Last winter, the Yankees signed Raul Ibanez to add some power off the bench, despite the fact that he was coming off a dreadful 2011 with Philadelphia — managing only a .289 OBP in his age-39 season. Ibanez’ best days remained far behind him, but he basically delivered as well as the Yankees could have hoped – despite playing lousy defense in far more time than expected due to Brett Gardner’s injury, he had a huge platoon split (.812 OPS against righties) and he took advantage of the short porch in Yankee Stadium, hitting 14 of his 19 homers there.
Ibanez has since moved on to Seattle, and all winter the Yankees have been staring at a huge hole at designated hitter, unable to do better than some potentially horrific combination of Eduardo Nunez, Russ Canzler, & Juan Rivera. With that in mind, the news that the Yankees are going to sign Travis Hafner – another righty-killing, defense-averse slugger well past his prime — to be this year’s Ibanez makes a ton of sense.
“Pronk”, of course, was once one of the most feared hitters in baseball, hitting .296/.410/.567 with 127 homers between 2004-07. He’s been completely unable to stay healthy since then, missing huge chunks of time over the years with a chronically injured right shoulder and landing on the disabled list twice in 2012 thanks to a torn meniscus and a bulging disc in his back. Worse, those injuries have come even though he’s been exclusively a DH; Hafner hasn’t touched a glove since 2007 and can’t be considered even an emergency option to play first base at this point, though with Mark Teixeiria & Kevin Youkilis around he’ll likely never be asked to. That inflexibility may cause some issues on an aging Yankees squad that may need the DH spot to give some regulars a partial break, though Hafner’s huge platoon splits – he should never be allowed to face lefty pitching in the first place – should mitigate that somewhat.
Hafner will turn 36 in June, and it’s too much to ask that he manage to stay healthy for an entire season for the first time in years. That said, when he’s available, he’s still managed to remain productive, hitting .268/.361/.453 in 1476 plate appearances over the last four seasons, and he did still hit 12 homers in 263 PA last season. Even better, he’s going to a park that is almost universally acclaimed as the best place in the majors for a lefty power hitter; as FG alum Mike Axisa shared yesterday, Hafner does most of his damage to right field anyway.
So what we have here is something of a perfect match between player and stadium, with the obvious disclaimer that Hafner is all but guaranteed to miss some amount of time due to injury. It’s a worthy low-risk gamble by the Yankees, and the more I think about it the more I like it for them. However, it’s a bit of a different situation for fantasy purposes, because Hafner’s inability to play defense means that he’ll be clogging up a utility spot, and unlike a David Ortiz, Hafner is unlikely to play every day – whether that’s because he’s sitting against a lefty or he’s banged-up. That’s a pretty big caveat to what is otherwise a signing that increases Hafner’s fantasy value.