Up until about 18 hours ago, hitting prospect and kinda, sorta catcher Jesus Montero was slated to be more or less the everyday DH for the New York Yankees in 2012. In the meantime, however, he and right-hander Hector Noesi have been traded to the Seattle Mariners for a pair of players — most notably, Michael Pineda, a talented and hard-throwing right-hander entering his age-23 season. As Dave Cameron notes, the deal compares favorably, in term of cost, to similar bids by the Nationals and Reds to add young, frontline starters.
The Pineda move, coupled with the subsequent signing (like, three minutes later) of Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year, $10 million deal, has, in Paul Swydan’s words, remade the Yankees rotation in one night.
What it’s also done is to create a vacuum at the DH spot for New York.
Here are the team’s four options for filling said vacuum, from least to most likely:
4. Sign Prince Fielder
The fact that the Yankees now have a clear opening at DH, combined with the fact that they’re the Yankees, will undoubtedly lead to speculation somewhere that the team could sign Prince Fielder. At the very least, it leads to people like me suggesting that there will be speculation about it. Either way, the sort of financial commitment likely required to sign Fielder makes New York an unlikely landing spot for him.
Consider: New York’s payroll, including Kuroda, is currently at about $189 million for 2012; however, that figure excludes arbitration-eligible players Joba Chamberlain, Brett Gardner, Phil Hughes, Boone Logan, Russell Martin, and David Robertson, who made more than $10 million combined in 2011. Assuming a generic arbitration increase, that figure will likely jump to somewhere in the $12-13 million range for 2012, bringing the Yankee payroll above $200 million.
After hitting the $208 million mark in 2005, the New York payroll has generally remained somewhere in the range of $190-210 million, peaking at $213 in 2010, but dropping to $207 last year. A deal with Fielder would push the Yankees’ overall commitment to somewhere in the mid-$220 million range. Nor is that even to consider the long-term implications of a Fielder signing.
3. Use an Internal Option as a Full-Time DH
While the solution to the Yankees’ DH problem might involve Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez or Andruw Jones (see below), it’s unlikely that any of them would become a full-time DH. Jones’ effectiveness is limited mostly to left-handed pitchers, while Jeter and A-Rod provide more value as competent fielders on the right side of the defensive spectrum.
A possibility from the minor leagues is soon-to-be 30-year-old Jorge Vazquez, who slashed .262/.314/.516 (.330 BABIP) in 500 Triple-A plate appearances in a pretty challenging environment (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the International League). OLIVER projects Vazquez to post the sixth-best wOBA on the team; ZiPS, the ninth-best OPS+. Vazquez’s power appears impressive (50 HR in 816 PAs over the last two season in Triple-A), but the approach is worrisome: in those same 816 plate appearances, Vazquez has posted a 47:261 BB:K. Like Jones, he’s probably best used against left-handers only — playing DH, for example, when Jones takes Brett Gardner’s place in left field.
2. Sign a Free Agent DH That’s Not Fielder
Among the players currently available on the market are (roughly in order of projected cost) Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Russell Branyan. Given the presence of Andruw Jones — and Jones’ capacity to hit left-handers well — a left-handed bat would make a better fit, likely, which makes Lee less attractive. Pena is both the youngest and best hitter on the list. Moreover, the 119 OPS+ for which ZiPS projects him would place him third among Yankee hitters (behind only Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano), also per ZiPS. Pena would probably cost about the $10 million he received from the Cubs before the 2011 season, however, likely pushing the payroll past the $210 million mark.
1. Use the DH Spot for Flexibility
En route to winning the AL East last year, the Yankees used 10 different players at DH. No other position was occupied by any more than five players during the course of the season. Nor was that arrangement anomalous: of the American League’s 14 teams, only three (Detroit, Oakland, Los Angeles) utilized more players, at one point or another, at a field position than at DH.
In its way, the DH spot has ancillary benefits that the eight fielding positions do not. In lieu of assigning one player to fill the spot — the way the Red Sox have done for David Ortiz, or the Orioles did for Vladimir Guerrero in 2011 — a team can use the position to rest old or injured players, or to give something closer to regular at-bats to back-up players.
The 2011 American League Champion Texas Rangers are the model for this sort of arrangement. During the course of the season, Ron Washington deployed a total of 11 players at the DH spot, with no one player making more than Michael Young‘s 69 starts. Mike Napoli (18 starts), Yorvit Torrealba (13), Adrian Beltre (11), Ian Kinsler (10), Josh Hamilton (9), Nelson Cruz (8), and Mitch Moreland (7) were all starters, at one point or another during the season, at another position.
In the Yankees’ case, manager Joe Girardi will want to find some way to protect the 38-year-old Derek Jeter and 36-year-old Alex Rodriguez, who missed 94 games combined in 2011. The emergence of Eduardo Nunez, who played both short and third in 2011, will allow Girardi to do that. Furthermore, utilizing some combination of Andruw Jones and Jorge Vazquez — and also outfielder Justin Maxwell, a right-handed batter who can handle center field — would allow Girardi to exploit platoon advantages while also resting his starters.
In this way, the loss of Montero is mitigated (perhaps considerably) by the potential gains received from a flexible DH spot, whether said spot is used to keep starters fresh or give at-bats to back-up players with a view to keeping them sharper.
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