Given how the season ended, it’s easy to forget the Yankees finished 2015 with 764 runs scored, the second most in baseball. They actually averaged more runs per game in the second half (4.80) than the first half (4.65), which feels impossible, but it’s true. That doesn’t mean the offense didn’t sputter down the stretch though. The Yankees scored only 36 runs in their last dozen games.
By the end of the season it looked like half the lineup had run into a wall. More than half, really. Carlos Beltran and whoever was playing second base on any given day were the Yankees’ only consistently productive hitters late in the season. Joe Girardi discussed this at his end-of-season press conference, saying finding a way to keep his hitters productive all summer is “something I’ll think long and hard about this winter.”
The Yankees don’t have a lot of roster flexibility this offseason, with second base the only position they aren’t really locked into a player. Brett Gardner is pretty much their only tradeable position player — obviously Didi Gregorius has more trade value, but he’s not going anywhere — but I would be surprised if he’s moved. The Yankees love him and besides, he might be their best all-around player.
Yesterday I wrote about impending free agent Jason Heyward, who I think the Yankees should pursue aggressively this winter even though there’s no clear spot for him on the roster. He’s too young (26) and way too talented to pass up when the cost is only money and a draft pick. Heyward would fit in well given the team’s relative youth movement. I don’t expect the Yankees to sign Heyward, but I’d like it to happen. Players like him don’t hit the market too often.
If the Yankees do not sign Heyward, I think the next best free agent fit for New York is Ben Zobrist, who is not young and wouldn’t fit the youth movement. He would, however, fit well with the inevitable plan to rest more players next season thanks to his versatility. Zobrist has shown he can thrive despite playing different positions. Many players struggle at the plate or defensively when they move around. Zobrist is one of the few who doesn’t.
Just this season Zobrist played second base, third base, and both corner outfield spots. Last year he played 31 games at short as well. He even has experience at first base. The Yankees would be able to use Zobrist as something of a supersub, which is one of those ideas that works so much better in theory than in practice. Zobrist is one of the few who can pull it off. We’ve seen him do it already. It’s a valuable skill.
Next season the Yankees are going to have to come up with a way to rest their regular outfielders more often, as well as Chase Headley at third. Replacing the outfielders is easy enough, though the drop-off in production is usually pretty severe. It wouldn’t be with Zobrist. Headley played the second most defensive innings on the team this year (nine fewer than Gregorius) because the Yankees didn’t have a true backup third baseman much of the season.
One way or another, the Yankees are going to have to try to create some more roster flexibility next season. That was part of the reason they acquired Dustin Ackley. He offered more versatility than Garrett Jones. The Yankees are even talking about playing John Ryan Murphy on the infield to give themselves more options. Zobrist is a switch-hitter who can actually hit (123 wRC+ this year) and play almost anywhere.
The problem is a) you have to sell Zobrist on the idea of being a supersub for the Yankees rather than an everyday player at a set position elsewhere, and b) you’ve got to pay him. Even at age 34, my guess is Zobrist ends up with three years at $15M or so. Maybe even four years from a desperate team. He’s not eligible for a qualifying offer since he was traded at midseason, so there’s no draft pick involved. It’s just money.
Is that worth it for the Yankees? To bring in Zobrist to get 500+ plate appearances while playing all different positions in an effort to keep the other players rested and hopefully productive throughout the season? I think it is. The Yankees would be able to rest their players, still be able to play Rob Refsnyder regularly, and not take such a big hit in the lineup when someone sits. Pretty much the only way they can pull that off is with Zobrist.
I don’t think the Yankees are going to spend a substantial amount of money this offseason, but if they do, Heyward should be the number one target. If he’s not, Zobrist is the next best fit. He’s a fit for every team really, given his versatility and offensive production. The Yankees need to create a little more roster flexibility and don’t have a ton of open roster spots to work with. Zobrist potentially addresses many needs.