Replacement level is one of the underlying fundamentals of sabermetrics that many people struggle to grasp. Over the next few weeks, Yankee fans unfamiliar with the concept are going to get a crash course.
Even before breaking his hand in the eighth inning of last night’s loss to the Seattle Mariners, Alex Rodriguez’ 2012 had been a disappointment. Despite remaining healthy, his offense and defense were down across the board, continuing a trend since his last MVP season in 2007. However, because Arod’s decline is coming off such a high peak, the third baseman has remained one of the team’s most productive players. In terms of average WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Arod ranks fourth on the team at 1.7, just behind Curtis Granderson. That’s a miniscule total compared to Rodriguez’ prime years, but when juxtaposed against the Yankees’ potential in-house replacements, the resultant drop-off could make it seem as if the Bronx Bombers are, in fact, losing the Arod of old.
Note: AvgWAR = (bWAR+fWAR)/2
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
Who are the potential replacements? Against right handers, Eric Chavez will likely become the regular third baseman, which really isn’t much of a change from the alignment used frequently before the Ichiro acquisition. If Chavez can maintain his current performance against righties, the former All Star won’t be much of a downgrade, if at all. In fact, because Chavez may have lost playing time to Ichiro Suzuki, the net difference in the regular lineup against righties, which figures to have Ichiro and Raul Ibanez installed in left field and at DH, respectively, could be negligible. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the injury prone Chavez can take on even an incremental amount of playing time. If not, the Yankees will be faced with an even more unenviable position than the one they’ll encounter against an opposing left hander.
In a reversal from the past few seasons, Arod has been one of the Yankees’ leading performers against southpaws. Even when he was healthy, the Yankees’ split-based vulnerability, especially against lefties, was a problem, but now, it has been exacerbated. In place of Rodriguez, the Yankees initial plan calls for a combination of Jayson Nix and Ramiro Pena (although the return of Eduardo Nunez looms as a possibility), two players whose limited playing time has been characterized by offensive ineptitude. Joe Girardi will likely be counting on Nix to produce at his career wOBA of .322 against lefties, but even if that figure is attainable, it will represent a significant drop off from Arod’s production. As for Pena, well, his career wOBA of .137 versus lefties says it all.
In addition to suffering the drop-off from Arod to Nix or Pena, the Yankees will have no choice but to play one of Chavez, Ibanez, and Ichiro in each game against a lefthander. With respective wOBA rates of .098, .202, and .222 this season, whomever Girardi chooses will likely further weaken the lineup.
Losing Arod is a significant blow to the Yankees. There’s no way to deny it. Now, the question becomes whether the team can absorb it. Although the Yankees’ seven game lead provides a nice cushion, with over 60 games remaining, it is hardly insurmountable. A lot will depend on how many games Arod winds up missing, but at the very least, it seems prudent for Brian Cashman to search for a player who would represent an upgrade over Pena. With 12 pitchers, the Yankees bench is already handicapped, so the team can ill afford to give away a roster space. Unfortunately, with so many teams still in the hunt for the two wild cards, it won’t be easy to find even a marginal upgrade.
If Cashman finds himself frustrated by the pursuit of a replacement-type player, there is at least on everyday third baseman on the market (before the Dodgers acquired him last night, Hanley Ramirez would have qualified as well, but the Yankees either didn’t approach the Marlins or had no interest in taking on his contract). The Padres have been shopping Chase Headley around for some time, and, according to Buster Olney, the Yankees are now one of the teams that is interested. Because of Headley’s versatility, the 28-year old switch hitter could fill in for Arod and then move into the outfield upon his return. As a long-term solution, he could either become the permanent third baseman in 2013, shifting Rodriguez to DH, or wind up as Nick Swisher’s replacement in right field. It seems like an attractive solution, but what about the cost?
Based on reports, the Padres asking price for Headley is high, so the Yankees would probably have to part with one or more of their top prospects to make a deal. If the Padres’ third baseman is true to offensive performance over the last season-plus (OPS+ of 121 in both 2011 and so far in 2012), the cost would be justified. However, Headley has been a late bloomer, and, at 28, might not have much more upside than his current rate of production. Also, although his park adjusted numbers are attractive, his underlying performance doesn’t jump off the page. Is it a given that Headley would benefit from leaving PetCo Park? His home/road splits suggest he should, but considering the transition from the NL West to the AL East, there might be too much risk to sell the farm.
If Brian Cashman thought his work was done with the Ichiro trade, Arod’s injury completely changed that dynamic. Now, the GM has to determine whether the Yankees can survive without Rodriguez, and if he decides that reinforcements are needed, the appropriate cost must also be calculated. In addition, Cashman must weigh potential long-term solutions against other alternatives that may present themselves in the off season. Over the next few weeks, the Yankees GM figures to be a very popular man, but, when all is said and done, will Yankees’ fans feel the same way about his decisions?