What is the Yankees’ greatest area of need this off season? Finding a replacement for Nick Swisher in right field? How about a right handed DH to replace Andruw Jones or an offensive-oriented catcher to either replace or supplement Russell Martin? With Mark Teixeira becoming increasingly injury prone and Alex Rodriguez’ ability to play a full season dwindling, perhaps acquiring a corner infielder is most pressing? With so many areas to upgrade, the Yankees, who are now operating under austerity, seem resigned to entering 2013 with more than a few holes to fill. However, there are two available free agents who would help meet most of the team’s deficiencies without breaking the budget.
Mike Napoli and Kevin Youkilis are not exactly spring chickens. Entering their age 34 and 31 seasons, respectively, both players aren’t the long-term solutions being sought by the Yankees as they attempt to transition from an older nucleus. However, both men can hit, and, specifically, do it from the right side of the plate, which, over the past decade, has been a gradually increasing relative weakness for the Bronx Bombers.
Brian Cashman has repeatedly stated that he is more than content to build the Yankees’ offense around big, hairy monsters who take aim at the short porch. Of course, other teams are fully aware of this strategy too, so, the Yankees are being subjected to an increasing diet of southpaws. As a result, right handed hitters took over 48% of the team’s plate appearances in 2012, the highest rate since 2004. That wouldn’t be a problem if the Yankees’ righty bats were holding up their end. Instead, last year, the gap in OPS between righties and lefties was nearly twice as wide as any point over the past 10 seasons.
The middle of the Yankees’ order in 2013 will be centered on Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, and Teixeira, who combined to hit 90 homers from the left side of the plate in 2012. The lineup’s source of right handed power is more uncertain. With the likely departure of Andruw Jones and Swisher, who combined to hit 19 homers from the right side, and the uncertain status of Russell Martin, who led the team’s right handers with 21 long balls, the Yankees are facing the loss of almost half their output in the split. Considering Derek Jeter’s unusual power spike in 2012 as well as Arod’s power attrition, the Yankees could be starving for right handed power next season.
As Martin’s replacement, Mike Napoli would more than make up for the loss of right handed power, and also supplement the lineup with better all around production. However, the advantage on offense would be mitigated by the defensive drop off. That’s why Napoli makes more sense as a supplement to, instead of replacement for, Martin. As a backup, Napoli would help the Yankees avoid the typical black hole created by a second catcher, giving the team a strong advantage at a traditionally weak offensive position. In addition, Napoli could also serve as a right handed DH and occasional backup first baseman, allowing him to play the approximately 120 games he has averaged over the past four years. Also, because of Napoli’s offensive contributions, the Yankees could give Martin more rest, which might help the catcher stay fresh throughout the season.
Like Napoli, Kevin Youkilis would also provide right handed offense and defensive flexibility. Granted, the former Red Sox standout is coming off a year plagued by injury and occasional struggles, but over the course of his career, Youkilis has been one of the game’s best hitters against both left handed and right handed pitchers. In addition to providing offense as a right handed DH, Youkilis’ ability to play both corner positions would also come in handy, allowing the Yankees to give Arod and Teixeira more rest and providing the team with a capable replacement should either sustain a long-term injury.
An additional benefit to signing Napoli or Youkilis is both players come with a postseason pedigree. In 2011, Napoli would have been the World Series MVP had the Rangers been able to close out the Cardinals, while Youkilis has compiled a postseason line of .306/.376/.944 in 125 plate appearances. Considering the team’s recent offensive struggles in October, adding players with some history of success in the postseason is at least an incremental benefit.
If Russell Martin departs, the Yankees could probably make room for both Napoli and Youkilis. However, the team would likely prefer to retain a catcher with a better defensive reputation, so Cashman probably won’t be eager to install Napoli as a full-time backstop. Still, because his younger age and ability to play a more scarce position, Napoli seems to be the more attractive option. Of course, that also makes him more expensive. If cost becomes the main determinant, Youkilis’ discounted value could force the Yankees to turn their attention to him. Whereas Napoli is a better bet to secure a longer-term contract, Youkilis may be willing to take a pillow deal. If so, that would make the former Red Sox a much better fit into the organization’s new cost conscious approach.
Aside from Napoli and Youkilis, the Yankees are also rumored to still be in pursuit of Angels’ outfielder Torii Hunter, another right handed hitter who would fill a more defined role as Swisher’s replacement in right field. If Cashman could add two of these three right handed hitters to the lineup, it just might stem the tide of the Yankees’ declining production from that side of the plate. And, although neither player would help make the lineup much younger, the relatively short-term commitments required for each could help the Bronx Bombers transition to a younger team without a dramatic interruption in the franchise’s expected level of success. Yankee fans shouldn’t get too excited though. All three players have been highly coveted so far this off season, so, if the organization is serious about saving money in the long term, it may have to spend more right now in order to do it.