Nick Swisher is off to a terrible start in 2011, currently worth -0.1 WAR according to Fangraphs (that is, he has been slightly worse than replacement level this entire season). Swish has looked absolutely anemic at the plate, with just 2 home runs for the entire season. While Swisher’s plate discipline is actually stronger than it was in his great 2010 season (14.1% compared to just 9.1% in 2010), it’s pretty clear that soemthing isn’t right with him this season, whether it’s physical, mechanical, or psychological (I don’t buy the marriage excuse at all, but surely some will mention it).
After 2010, in which he posted a career-high .377, everyone pretty much assumed that Swisher’s 2012 option, for $10.25 million, would be picked up. He greatly exceeded that value with his production in 2009 and 2010, and $10 million would be a pretty good deal for a 4 WAR outfielder (like Swisher was in 2010). However, if he continues to play this poorly, and ends up with a season similar to or worse than 2008 with the White Sox (in which he was worth just 1.3 WAR, and his struggles led him to get traded to teh Yankees for a load of crap), the Yankees may have a decision on their hands.
Several of our readers were discussing replacing Swisher in the comment section a few days ago, and I wanted to take a closer look at some of the potential outfield free agents for 2012, to see if there are adequate replacements for Swish. Here are some of the potentially interesting names (courtesy of Cot’s Baseball Contracts):
There are some intriguing guys on this list, but no stars. Each of these players has warts as well as benefits, but let’s take a look at the numbers to see who might be the best fit.
Beltran: We know the story with Beltran, a formerly great player (when healthy) who has put together a strong 2011 in his return from injury. The switch-hitting outfielder is putting up an excellent .400 WOBA this season (career .372), but is not young at 34 and cannot be counted on to play a full healthy season. It is worthy of note that he has been above average in the field so far in 2011 despite his injury history. Still, on a short contract (2-3 year deal for reasonable money) he could be a strong producer, and represents an intriguing option if you trust him to stay healthy. He could also be a trade option this year, but if he hits the market, I would think the Yankees would have to kick the tires on him (he was willing to take less money to play in the Bronx prior to signing with the Mets).
Cuddyer: Had some good production in a breakout 2009 (.370 WOBA), but 2010 and 2011 don’t inspire much confidence (.329 and .325 respectively). Pass, in my mind he’s not a better bet than Swisher going forward.
Ludwick: One great season (.406 WOBA in 2008) followed by several years of mediocrity. Pass.
Kubel: A terrible defensive outfielder (-18.7 UZR/150 for his career), Kubel has been consistently productive at the plate. He posted a career-high .383 WOBA in 2009, and after a sub-par 2010 (.326 WOBA) is off to a strong start to 2011 (.362). Despite Kubel’s offensive production, however, his defense wipes out a lot of his value, as he was worth just 2.7 WAR in his strongest offensive season. I imagine Kubel’s defense will only get worse as he gets older, but given his defensive shortcomings, he’s no safe bet to be more valuable than Swisher even if he outhits him (no certainty).
DeJesus: Long considered one of the most underrated players in the game (so much that he actually was overrated), DeJesus has been fairly valuable throughout his career, worth about 3 WAR per season over the last 6 years, despite missing significant time to injury in 2006 and 2010. DeJesus has not put up eye-popping offensive numbers, but his combination of good defense (4.6 career UZR/150 at all 3 outfield positions) and solid plate discipline (.359 career OBP) makes up for his lack of overwhelming power. He would be an interesting, albeit not sexy option, but once again, no sure bet to outproduce Swisher.
Drew: Drew has largely worn out his welcome in Boston despite some productive seasons (4.1 and 5.0 WAR in 2008 and 2009) surrounded by some disappointing ones (1.9 WAR in 2007, 2.1 WAR in 2010). He’s off to a slow start to 2011 as well (.317 WOBA), and seems a sure bet to be replaced by Ryan Kalish, Josh Reddick, or another acquisition by Boston in 2012. Like DeJesus, Drew has had great discipline for his career (.386 OBP) and has been a strong fielder (6.5 UZR/150 for his career), but with less power than Swisher. As with DeJesus, if the Yankees want to start reducing their emphasis on power (too many homers!) and pick up guys with good defense and OBP, Drew could be an interesting possibility.
Sizemore: Along with Carlos Beltran, Sizemore is the only guy on this list with superstar upside. His problem has been health, in that he has missed significant time over the last 3 seasons with various injuries. Despite missing almost all of 2010, Grady was off to a sizzling .413 WOBA start to 2011 before getting hurt again. He would be a huge risk because of his injury history, but if Cleveland doesn’t pick up his option (and Sizemore is willing to move to right field) the Yankees would have the chance to pick up a guy who averaged over 6 WAR per season between 2005-2008. Plus, imagine a defensive outfield of Gardner, Granderson, and Sizemore. Nothing would hit the ground.
Willingham: Willingham is the Kubel of the NL, a consistent offensive producer who posted WOBA’s between .360 and .380 between 2006 and 2010, though he is off to a slow start to 2011 (.321 WOBA). Like Kubel, he gives up a lot of value with mediocre defense (-5.4 career UZR/150), and because of his defensive deficiencies, his peak value was 3.0 WAR (in 2008 and 2010). He’s a solid bat, but given his mediocre defense, he’s also not a great bet to be more valuable than Swisher.
My overall conclusion from this analysis is simple: There will be no free agent outfielder in 2012 who is a safe bet to outproduce Nick Swisher. Swisher may force the Yankees’ hand if he continues to be terrible this season, but the alternatives all seem to have flaws. DeJesus and Drew have been similarly valuable throughout their careers, but draw their value from OBP and defense instead of power. Kubel and Willingham have similar levels of offensive production, but their crappy defense detracts from their value. Beltran and Sizemore have the largest potential upside, but also pose significant risks because of their injury history (and in Beltran’s case, his age). There’s also a decent chance that Sizemore doesn’t hit the market, because he is beloved in Cleveland.
Assuming these are the options (and Swisher doesn’t rebound), the Yankees will have some palatable options, but no safe bet to upgrade the right field position. Carlos Beltran on a short contract seems intriguing to me, but someone like Drew is probably the safest bet to be productive. Obviously I’d love a crack at Sizemore if he hits the market, but I don’t really see that happening unless he suffers another terrible injury in 2011 (at which point it may make sense to further reassess his value). I’m hoping Swisher gets it together, because he’s a great player and a fun guy to root for. I imagine his option likely gets picked up unless he continues this absolutely horrendous performance, but Swisher’s peripherals suggest that he is due for some improvement.