The Yankees have a problem with their offense, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at the aggregate numbers. They not only lead the AL in scoring, but they are the only team that has scored more than five runs per game. Their lead over the next closest team is nearly a third of a run. Their team .345 wOBA leads the majors, and even with a park adjustment their 117 wRC+ leads as well. They are the only team that has three players with double-digit home runs, and two of those players rank in the top four. Pick any offensive measure and they’re sure to grade out at or near the top. So where’s the problem? Strangely enough, it involves the one position reserved solely for hitters.
The transition from catcher to designated hitter has not gone smoothly for Jorge Posada. He started looking his age during his first month in the role, producing a .267 wOBA that was fueled almost completely by his six home runs. The last of those six came on April 23rd, and he has yet to hit once since. He’s shown some improvement in other aspects of his game, hitting a mostly powerless .293 wOBA in May, but the word improvement is used in a strictly relative sense. Even then, much of the uptick comes from his new role as not just a DH, but a platoon DH. He’s 0 for the season against left-handed pitching, and has sat every time the Yankees have faced a lefty in the past two weeks. It has made his numbers appear nicer, but it does little to solve the underlying problem.
How big can the problem be? you might be asking. After all, the Yankees do have that sizable lead over the competitions’ offenses, and so they can probably afford to punt the DH spot. My hope is that everyone saw the sheer irrationality of that notion. Posada is a legacy, a lifetime Yankee who has produced some of the best numbers and biggest moments in recent team history. But he’s doing little to help the current team achieve its goal of winning the World Series. Even as the Yankees cut his playing time, they’re still not getting much production out of the DH spot, period. The team has a .286 wOBA in that spot, which ranks dead last in the league. Considering the Yankees’ vast resources, this is a missed opportunity.
For a moment let’s set aside the drama involved in excising Posada from the roster and focus on what the Yankees can do. The DH spot is, after all, probably the easiest to fill at this point in the season, and it represents the best opportunity for the Yankees to turn a weakness into a strength. Imagine their offense if they had even the fourth-best DH in the AL. They have a number of options both within and outside the organization that could help bring about this improvement.
The Option from Within
If the Yankees want the simplest fix to their problem, they could recall their best prospect, Jesus Montero. He ranks among the best prospects in the game, and even made the No. 3 spot on Keith Law’s updated list. Last year, as a 20-year-old in AAA he got off to a slow start but rallied in the second half to finish with a .375 wOBA. This year he’s been a bit better from the start, but is a bit under expectations at a .343 wOBA through 189 PA. If he heats up similarly in the second half he could not only help the Yankees solve their DH problem, but he could make them more flexible.
The one knock on Montero is his poor defense behind the plate. While the Yankees maintain that he can be an average defensive catcher in the majors, they are the only entity that holds that claim. Every other scouting body, from anonymous ones to Keith Law to Baseball America to Kevin Goldstein, believes that he’ll be quite terrible in a full-time catching role. If the Yankees want to continue his defensive development while bringing him onto the major league roster, they could employ him in the same manner as the Tigers have Victor Martinez. That is, backup catcher and primary DH.
Having one man fill both spots would give the Yankees incredible roster flexibility. They could option Francisco Cervelli, leaving another spot on the bench open for Eric Chavez when he returns. That way they could keep Chavez and Chris Dickerson (or Justin Maxwell if they want a right-handed bat) as a fifth outfielder. The deep bench would allow them to continue giving Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter half days off at DH while Montero catches or takes a breather. In that way it seems like the ideal solution. They get to 1) call up a top prospect, 2) presumably improve their biggest weakness, 3) continue rotating veterans at DH, 4) maintain a deep and flexible bench, and 5) still have reasonable playing time for everyone.
Of course, relying on a youngster, especially a 21-year-old, to step in and produce immediately can end in disappointment. Young players develop at different rates, and that sometimes involves struggles upon initial promotion. Since the primary aim of this exercise is to improve the DH spot, the other effects become less attractive if Montero doesn’t hit from the get-go. The prospect of his struggles could have the Yankees looking elsewhere.
Outside the Organization
This week we have spent time running down trade candidates that can help contenders. I found it curious, though, that neither the 1B/DH nor the corner outfielder post mentioned the Yankees as a possible destination for any of the targets. Both Eric and Jonah wrote about a number of players who could fit right into that DH spot. Furthermore, a couple of them would make the Yankees more versatile. I’ll list them form least to most likely.
Carlos Pena. The Cubs had their eyes on the NL Central crown when they signed Pena to a one-year, $10 million contract this past off-season. That plan has clearly gone awry. They’re currently 23-31, three games behind the Pirates and 8.5 games out of first. Pena could be one of the first guys they trade. They might find trouble finding a team to pay $5 million for a half season of Pena, but money is rarely, if ever, an object for the Yankees when they seek to improve. Pena is familiar with the AL East, and his pull-heavy ways would play well at Yankee Stadium. He would essentially replace Posada as the platoon DH against righties, while also being capable of giving Mark Teixeira a breather at first with little lost on defense.
Andre Ethier. This might seem even less likely than Pena, since Ethier would cost a great deal more in prospects if the Dodgers decide to make him available. He and Nick Swisher could split time between right field and DH. Ethier does have a considerably career platoon split, which would also leave room for him to sit against lefties so that A-Rod, Jeter, and Jones could get time at DH. Why, though, would the Yankees pay a considerably sum in prospects for Ethier? It would make sense if they planned to decline Swisher’s option after the season.
Jim Thome. The Twins had their eyes on another AL Central crown when they brought back Thome this winter, but as with the Cubs, that plan is no longer in play. They do have a few chips that could help improve future teams, as both Eric and Jonah noted. Thome could fetch them something useful, as he can still mash taters. That tater mashing ability would go a long way at Yankee Stadium. He’s currently on the DL with a hamstring issue, but he should be back in plenty of time for trade season. He might not be an ideal solution, since he would essentially be a one-to-one replacement for Poasda. But he should represent a significant improvement.
Carlos Beltran. Since the day Beltran returned to the field in April there has been speculation linking him to the Yankees. He would be one of the more versatile options available, since he can still play a quality outfield. In fact, a Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, Beltran outfield would represent one of the best defensive units in the league. The Yankees could keep the pressure off Beltran’s knees, too, with regular reps at DH. The only downside, if it can really be considered one, is that it leaves less room for A-Rod and Jeter to get half-days off as DH. But if Nick Swisher continues struggling against righties, he might render that point moot.
I’ve spent the past ten or so paragraphs pretending that the Yankees can simply cast Posada aside and insert a better DH into the lineup. It makes for fun hypotheticals, but the reality of the situation will make replacing him more difficult. Still, there comes a point, and it’s not too far off, where the Yankees simply have to do something. There are only so many areas where a contending team can improve, and there is no clearer area than DH for the Yankees. He still has a few weeks to turn things around, and we’ve seen older players, most notably David Ortiz, shake off unimaginably slow starts to turn in productive seasons. But that’s the exception, not the norm. If Posada continues struggling, the Yankees will have an opportunity to greatly improve their team. While there are sentimental ties to Posada, they’d be doing their team and its fans a great disservice by not doing anything about their DH problem.