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Reshaping the Yankees Line-Up

The big topic of discussion before yesterday’s Yankees-Orioles game was whether Joe Girardi should move Alex Rodriguez down in the order so that Robinson Cano could hit third in the line-up. Girardi declined to make that change, but did have Rodriguez DH instead of play third, which seems to suggest that having Ibanez pinch-hit for him late in the game was premeditated and not simply a reaction to Rodriguez’s in-game struggles. Ibanez, of course, made Girardi look like a genius. So, now, what do the Yankees do about their line-up going forward?

In reality, we probably won’t get that answer today. The Orioles decided to swap out Chris Tillman for Joe Saunders, so Girardi’s going to go with his anti-LHP line-up today, and Rodriguez is clearly going to be part of that effort. Starting either Ibanez or Eric Chavez against a lefty isn’t a great idea, and the team doesn’t have any good right-handed alternatives, which is why Eduardo Nunez started at DH against Wei-Yin Chen. With Derek Jeter fouling a ball off his foot in Game Three, he very well could end-up DH’ing in Game Four, with Jayson Nix getting the start at shortstop. In some ways, Buck Showalter did Girardi a favor by starting Saunders, giving him an easy way out of the decision over whether to put A-Rod back in the line-up the day after he pinch hit for him. Against a lefty, he doesn’t really have much of a choice.

If this series goes to Game 5, however, then Girardi’s going to have to make some decisions, and not just about Alex Rodriguez.

While Rodriguez’s struggles are generating the headlines, Curtis Granderson is probably an even bigger problem. Like Rodriguez, he’s off to a miserable start in this series — 1 for 11 with 6 strikeouts — but this isn’t really something recent. Since a strong beginning to the season, Granderson has really struggled, and has particularly struggled with strikeouts. Since July 1st, Granderson has struck out 110 times in 345 trips to the plate, a strikeout rate of 33%. He didn’t even strike out this much back in his Detroit days, and his escalating contact problems speak to a potentially larger problem than just a four game slump.

Against right-handed pitching, the Yankees have some depth that they don’t have against lefties — which is likely one of the reasons why Showalter went with Joe Saunders in Game 4 — and could potentially make some adjustments for Game 5. For instance, if Girardi wanted to get radical and react strongly to recent performance, he could go for the overhaul plan:

1. Jeter, SS
2. Ichiro, LF
3. Cano, 2B
4. Texeira, 1B
5. Swisher, RF
6. Chavez, 3B
7. Martin, C
8. Ibanez, DH
9. Gardner, CF

Chavez hit .299/.366/.545 against right-handers this year, so starting him at third base isn’t really going out on any kind of limb. Likewise, Ibanez’s 114 wRC+ against right-handers this year is also quite a bit better than A-Rod’s 94, so giving him the start against a right-hander with the season on the line isn’t so crazy. Both Chavez and Ibanez have shown huge platoon splits, however, so starting them means you’re committed to pinch-hitting for them when Showalter goes to the bullpen. Depending on how early that ends up being, Rodriguez and Nunez might end up getting just as many at-bats as Chavez and Ibanez.

This is one of the problems with guys who have large platoon splits. In the playoffs, you can’t count on getting three trips to the plate against the starter, so putting a guy in the line-up because he has the platoon advantage might only result in that match-up happening once, especially if he’s hitting towards the bottom of the batting order. Even if Girardi wanted to reward Ibanez for his performance last night, it’s not clear that starting him in Game Five would be the best way to do that – it might just put him into a situation where he either has to face a bunch of left-handers or get pinch-hit for in the fourth or fifth inning.

The best way to use Ibanez and Rodriguez might be to just continue with the status quo, at least in terms of who starts the game. Having Ibanez available to pinch-hit against Jim Johnson, when you know Showalter won’t go to the bullpen and get a left-hander to counter the move, could very well be the best use of his skillset.

In center field, though, a switch may very well be in order, at least for one game. Gardner’s the superior defensive player and Granderson’s problems run deeper than just the ALDS. If there’s a significant move to be made in the Yankees line-up, it should probably come in center field.