With Nick Swisher‘s contract expiring at the end of the 2012 season and no obvious internal replacement, the Yankees will have a tough decision to make this offseason about whether to retain the services of their 31 year-old right fielder. On the surface, retaining Swisher seems like an easy call. He has been durable, playing 150 games/season over the last 3 years. He has been productive, putting up wRC+’s in the 120-130 range throughout his Yankee career, and averaging 27 home runs/season. He is a fan favorite and a good clubhouse presence, and at 31 should still be productive over the length of a 4-5 year contract. He has not performed up to his standards so far in 2012, though he got off to a similarly slow start last season and turned things around.
Of course, there are several factors that might prevent the Yankees from bringing Swisher back. The first is the possible $189 million payroll limit for 2014. This will require the Yankees to shed some present salary commitments while finding the room in the budget to resign Robinson Cano to a massive deal as well as Curtis Granderson. Swisher and agent Dan Lozano will likely be looking for a raise over the $10.25 million he made this season, since he has definitely outperformed his contract during his time in pinstripes.
A second complication, which relates to the budget, is the Dodgers’ recent signing of right fielder Andre Ethier to a 5-year $85 million extension. This deal, for a player who has a career high fWAR of 3.5 (though he looks poised to exceed that number this season), has the potential to be a market-setter in that it establishes a benchmark for a very good but not star-caliber outfielder. Of course, it is not directly comparable to a free-agent deal because there was only one team in the bidding, but it appears that the Dodgers did not get much in the way of a hometown discount. It is also not likely a price the Yankees would be willing to pay for Nick Swisher.
However, it is also likely that Swisher won’t get an Ethier-level contract on the open market. For one, Ethier is a little younger. Secondly, despite their similar overall production over the past 3 years (Ethier is slightly ahead in offense, but worse in defense if we go by UZR) Swisher is in the middle of a sub-par season (wRC+ of 105) while Ethier is having a career year. The perception of trajectory is important for valuation of a player, to determine whether a team is signing a player in decline or a rising star. Ethier also seems to have the perception of being a star player that Swisher has never had. This is probably because Ethier is one of two good hitters on a Dodgers team that has been mediocre, while Swisher has been a solid performer in a star-studded Yankee lineup.
How Swisher finishes the 2012 season will likely play a big role in determining his free agent worth. I think there is virtually no chance he gets Ethier money. However, if he can get his production up into his usual 120-130 wRC+ range, I think a 4-5 year deal worth 13-15 million/year is certainly reasonable. However, if he continues his current level of production, he may have to drop his pricetag somewhat, perhaps to the $11-12 million range.
Even with Ethier off the market, Swisher will not be the top outfielder available. Josh Hamilton will be the biggest name (and get the biggest contract), and there are other intriguing options such as Melky Cabrera (say what?), BJ Upton, Michael Bourn, Carlos Quentin and Shane Victorino. As a pure right field option, Swisher is probably competing with Cabrera (if he finishes strong) for the top option, with Swisher offering more consistency while Cabrera offers more youth and possible upside.
If Swisher prices himself out of the Yankees’ range, Cabrera would present an intriguing alternative. He is having an insane season right now (.364/.403/.531), and while he probably won’t remain at that level, he did post an OPS over .800 in 2011, and at age 27, could just be entering his prime. However, Melky too could get pricey if he continues to perform this well. Upton could work for the Yankees, though he probably has more value to a team that would use him as a centerfielder (same with Bourne or Victorino), and might get costly. Quentin could be a lower-cost alternative, though durability is a major concern.
In summary, the Yankees’ ability to keep Nick Swisher will depend on two factors: how much room in the budget they are willing to allot for an outfielder, and how Swisher ends the season. A subpar 2012 will likely keep Swisher’s value within the Yankee budget range, and I imagine there would be mutual interest in his return. However, if he finishes strong and his pricetag escalates to the $15 million/year, the Yankees may wind up having to explore cheaper alternatives. Of course, we can always hope that Swisher, who seems to love playing for the Yankees, will take a bit of a discount to stay. But to expect that to happen in this day and age seems unlikely, since it may very well be Swisher’s last chance to cash in on a big free agent contract.
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