MLB Free Agents 2013: 7 Players the New York Yankees Must Avoid Signing
Those who insist the New York Yankees need a complete overhaul after a 95-win season and advancement to the ALCS deserve a trip in time to 1966, when the Yanks finished tenth in a ten-team league, and 1967, when they finished ninth. However, continual improvement is key to not repeating history, and an element of that improvement is astute free agent signings.
Far be it for me to tell Brian Cashman how to do his job, but were I in his shoes, I’d use the following criteria to evaluate free agents:
- Role: The player does not need to be a superstar, but his numbers must either fit an identified need or significantly upgrade a position.
- Youth: The ideal signing would be a first-time unrestricted free agent in his mid to late twenties. This is a limited and expensive market, so signing older players will most likely occur.
- Health: Injuries have plagued the Yankees. The last thing they need is a high-priced free agent who spends most of his contract on the disabled list. Let’s avoid another Carl Pavano.
- Postseason: The roster is full of players with big regular season numbers who disappear after game 162. Cashman should consider a free agent's postseason record or lack thereof during evaluations, but not accept or reject someone based exclusively on his postseason performance.
- Personality: The Billy Martin/Reggie Jackson days of locker room acrimony are long gone. New arrivals must work and play well with others.
- Price: The Yankees aim to reduce their payroll to $189 million by 2014 to avoid the MLB luxury tax and be eligible for revenue sharing. They’ll be looking for maximum value per dollar. This policy means fewer, if any, long-term contract offers this year and may result in the loss of veteran players such as Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, and Rafael Soriano.
The Yankees should combine free agent signings, prospect promotions, and trades to meet the following goals as they shape their roster for 2013:
- Re-sign or replace departing veterans. In addition to Swisher, Martin, and Soriano, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Hiroki Kuroda, Freddy Garcia, Ichiro Suzuki, Andruw Jones, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez, Derek Lowe, and Pedro Feliciano are free agents. David Aardsma, Robinson Cano, and Curtis Granderson are also on the MLBPA free agent list but have agreed to return for their option year in 2013.
- Diversify the offense. All year we heard how the Yankees lived and died by the home run, could not hit with runners in scoring position and could not manufacture runs. They also had players in inappropriate batting order positions. For example, Curtis Granderson had nice power numbers (43 HR / 106 RBI) but was disappointing as a No. 2 hitter because of his high strikeout count, career-low .232 batting average and .319 on-base percentage. The Yanks need a no. 2 hitter with a higher on-base percentage to set the table for the middle of the lineup.
Based on who returns, the Yankees may have to consider the following goals as well:
- Obtain a left-handed starter. Andy Pettitte pitched well when he was healthy, but depending on him to return beyond 2013 is impractical. He may not even return next year. Why not seek a lefty who could pitch long relief while Andy completes his career?
- Prepare for a post-Rivera bullpen. Mariano Rivera will attempt a comeback, but its success is by no means certain. Whether Mo returns in 2013 or not, now is the time to establish a clear line of succession both for his closer role and, should David Robertson be Rivera's heir apparent, for the setup role as well.
- Provide more options for the left side of the infield. Derek Jeter is far from over the hill offensively, but his defensive range is not what it was, and his ALCS ankle injury may further inhibit him. Alex Rodriguez's status as an everyday player may not be finalized until spring training. The Yanks may need players to platoon at these positions so Jeter and A-Rod can take more frequent days off or DH duty.
- Complete the outfield. The Yanks will need a starting right fielder if they lose Swisher, Suzuki, Jones and Ibanez to free agency.
- Find a starting catcher. If the Yankees lose Martin, many argue for signing a free agent catcher like A.J. Pierzynski to a short-term contract, since top prospect Gary Sanchez is not supposed to be ready before 2014. But the Yankee 40-man roster includes four catchers with MLB experience: Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine, Chris Stewart, and Eli Whiteside. An economy-minded team should at least let these four compete for the starting position before looking elsewhere.
The players on the following slides do not help the Yankees meet these goals. It's not a case of their being good or bad as much as not being compatible with how the team has operated throughout the Torre and Girardi eras.
Lost in the glitter of $100 million free agent contracts are the signings of role players like middle and long relief pitchers, utility infielders and reserve outfielders. For example, consider James Loney. Loney does not have the power numbers (73 HR and 459 RBI in seven MLB seasons) to replace Mark Teixeira, who amassed 135 HR and 425 RBI in four Yankee seasons, as the starting first baseman. The question is, does Loney have what it takes to be a Yankee reserve?
The key to success as a Yankee reserve is versatility. Most reserves play at least two infield or outfield positions in addition to occasional designated hitter duty. In 2012, Nick Swisher combined first base backup duties with his role as starting right fielder. In other words, there is no room for a first base backup specialist. If Loney played an additional position, he would be a viable candidate for the Yankee bench. Until then, Cashman should pass.
If Scott Feldman were left-handed, he might have a shot at making the Yankee rotation. However, his 39-44 record and 4.81 ERA as a right-handed spot starter and reliever on the Texas Rangers will not make Yankee fans forget the 19-14 record and 4.21 ERA Freddy Garcia compiled during his two years in pinstripes.
Plus, there are plenty of right-handed starters on the roster. Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, and David Phelps lead the depth chart. Adam Warren, who made his MLB debut in 2012, will compete for a 25-man roster spot. Finally, there's Mark Montgomery, a hot prospect whose 1.54 ERA and 0.89 WHIP over two minor league seasons indicates he should be ready to compete for a bullpen position.
The Yankees need an alternative to Andy Pettitte, in case he chooses retirement or a team closer to home over another summer in the Bronx. But Francisco Liriano's last two seasons indicate that he is not the answer, as sensational as a return to winning form would be.
Liriano's last year with an ERA under 5.00 was 2010 with the Minnesota Twins, when he went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA. He followed that with a 9-10, 5.09 season in 2011, then split 2012 between Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox with combined results of 6-12, 5.34. For a starter with these credentials, achieving the minimum quality standard of an earned run every other inning is an uphill battle. If I were Cashman, I would rather re-sign Hiroki Kuroda and risk a rotation of four right-handers and lefty ace CC Sabathia than sign Liriano, whose recent work does not belong in either the starting rotation or bullpen of a perennial pennant contender.
How ironic it would be for Bobby Abreu to replace Nick Swisher as the Yankees' 2013 starting right fielder. Swisher's acquisition in 2008 made Abreu's departure inevitable, despite solid numbers for the Yankees. Unfortunately, Abreu's subsequent decline would make his 2013 return a step backwards in roster quality. In 2008 with the Yankees, he appeared in 156 games and hit .296 with 20 HR and 100 RBI. Compare those numbers to 2012, when in 100 games he hit .242 with 3 HR and 24 RBI. Meanwhile, Swisher hit .272 with 24 HR and 93 RBI in 148 games.
Swisher's postseason performance has not matched his regular season form, but his relative youth, clubhouse popularity, and 2 million Twitter followers are intangibles that Abreu can't match.
If the Yankees insist on replacing Swisher with an older outfielder, better to retain someone like Ichiro Suzuki, who in 67 games with the Yankees matched his lifetime batting average of .322. Suzuki also demonstrated he could hit from the top or bottom of the order and play any outfield position.
[NOTE: The Los Angeles Times reported on November 14, 2012 that Torii Hunter signed a 2-year contract with the Detroit Tigers. Best wishes to him.]
Torii Hunter may be one of the free agent bargains of the 2012 offseason, but that doesn't mean he is what the Yankees need. It has nothing to do with his numbers, attitude, or postseason play. All would equal or surpass Nick Swisher's, especially Hunter's postseason .305 batting average. It's the philosophy at work that I question here, one that brings in new hired guns to fill positions every three years or so without cultivating a nucleus of core talent. That's what the Yankees had in the 1990s, when Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Paul O'Neill, Rivera, and Pettitte were among the building blocks of a dynasty.
The Yankees have two right fielders on their depth chart: Chris Dickerson, who in 2012 hit .286 with a 1.126 OPS in 25 games, and prospect Zoilo Almonte, projected as ready for MLB play in 2013. Almonte and Dickerson should get a shot at a starting role. Using home-grown prospects yields a more stable roster and will help the team reach its payroll goals. To do otherwise shows a lack of faith in the team's player development process.
If the Yankees insist on a veteran right fielder, they should re-sign a player with established organizational ties to maintain a sense of roster stability. Ichiro Suzuki has proven his worth as a solid number two hitter and his defensive skills are more than enough for the short porch in right. Raul Ibanez became a fan favorite, especially after his pinch-hitting heroics against the Boston Red Sox near the regular season's end and against the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. As for Nick Swisher, he has yet to prove himself in the postseason. But his relative youth, popularity, and consistency over the past four years will hopefully motivate the Yankees to make a serious effort to keep him.
If B.J. Upton could recapture the form of his 2007 season, in which he hit .300 with 24 HR and 82 RBI in 129 games, Curtis Granderson might have to worry about losing his job. But while Upton recovered his power numbers over the last two seasons, his average slipped below .250. Power is great, but the Yankees also need hitters who get on base and manufacture runs. Upton is acknowledged as a 20-HR, 80-RBI man with solid base-running and defensive skills, but he isn't the base-stealing threat that would make him an heir apparent to the Yankee's leadoff position.
The last time the Yankees tried using a single designated hitter was with Jorge Posada in 2011. In 2012, the Yankees rotated the role in response to opposing pitching or a veteran's need for rest. Keeping the DH spot flexible as stars like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez age would seem the most practical strategy for now.
Signing Delmon Young would end that practice. He, like David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, is a full-time designated hitter. It's tempting for Yankee fans to hope he would perform his next set of postseason heroics in pinstripes, but Young probably is more suited for a team whose bench is young, with relatively few former stars sharing at-bats.
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