I readily acknowledge that Spring Training statistics are not especially meaningful, but Raul Ibanez‘s performance so far this spring will likely reinforce the preconceived notions of people who were skeptical of the signing in the first place. In 31 spring at-bats, Ibanez has only managed 2 hits and 2 walks against 7 strikeouts, and has been making pretty weak contact in general. It would certainly be very tempting to write off Ibanez as washed up based on his unimpressive 2011 and rough spring, and decide that the $1 million contract was likely a waste.
I am not ready to give up on Ibanez before he takes a regular season at-bat, and am hoping that the preconceived notions will fall apart, and their lack of logic will be exposed. There may be some legitimate explanations for Raul’s poor spring performance that may not necessarily be indicative of future problems.
Part of Ibanez’s struggles could consist of facing both right- and left-handed pitchers this spring, even though he will likely be limited to a platoon role in the regular season. Or maybe Ibanez has been tinkering with swing mechanics, and has been focusing on developing consistency with the swing rather than his spring stats. The Yankees will presumably be patient with Ibanez out of the gate, and will give him a real chance to show that he has something left.
However, if the Ibanez that we have seen so far in Spring Training is the Ibanez that we will see throughout the rest of the season, then the Yankees had better start thinking about a replacement sooner rather than later. Ibanez could go the way of Randy Winn in 2010, who was designated for assignment in late May after posting a sub-.600 OPS in part-time duty. Ibanez has less defensive value than Winn did at the time, so the expectations for his offensive performance at DH should be significantly higher. If Ibanez does in fact end up getting DFA’d, the Yankees will have several options for replacing him.
The Yankees have several people on the 25-man roster that could fill the DH role against righties that Ibanez currently occupies, though none are especially palatable options. The Yankees could give Andruw Jones more DH at-bats against righties, though his recent struggles against same-side pitching (.316 wOBA against righties, compared to .400 against lefties) may not make that an especially productive option. Backup infielder Eric Chavez has the advantage of batting left-handed, as Ibanez does, though his numbers against righties were actually worse than Jones’ (.298 wOBA). It is possible that Chavez’s numbers could improve if he is healthy and getting consistent playing time, but of course that is far from a likely outcome at this stage in his career. Chavez has also had a weak spring (3 for 22), so he may not an improvement in that regard.
The Yankees could also rotate regular starters into the DH position against righties. This would have the benefit of giving some older players (such as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez) extra rest, but have the downside of resulting in extra at-bats for Jones, Chavez, and especially Eduardo Nunez. Nunez’s fielding problems are well-known, as his offensive contribution is not likely to make him a worthwhile lineup option with great regularity.
Russell Branyan was signed as a potential competitor for the DH position, but his inability to stay healthy this spring will likely cost him a chance at the job. If he can get himself healthy and effective in short order, one could certainly dream about Russell the Muscle hitting bombs over the short porch in right.
There’s not much help likely to come from the minors if Ibanez flops. Jorge Vazquez would be an interesting option with tons of power, though his frequent strikeouts and right-handed swing would not necessarily make him a great fit. Jorge’s spring performance also doesn’t bode very well for him, as he is just 1 for 19. Brandon Laird would offer some pop and more defensive versatility than Vazquez, but he is also hitting poorly this spring (2 for 17). None of the Yankees’ top position player prospects are close enough to major league ready to make an impact in this role.
This likely means that the Yankees would have to look outside the organization for a free agent or a trade. If Johnny Damon is still without a team, maybe the Yankees would bite the bullet and give him the money he apparently wanted (though Tom Verducci is now reporting that Damon would have been willing to play for the money the Yankees gave Ibanez). There’s no guarantee that he would be any better than Ibanez, especially if he misses all of Spring Training. Whether Damon’s pride would allow him to come back to the Yankees after being spurned by them remains to be seen, but he could be a legitimate option.
It’s difficult to predict who else could be available via free agency or trade, but it is likely that some other potential options could surface if the Yankees are looking to replace Ibanez. It shows the strength of the current Yankee team that a platoon DH is their biggest potential problem at the moment, though I am hopeful that the discussion in this post winds up being entirely academic, and that Ibanez is able to hold down the DH role. If he fails, however, the Yankees will likely have to look elsewhere for a legitimate fill-in.