Andre Ethier’s contract and the Yankees

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

While you were sleeping last night, news broke that the Dodgers and Andre Ethier had agreed to a five-year. $85M contract extension with a vesting option for a sixth year that could push the total value north of $100M. It’s the third largest contract in franchise history behind the Matt Kemp and Kevin Brown deals and one of the 15 richest contracts ever for an outfielder. Ethier was scheduled to hit free agency this offseason but instead decided to stay in Los Angeles for a rather healthy sum.

Baseball Time in Arlington has already looked at the impact this deal will have on Josh Hamilton and the Rangers — presumably one fewer suitor now — but it also trickles down to the Yankees. Nick Swisher is scheduled to become a free agent this winter and like Ethier, he’s a very good but not elite corner outfielder in his early-30s. They’ve produced similar offensive (127 vs. 124 wRC+ in favor of Ethier) and defensive (-12 vs. -14 DRS* in favor of Swisher) numbers since the start of 2009, though Swisher has played in at least 150 games in each of the last six seasons while Ethier has done so just twice in his career and not since 2009.

* Defensive metrics are quite ambiguous, so if you look at UZR it’s Swisher in a landslide: +5.4 vs. -24.6.

Obviously Ethier is having the far better season in 2012 — 131 wRC+ and 2.2 fWAR vs. 105 and 0.4 for Swisher — and that’s part of the reason why the Dodgers were so desperate to re-sign him. He’s a fan favorite and while he’s not truly homegrown, he’s never played for another big league team. He’s gotten MVP votes and been to multiple All-Star Games, plus he has a “clutch” reputation. All of that helped Ethier land this massive contract and is stuff Swisher doesn’t have going for him, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, their actual production on the baseball field, Swisher is a comparable player if not better than baseball’s newest $85M.

That said, I can’t see any way Swisher will land a contract that big this offseason without a Bonds-ian finish to the season. At the same time, my hopes of seeing the Yankees bring him back for Michael Cuddyer’s contract — three years and $31M — inflated upwards by 25% or so now seem pointless. Maybe I was being naive in the first place, I’m great at underestimating future free agent contracts. There seems to be little chance of Swisher signing a modest little three-year pact no matter how much he loves New York, which leaves the Yankees in a bind because they don’t have an ready-made outfield replacement and are trying to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold within the next 18 months or so.

Perhaps Brett Gardner‘s elbow injury and latest setback is a blessing in disguise. Maybe it will force the Yankees to look to the trade market for a replacement outfielder, someone that could play left in Gardner’s stead this year before taking over right field next year. I don’t know who that guy would be, but it’s a possibility. Much like Yadier Molina and the catching market, Ethier’s contract really skewed the outfield market for this coming offseason. Swisher, Hamilton, Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, and Shane Victorino now all have a pricy benchmark to reference in contract talks, and that doesn’t help the Yankees one bit.

Nick Swisher swinging at everything

Yep. He really just caught that. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Nick Swisher hasn’t been very Swisher-like at the plate this season. Sure, he’s hitting with his typical power, slugging 13 doubles and eight homers. He’s also seemingly been robbed more frequently than usual. There have been at least a few games where he’s hit three or four rockets, only to have fielders snag them — sometimes in spectacular fashion. But there has been something about Swisher’s game that just doesn’t add up, given his history.

When the Yankees acquired Swisher before the 2009 season they pretty much knew what they were getting: a low-average, high OBP player with some power. In his first season he met expectations almost precisely, hitting .249/.371/.498, slugging 29 homers and 35 doubles while walking 97 times. They got much of the same in 2011 as well: .260/.374/.449 with 23 homers, 30 doubles, and 95 walks. Maybe it has become an odd-year thing with Swisher, because in 2010, and now in 2012, he’s been a bit different.

In 2010 Swisher talked about becoming more aggressive at the plate. That worked out for him well. While his walk rate dropped to 9.1 percent, the lowest of his career by more than a full point, he made up for it by hitting .288, by leaps and bounds the highest of his career. He still added the power, with 29 homers and 33 doubles. Replacing the walks with hits worked out well for him, as he produced the highest OPS+ of his career.

This year Swisher has again shown a free-swinging tendency. The difference is that it’s not quite working to his advantage. We can start with his tendency to swing at pitches out of the zone — 27.2 percent, which is higher than even his then-career-high of 25.4 percent in 2010. Even worse, he’s actually swinging at pitches out of the zone at a rate higher than the league average; he’s never done that previously. In general he’s swinging more, with the highest rate of his career at this point. That’s just not what we’ve come to expect from Swisher.

Even more concerning is his swinging strike rate: 12.5 percent, which is far, far above his 8.9 percent career rate, and even more alarmingly above his average as a Yankee. While it’s difficult to make definitive conclusions from batted ball data, we can combine this with the eye test to make the following assertion: Swisher has been taking some terrible hacks this year, and his overall game is suffering from it.

While we can examine the problem, the solution is completely out of our grasp. Is Swisher swinging more often due to frustration over having his hard-hit balls land in fielders’ gloves? Is he trying to be more aggressive, as in 2010, but failing to recognize pitches? The most important question, though, is of whether he’ll eventually round into form. Given his history of only one below-average season, and his increasing production into his prime years, it seems as though he will.

In an offense riddled with problems, Swisher has at times seemed a savior. He’s had plenty of big hits. At the same time, he’s been floundering in many spots where his team needs him to be patient and wait for his pitch. Getting him back to his normal production levels will provide another boost to an offense that needs all the help it can get right now.

The Future of Right Field

(Brian Bissell/Future Star Photos)

Earlier today I wrote about the importance of having Nick Swisher in the lineup, and that got me thinking about the future of right field in general. Obviously Swisher will become a free agent after the season and with the 2014 payroll plan looming, he might not fit into the team’s plans going forward. He’s going to make it very hard for the team to let him walk given his early-season performance, but parting ways with a soon-to-be 32-year-old corner outfielder isn’t the craziest thing in the world.

The problem is that the Yankees don’t have an obvious in-house candidate to step into the outfield. Zoilo Almonte had an outside chance at being that guy, but that looks unlikely at this point. Melky Mesa is another Greg Golson/up-and-down type, ditto Colin Curtis to a certain extent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Yankees moved prospects Rob Segedin and Tyler Austin (pictured) to right field on a full-time basis this season, but those two are still in Single-A and are years away from the bigs. Hopefully they become factors down the line, but they certainly won’t help next year or even the year after that.

If the Yankees do let Swisher walk, the best way to replace him probably involved a platoon of some sort until Segedin and/or Austin pan out, if they do at all. Andruw Jones seems like a logical candidate for the right half of that platoon assuming he doesn’t completely fall off a cliff this summer, but finding a lefty to go with him will be easier said than done. I’m partial to Kelly Johnson, who played the corner outfield earlier in his career and has everything the Yankees look for offensively: left-handed power, the willingness to take a walk, and the ability to steal double-digit bases. Would he take a one or even two-year deal to change positions for the Yankees at age 30? I highly doubt it. Heck, he might require a bigger contract than Swisher, but I digress.

The 2014 payroll plan is really going to throw a wrench into the team’s roster plans going forward, but frankly I think there’s a pretty good case to be made for keeping Swisher at say, something a little north Michael Cuddyer money (three years, $31M) and skimping elsewhere (coughsecondbasecough). He already has the “old player skills” that tend to age well and has been very durable throughout his career, which sounds kinda funny after he just sat out a week with a hamstring issue. There’s value in reliability, and it’s hard to find a more reliable and consistent Yankee over the last three years than Swisher. The best bridge from Swisher to the theoretical Segedin/Austin era just might be Swisher himself.

The Importance of Nick Swisher

(REUTERS/Dave Kaup)

Aside from yesterday’s blowout win, the Yankees slogged through a dreadful offensive slump last week that saw them score just 13 runs in six games. Six of those 13 runs came in Friday’s game, so the other seven were spread across five games. The lineup came back to life on Sunday, scoring ten runs in the win over the Royals thanks in part to the return of Nick Swisher, who homered after sitting out most of the week with a low-grade left hamstring strain.

Obviously Swisher’s presence alone did not account for the offensive outburst, but it didn’t hurt. He’d hit six homers with a .408 wOBA in 93 plate appearances before the injury, joining Curtis Granderson as the club’s second best bat behind the resurgent Derek Jeter in the early going. A player performing like that was going to be missed no matter what, but even moreso when seemingly everyone else in the lineup was battling through some kind of slump, either recent or extended. It was hard not to notice the big gaping hole in the offense last week.

Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, and Mark Teixeira have shown flashes of breaking out recently, but nothing more. Swisher’s return adds a little more thump to the offense and I think the Yankees should consider bumping him up in the lineup, at least temporarily. Batting order doesn’t mean much over 162 games, but in an individual game — especially when the 3-4-5 hitters as a whole haven’t been producing — it can make all the difference. Moving Swisher to, say, cleanup will put him in position to do more damage given how Jeter and Granderson are setting the table. Once the usual 3-4-5 guys get going, they can return to their regular lineup spots.

Just to be clear, I don’t think simply rearranging the batting order will spark A-Rod‘s, Cano’s, and Tex’s bats. I don’t buy into the idea that players perform better in specific lineup spots. I believe those three will improve their offensive performances (to various degrees) in the coming weeks, but right now they’re not getting it done. Swisher has been and moving him a little closer to Jeter and Granderson could actually lead to some more sustained rallies in lieu of stranded runners and frustration. It’s a crazy concept, I know.

The Yankees do a great job of remaining patient and avoiding knee-jerk moves these days, but at the same time they don’t have to ignore little tweaks. It’ll suck seeing Teixeira making $22M+ to bat sixth, but is that really worse than watching him make outs in big spots with men on base? I certainly don’t think so. Winning the division is too important this year for the Yankees to go through another week or two like last. Moving Swisher up will create a little more continuity among the team’s best hitters and hopefully leads to more runs on the scoreboard. If not, then no big deal. Real easy to go back to the way things were.

Swisher back in lineup at DH

After a full week on the shelf with a low-grade left hamstring strain, Nick Swisher is in this afternoon’s lineup at DH. He’s been hitting in the cage/batting practice for a few days and tested his leg running the bases yesterday. The Yankees can certainly use the lineup boost, so Swisher’s return is very welcome.

The bad news: there are severe thunderstorms in the forecast today and the Yankees don’t play in Kansas City again this season. They’d have to sacrifice a scheduled day off and travel to make this one up if the rain forces a postponement.

Injury Updates: Swisher & Gardner

Via Bryan Hoch, outfielder Nick Swisher is likely to miss a week after suffering a low-grade hamstring strain in yesterday’s game. Joe Girardi said they’re going to try to avoid placing him on the DL, which I honestly don’t understand. Minor hamstring strains can become major hamstring strains very easily, especially if they aren’t given the proper time to heal. Just sit him down for the 15 days and make sure he’s healthy without handicapping the roster.

In other news, Hoch reports that Brett Gardner again took his hacks in the cage today. He will take batting practice on the field tomorrow and is on track to be activated when his DL stint is up on Thursday. Until then, the Yankees appear content to use a 13-man pitching staff and a two-man bench.

Update: Swisher has low-grade hammy strain

4:43pm: Swisher has a low-grade hamstring strain and will miss “more than a few days” according to Joe Girardi. He might not need a DL stint, however. Three healthy outfielders with Eduardo Nunez as the backup won’t cut it, the Yankees are going to have to abandon the 13-man pitching staff at some point.

3:19pm: The team says it’s a tight left hamstring and Swisher will head for a precautionary MRI. Hopefully it’s not a strain or anything and he won’t miss more than a few days.

2:13pm: Nick Swisher was lifted from this afternoon’s game with an apparent left hamstring injury. Replays showed him flexing his leg and grabbing at it following a swing then again on first base after drawing a walk. Andruw Jones replaced Swisher off the bench. Hopefully it’s just a cramp. We’ll update this post with more as it comes in.