For a team that feels as though it could be about to undergo some big changes, the Yankees have surprisingly few holes in their projected lineup for 2013. Six regular position and four pitchers who made multiple big league starts remain under team control, and you’ll probably see some of the team’s own free agents return to fill a few of those spots. So, “blow it up!” media histrionics aside, why is there a distinct feeling that things are going to be different in The Bronx when pitchers and catchers report in four long months?
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The right field situation is a prime example. In most circumstances, there wouldn’t even be a right field question. Nick Swisher has manned the position for the past four seasons, and to say he’s done so admirably would be an understatement. During his time in pinstripes, Swisher has hit .268/.367/.483 and averaged 3.75 fWAR per season. He hit .272/.364/.473 in 2012, good for a wRC+ of 128 and the second best on base percentage on the team. In 2011, he actually led the Yankees in OBP. In other words, Swisher has been a very important cog in the Yankee machine over the past four seasons, and we wouldn’t expect his return to be in much doubt most of the time.
But the news of the Yankees’ impending plan to get below the luxury tax threshold has made Swisher’s departure a foregone conclusion, and indeed we heard last week that the Yankees have no intention to offer him anything more than the qualifying offer they have to make in order to get a draft pick when Swisher signs elsewhere. It’s a fairly absurd state of reality, but it’s also the way things are likely to be for at least the next two seasons, so now there’s uncertainty as to who will replace Swisher in the outfield.
One somewhat shocking possibility is that the Yankees bring Ichiro Suzuki back to the team and shift him back to his natural right field. That would have seemed like crazy talk when the Yankees acquired a seemingly fading Ichiro from the Mariners three months ago, but he hit a robust .322/.340..454 in 240 plate appearances for the Yankees, and certainly showed that he was still an asset in the field and on the bases. On the other hand, his lack of production during his final 1,000 plate appearances in Seattle can’t just be ignored, and I wouldn’t bank on the Yankees being willing to carry two corner outfielders with little power in Ichiro and Brett Gardner.
Then again, barring a trade, the alternatives don’t look so hot either. On the 40 man roster, Melky Mesa and Zoilo Almonte aren’t ready for the big leagues, and may well never be, and Chris Dickerson is nothing more than a fourth outfielder. A relatively barren free agent market actually has some intriguing outfielders available, but Cody Ross and Ryan Ludwick are likely to get multi-year deals on the back of strong seasons, and both are a somewhat dubious fit for the Yankees anyway. Melky Cabrera would be perhaps the best fit if he’s amenable to a one year make-good deal following his suspension for failing a drug test, but I doubt the Yankees have much interest in a rematch with the guy they basically ran out of town for being fat and drunk.
All in all, my strong guess is that the Yankees will have Ichiro starting in right field when Opening Day rolls around, probably playing on a contract that will pay him somewhere in the $6-8 million range. That wouldn’t be my preference, but in the Yankees’ new financial reality, it’s probably better than any of the viable alternatives at least.