Amidst all the 100th anniversary celebration of Fenway park yesterday, a significant bit of Yankee news appears to have been overlooked around the blogosphere. In his Friday column, Joel Sherman said in no uncertain terms that the Yanks don’t plan on bringing pending free agent Nick Swisher back after this season.This is the first time I’ve seen that in print from a trusted source, so in my view it has to be taken seriously. Sherman’s article addressed the Yankee long term plans with Nunez, and the Swisher line was thrown out almost in passing. Here’s the quote, in its full context:
One reason the Yankees say they favored signing Raul Ibanez over Johnny Damon or Hideki Matsui was Ibanez, though not a good outfielder, had been playing the field regularly the past few years, which Damon and Matsui were not. The Yankees figured that made Ibanez more capable as a fill-in if there were an outfield injury.
Now left fielder Brett Gardner is on the disabled list. But I think the Yankees should keep Ibanez mainly as a DH against righty starters, keep Andruw Jones mainly playing against lefties and use Eduardo Nunez as the primary left fielder. Ibanez and Jones are on one-year pacts and not part of the Yankees’ future. Nunez could be.
Nunez’s at-bats were supposed to come mainly as an infield fill-in for the aging Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. But the Yankees are serious about getting under the $189 million luxury tax threshold in 2014, which means they are not re-signing Nick Swisher after this season. Could Nunez grow into at least part of a right-field platoon where the Yankees do not feel compelled to spend big money on the position? There are some similarities between Nunez and Alfonso Soriano (wiry, athletic, erratic in the infield), and Soriano moved to the outfield eventually.
Here is an audition moment for the Yankees to get a promising player onto the field. Is Nunez a defensive liability in the outfield? Sure. But no more so than Ibanez.
This comes as a bit of a surprise for me, though anyone who’s crunched the numbers knows that it was unlikely they would retain both Swisher and Martin after this year. Getting to 189M in 2014 will require at least one young starter in the rotation, and as we’ve seen in recent years with Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain even the most highly touted prospects can be dicey for a team like the Yanks that’s trying to win annually. Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano have deals that expire after 2013 season, both of whom figure to be retained on big money extensions of 20+ per. Further adding pressure to the payroll are A-Rod’s performance bonuses (recently outlawed by MLB going forward). At 631 HRs currently and assuming around 30 per season going forward, Alex should pass Babe Ruth’s 714 in 2014, which would add 6M to the payroll on top of Alex’s 25M salary for that year.
I’m a fan of Swisher, he’s very productive offensively and adequate defensively. Looking at the 2013 FA list he stands out at or near the head of the class, though one could quibble with Andre Ethier. I have to think someone will step up with an offer for the then-32 year old of 3 to 5 years around 15 per, maybe more. But if the Yanks plan on letting him go, I doubt they’re looking at Sherman’s scenario of Nunez in the OF as anything other than a fallback position. His bat looks good at SS, but looks much weaker in a corner OF position. He has good speed, but not the kind of elite speed that makes a player like Brett Gardner so valuable. That scenario looks to me like an attempt to mitigate his throwing issues, which I’ll get to in a minute.
I’ll speculate that the Yanks will take one of two approaches to address RF in the coming years. Given the surplus of starting pitching they currently enjoy, with more on the way from AAA, they could dangle a pitcher to find a younger, more inexpensive everyday RF. Phil Hughes would be a likely candidate, he’s still very young (26) and only under team control for one more year after this season. He’s also widely viewed as a good change of scenery candidate, given the way the Yanks have never guaranteed him a rotation spot and his fly ball tendencies not playing well in YS3. The 2nd tier of starter prospects (Phelps/Warren/Mitchell) would be easy to part with, but if an elite RF becomes available then the first tier (Banuelos/Betances) would have to be on the table as well. A small market team that needs pitching may look to unload a 2014 FA a year early, so the Cleveland Indians Shin Soo Choo (if healthy) or the Royals Billy Butler could be possibilities. A short term solution that bridges the Yanks to the 2014 season would also give plenty of time to some of their lower level prospects like Mason Williams to be in the mix for 2015 and beyond.
Another scenario, one that may make the most sense both now and going forward, would be to reconfigure the pieces you currently have. Alex Rodriguez has had all sorts of trouble staying healthy in recent years, and his bat would profile well in RF. He certainly has the arm for it and RF in Yankee stadium is the least demanding of the 3 outfield positions. Moving him there could have the dual effect of giving him a less stressful defensive position and lessening the need for days off and half days at DH. Derek Jeter’s glove has long been a liability in terms of range at SS, could you plug in Nunez at SS and move Derek to 3B? In the context of Alex moving to the OF, it will be very hard for a then-38 year old Jeter to refuse a position reassignment. 3B is easier to man than SS, so Derek could benefit in needing less time off similar to Alex. The Yanks have long argued that Nunez’s throwing issues are a result of constantly being moved around the diamond, where he’s throwing from an unfamiliar position. An everyday assignment could correct that, and it would make little sense to put someone with his range at 3B. This is a lot of defensive changes for a team that usually doesn’t operate like that, but all things considered I think it makes the most sense. The aging Yankee left side of the infield has to be addressed at some point, and this would fix it for at least a few more years. Nunez will need to hit, since effectively you’re replacing Swisher’s productive bat with him. But the defensive upgrade at a premium position (SS) could make up for some of the difference. Paring Swisher’s 10M salary off the books with no replacement gives you both roster flexibility and payroll flexibility. Given how committed the Yanks are to the 189M 2014 payroll and have been to getting Nunez regular playing time this year, I suspect this is their preferred option. How Nunez plays this year could go a long way toward deciding if this is the direction they settle upon.
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