All offseason long, there were questions regarding whether or not the Yankees had done enough. The Yankees, understandably, have been confident in themselves, but the media has expressed its share of doubt. That was with the Yankees as previously constructed. Now the Yankees are constructed differently, with one fewer Curtis Granderson, as the outfielder was hit by a pitch over the weekend and is now out for about 10 weeks. On one hand, it’s the right time for an injury, since spring training is just getting started. On the other hand, days into spring training, the Yankees have been confronted by a major injury that’ll carry over into May. The road to the playoffs has gotten all the more bumpy, and the Yankees are left considering what options they have for a temporary fill-in.
There’s not much on the active roster. There’s not much off the active roster, either, and right now the third Yankees’ outfielder probably stands to be Juan Rivera or Matt Diaz. As general managers always say, Brian Cashman said he’ll look at everything. As general managers also almost always say, Cashman said for the time being, replacement options are internal. The Yankees do have all spring to figure something out.
Now, one has to look at this in the right frame of mind. Curtis Granderson is a very good player, and missing him is problematic. Jon Morosi referred to the injury news as “devastating“. But Granderson doesn’t stand to miss the entire season, or even the majority of it. A 10-week timeline puts him on schedule to miss a fifth of the year. We can round up and call it a quarter, since Granderson will have to go on some sort of rehab assignment, since he will have missed spring training. Let’s just say that Granderson will miss about the first 41 games.
Last year, Mark Teixeira started 121 games, and didn’t start 41 games. The Yankees won 23 of those 41 games, whereas applying the winning percentage in Teixeira’s starts would’ve yielded 24 wins. This doesn’t prove anything, but it’s a point. Perhaps more saliently, the Yankees were 13-11 when Mariano Rivera went down for the year with a major injury. That was said to be devastating, and the Yankees finished 82-56. The Yankees survived the prolonged absence of Rivera, and they should survive the less prolonged absence of Curtis Granderson.
Switching over to the NHL for a minute, just because it seems timely and appropriate, one could consider the current Ottawa Senators. Early in the season, Ottawa lost Jason Spezza to back surgery, and Spezza is a premier first-line center. Not long ago, Ottawa also lost Erik Karlsson to an Achilles injury, and Karlsson might be the league’s best defenseman. These are two overlapping, potentially crippling injuries, and since Karlsson went down, Ottawa’s won four of five games. The general point is this: in team sports, involving several different players, it’s easy to overstate the impact of losing one player in particular. Baseball isn’t basketball, and the Yankees are more than Curtis Granderson.
Here’s the super simple math. By various measures, Granderson projects to be worth three or four wins in 2013. The Yankees have a bunch of approximately replacement-level internal options. Take Granderson out for 41 games and the Yankees are down about a win or so. That’s just average, that’s just probability, and in reality the Yankees could struggle far more out of the gate, but at the same time the Yankees could also overachieve because anything’s possible over a fraction of one season. Missing Granderson is only as devastating as missing about one win is devastating.
So ignore the story about how the Yankees are down so many home runs. What matters is overall value, and as much as the replacements aren’t Curtis Granderson, they only have to fill in for one month and change. Then Granderson will be back, and it shouldn’t take long before he’s at or around 100%.
But now here’s the issue. The Yankees aren’t, say, the Tigers or the Reds, a team projected to win the division by a handful of games. It’s conceivable that any team in the AL East could win the AL East, and the Yankees aren’t markedly better than the competition. In a race projected to be so tight, a win is important, because that one win could mean the difference between making the playoffs and missing the playoffs. The Yankees, in other words, appear to be in a high-leverage spot on the win curve.
So this injury isn’t good news, and the Yankees will have to make sure they find the best fill-in possible. Both Diaz and Rivera are mediocre defenders who can hit lefties and who struggle against righties. Melky Mesa doesn’t project to be good, and neither does Zoilo Almonte, which isn’t surprising since neither has demonstrated great discipline in the minors. Thomas Neal spent last year in double-A, and Adonis Garcia spent just part of last year in double-A. Ronnier Mustelier might be the most intriguing internal option, but he turned 28 while playing in triple-A last summer and his performance was unspectacular.
The free-agent options are fairly miserable, with Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu, and Scott Podsednik looking for work. The option most people are talking about is Alfonso Soriano, who’s still under contract with the Cubs. Soriano projects to be worth about two wins, but he was just worth about four, and the Cubs are looking for prospects in return in a deal. They’d eat a lot of Soriano’s salary, but they’d expect value back, and Soriano’s also under contract for multiple seasons, which has been turning the Yankees off. Additionally, it’s possible that Soriano’s no-trade clause could be a factor.
The Yankees haven’t really wanted to trade for Soriano yet. The talk now reminds me of when people wondered whether the Rangers might make a play for Michael Bourn once it became possible that Nelson Cruz could be suspended. It didn’t seem to me like a potential 50-game absence would change the Rangers’ minds about something with multiyear implications. It’s similar here — though Soriano would be a lesser investment than Bourn, the Yankees probably won’t be swayed because Granderson might miss a month and a half. That all depends, however, on the Cubs’ asking price, though now the Cubs know the Yankees might be desperate.
There are still more options, though. This is the time of year that teams try to slip players through waivers, and there are fringe outfielders out there who are out of minor-league options. Jose Tabata is essentially out of a job with the Pirates, and he’s been reasonably productive, but he’s under contract through 2016. Maybe a better option would be Casper Wells, who has years of team control but who isn’t locked into a guaranteed multiyear deal. Wells is a righty outfielder capable of playing all three positions, and he’s basically fighting Jason Bay for a job. The Mariners signed Bay for a reason, and if he performs in Arizona the Mariners will probably want to keep him around, freezing Wells out. Wells projects to be the better player in both the short-term and the long-term, but the Mariners like Bay’s experience and leadership value and they haven’t been big fans of Wells since his arrival from Detroit.
Wells is an above-replacement player, and he’s probably deserving of a starting job. He might be available, or he might become available, and he could slide back into a backup role upon Granderson’s return. He’d still get his playing time, since he can play everywhere and since the three Yankees outfield regulars are left-handed. Wells would be preferable to the Yankees’ other in-house options, and it’s doubtful he would cost a premium prospect. He seems to me like a good compromise between overreacting to the injury and underreacting to the injury. Though the Yankees don’t stand to be crippled, they do stand to be hurt, and Wells could help out in the short-term while sticking around for a while as quality depth.
I don’t know if Wells will be available, and I don’t know what he could cost. Obviously, those are the two most critical factors, but this is the sort of player I think the Yankees should be targeting. Soriano might cost too much, and there aren’t many other quality options. Even if the Yankees stay internal, though, they shouldn’t pay too much of a price. They have, at least, replacement-level players, and if they opt for one of the guys from the minors, maybe they catch temporary lightning in a temporary bottle. We’re talking about a projected one-win subtraction, and while the Yankees are in a position where that one win could be important, it’s also just one win out of the 85 or 90 the team ought to amass. This injury isn’t going to cause the Yankees to miss the playoffs, not on its own. And now there’s an opportunity for them to bolster their depth.