Nick Swisher Not Hurt Badly, But Yankees Lack Depth in Outfield

Steven Goldman@GoStevenGoldmanMLB Lead BloggerMarch 22, 2012

Nick Swisher: Having a little trouble downstairs.
Nick Swisher: Having a little trouble downstairs.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Over at the Pinstriped Bible (full disclosure: I own the damned thing), Rebecca Glass discusses Nick Swisher’s double-groin injury. Parenthetically, in my ignorance of anatomy I tend to think of “groin” in the singular rather than the plural, as the Man with Two Groins automatically suggests an old-school carnival sideshow or Tod Browning’s Freaks:

Twenty-home run power is certainly respectable, but what the Yankees (and Moneyball devotees) will deem most important is Swisher’s high on-base percentages; as a Yankee his OBPs have never been lower than .359 (it was .374 last season, second only to his .381 OBP with the Athletics in 2007). Sabermetric critics might argue that using OBP alone to evaluate players is a faulty idea (and they are not wrong), but Swisher has achieved the Nick Johnson-like quality of making a career out of it (albeit without the caveat of being made of glass).

With the exception of Swisher’s difficult 2008 season with the White Sox, a season that alienated Ozzie Guillen and saw him dumped on the Yankees for Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez, and Jhonny Nunez—one of Brian Cashman’s best pure baseball, non-money baseball moves. Even that season, Swish had an OPS+ of 92 because he hit 24 home runs and walked 82 times. He’s also an underrated defensive right fielder. His routes are never pretty, but he eventually gets to everything he should catch.

The dual groin malfunction isn’t expected to sideline Swisher for very long, but the bare possibility provokes the question of what the Yankees would do in his absence. Raul Ibanez isn’t hitting this spring, and while spring training stats should be taken with as many grains of salt as there are in the Bay of Biscay, he’s almost 40 and was miserable last year—sometimes, when a guy plays like he’s done, he’s really done.

Andruw Jones is terrific against left-handed pitching, but righties have been a problem, and he’s far from the defensive player he once was. In both cases, playing Ibanez or Jones in the outfield opens up the designated hitter spot. The Yankees don’t have a great option there.

Journeyman Justin Maxwell was terrific at Triple-A last year prior to Tommy John surgery, and the outfielder, out of options, has hit very well this spring. But if the Yankees carry 12 pitchers, there doesn’t seem to be room for him at the inn.

The Yankees have a few other outfielders lurking about in the purgatory between Triple-A and the majors—Colin Curtis, Chris Dickerson, DeWayne Wise, Cole Garner—and none are the kind of player you want to see all that often, or in some cases at all.

For all the improvement the Yankees have made in player development in recent years, developing position players remains a problem. Mason Williams, a 2010 fourth-rounder, was terrific at Low-A Staten Island last season, but that doesn’t mean he will be a star or even a major leaguer—he’s simply too far away.

Early reports on Dominican signee Ravel Santana are good, but he’s even farther away than Williams. Zoilo Almonte might be a major leaguer, but starting seems a stretch, and he has barely played at Double-A. Slade Heathcott, the team’s 2009 first-round pick, has been unable to stay healthy enough to develop. He has played just one game at High-A, so you might see him as soon as never.

The list of homegrown Yankees over the last three decades is short. It beings with Bernie Williams, then rapidly drops off to Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Roberto Kelly, Gerald Williams, Shane Spencer and Ricky Ledee.

Even on their current austerity kick, the Yankees spend a lot of money. You can’t fault them for that, nor for winning many a game and having low draft picks as a result. You can fault them for throwing away first-round picks on guys like Rafael Soriano, but that’s a subject for another post.

What their lack of depth in the outfield shows is that you can spend, but you have to spend wisely as well. Money isn’t always the answer and can’t buy you items that are in short supply or help you identify which players to scout, draft and develop so you have quality prospects coming up.

Last year, the Yankees gave Eduardo Nunez two starts in right field. When you have to start your light-hitting utility infielder at a power position, you have, at a very basic level, failed in your planning. Swisher’s current injury won’t reach that point of crisis, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which they get there.