In Spring Training, the big question for the Yankees will be whether Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson switch places in left and center. Before they get to that point, however, the Yankees first need to determine who will stand alongside them in right, and at what cost?
One of the Yankees’ biggest advantages over the years has been their ability to not only sign the best free agents, but retain their own. However, despite continuing to enjoy immense financial success (Forbes estimates the team had an operating profit of $10 million on $439 million in revenue in 2011), Hal Steinbrenner has made dropping below the salary cap threshold in 2014 a priority. As a result, unless Nick Swisher’s rumored demands come down significantly, Brian Cashman’s chief focus this off season will be replacing a player who gave him steady, above average offensive production as well as solid and flexible defense. Swisher also had a significance presence in the clubhouse and, at least until this October, established himself as a fan favorite. Make no mistake about it, by allowing Swisher to walk away, the team is creating a big hole on the roster, and, Cashman knows it. For those reasons, his decision, and the player he selects, will likely come under an inordinate amount of scrutiny.
Arizona Diamondbacks’ right fielder Justin Upton would be an ideal replacement for Swisher. Despite entering his age-25 season, Upton has already established himself as one of the best players in the game, having made two All Star appearances and finished among the top-5 in the 2011 MVP race. His relative struggles in 2012 have dampened some of the enthusiasm for Upton, but he remains one of only 29 players to perform at an above average rate in at least 3,000 plate appearances before his age-25 season. With a career OPS+ of 117, Upton is only bettered by 19 others from that group, almost all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
Upton seems like a perfect fit for the Yankees, who desperately need to get younger on the field, but, according to recent reports, the team is not considered a serious contender. Why? They do not have any major league ready prospects to trade. When Cashman dealt Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda last off season, the cupboard was left bare in the high minors, so with so many other teams attracted to Upton’s talent and affordability (he is under contract for three more seasons at an average annual value of about $13 million), the Yankees probably can’t compete. Chances are if Upton changes his uniform, it won’t be for pinstripes.
Another attractive right fielder rumored to be on the trade market is the Indians’ Shin-Soo Choo. Just entering his age-30 season, the right fielder is arguably one of the most under-appreciated players in the game. Since 2008, Choo’s OPS+ of 136 ranks 12th among all players with at least 2,000 plate appearances. In addition, he has the reputation for being a solid defender with one of the strongest arms in all of baseball. If there is one drawback to Choo, he has proven susceptible to southpaws, so, even though he would benefit from the short porch at Yankee Stadium, he wouldn’t address the team’s growing vulnerability to split-based match-ups. Nonetheless, if the Yankees could obtain the right fielder, he would more than make up for the loss created by Swisher.
Because Choo can be a free agent after 2013, the asking price will likely not be as high as for Upton, meaning the Yankees would probably be able to obtain him without selling the farm. Also, the cost conscious Bombers would only have to commit for one season, leaving the team’s goal of falling below the luxury tax threshold in 2014 unhindered. Finally, if the Yankees offered and Choo declined a qualifying contract for 2014, the team could recoup some of the acquisition cost with a draft pick, thereby helping to rebuild a depleted farm system.
If the Yankees find themselves unable to make a trade, the free agent market holds several viable options. Torii Hunter has been mentioned prominently as a potential replacement for Swisher, but the Yankees have reportedly been unwilling to offer him more than a one-year deal. Considering he is coming off arguably one of the greatest seasons in his long career, it’s hard to imagine Hunter making such a concession. Even at 36, the versatile outfielder should be able to secure a deal for two or three years. Of course, that doesn’t mean he will be a productive player over that term. If the Yankees’ insistence on a short-term deal is born of that fear, their reticence is understandable. However, if the hold up is financial, as has been reported, the team’s commitment to fielding the best team possible would deservedly be called into question because Hunter’s rumored cost is lower than what the Yankees are paying Swisher now.
If the Yankees really are more concerned about the bottom line than the win-loss column, then most of the other significant names on the free agent market, such as Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Shane Victorino and Michael Bourne, would also be off the table. That would send Cashman dumpster diving, and no player’s reputation has been more trashed than Melky Cabrera. Was the former Yankee’s breakout success with the Royals and Giants a product of performance enhancing drugs? Or, did a young player who was rushed to the major leagues finally hit his stride? If the Yankees believe the latter, signing Cabrera to a one-year “pillow contract” could allow the team to replace Swisher’s production at a fraction of the cost and commitment. Such a signing would also come without free agent compensation because the Giants did not make Cabrera a qualifying offer. In other words, if the goal is winning on the cheap, Cabrera probably makes the most sense for the frugal Yankees.
At the same time the Yankees have shifted their focus away from winning at all cost, the team is also facing a period of transition as its roster of aging superstars gradually enters a decline phase. These two converging dynamics will present the Yankees’ brain trust with challenges the franchise has not encountered in awhile, and impatient fans might not like the results. Can the Yankees transition while adopting a divergent philosophy and not suffer a disruption? Think of right field as a test tube for this new experiment. The team’s handling of the position could provide a glimpse at a new paradigm coming to the Bronx.