than Ramiro Peña (and his third base sOPS+ of 12) available to them. Who that will be remains to be seen, but the Yanks have the money to spend on the bench.

Had Brian Cashman used his crystal ball to sign Vladimir Guerrero to a one-year deal ten months ago, we would be pleasantly thrilled with his production. But that was then, and this is now. If they play their cards right, they won’t have a DH problem come 2011.

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Nick Johnson needs another wrist surgery

Via Jack Curry, long lost designated hitter Nick Johnson needs surgery on his already surgically repaired wrist. By my count, this will be his third procedure on the wrist in the last three seasons, and that doesn’t include a fracture that cost him the entire 2000 season in the minors. Poor guy, if he didn’t have bad luck with injuries, he’d have no luck at all.

Surprise, surprise: Nick Johnson’s wrist hurting again

Via Brendan Prunty, Joe Girardi said before today’s game that Nick Johnson‘s surgically repaired wrist is once again barking. The first baseman/designated hitter had resumed baseball activities at the end of last month, though I think it’s safe to assume those have been put on hold for the time being. Even if he was able to come back as a pinch hitter walker in September, it would have been a nice little boost down the stretch. I guess we might as well forget about that now.

I was all for the NJ signing back when it happened, but it was obviously a huge mistake in hindsight. For shame.

Was Nick Johnson really the wrong choice?

A post this morning on Baseball Time in Arlington got me thinking about the DH situation. There were four big DH free agents heading into the offseason — Nick Johnson, Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jim Thome — and it looks like the Yankees made the wrong choice. Nick Johnson is out for the year and is providing the team no value. Meanwhile the other three remain healthy. Throughout the season I’ve seen fans complain about the team picking Johnson over Matsui, since it was such an obvious mistake. Yet when I looked at it, the result isn’t so obvious.

Johnson has been out since early May, having produced 0.1 WAR before hurting his wrist. That’s not a great return on $5.5 million. Matsui has been healthy enough to accumulate 411 PA, more than four times the number Johnson managed. Yet Matsui has produced an identical 0.1 WAR. In other words, while Matsui has stayed healthy he hasn’t done much to help his team. Hell, even Juan Miranda has produced 0.1 WAR this season.

The big winner among the foursome is obviously Vlad, who has produced 2.1 WAR despite a recent downturn. Yet Jim Thome, in 212 fewer plate appearances, has produced 1.8 WAR. If the Yanks were looking for a left-handed DH, he gets the hindsight award for the pick I’d endorse.

Nick Johnson resumes baseball related activities

A two-month long stint on the disabled list and one setback later, Nick Johnson has finally resumed baseball activities down in Tampa. The forgotten Yankee is simply taking grounders at first right now, though he did hit test his surgically repaired wrist by hitting some soft toss with a fungo bat earlier in the week. He also took some dry hacks with a regular bat.

“I don’t really know what to think at this point,” said Joe Girardi on Tuesday. “Until he starts actually taking swings in batting practice, I don’t know what to make of it, when we might get him back.”

Johnson is pretty much in the same boat as Al Aceves; anything the Yankees get out of him from here on out is a bonus. They can’t, and shouldn’t count on him staying productive and healthy the rest of the season given the nature of his injury. It sure would be nice to have OBP Jesus and his military style plate discipline bat in the lineup, though.

Long-time RABer Andy in Sunny Daytona provided the info and picture above, so everyone thank Andy.