WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
A little while ago, I was complaining to my friend and colleague Jay Jaffe that I wanted to get through today’s entry without writing about Alex Rodriguez and steroids. He immediately came back with this question: “At the price the Angels paid, should the Yankees have brought back Bobby Abreu?”
It’s a heck of a question, though one that may be compromised from the outset, because we don’t know if the Yankees could have gotten Abreu to sign at the same price — one year, $5 million. We don’t even know if Abreu’s agent bothered to come back to the Yankees and say, “Give us $5,000,001 and we’re yours” before making their client a Los Angeles Abreu of Anaheim (or is that a Los Angeles Angel of Abreu?).
I’m going to say no. Here’s why: Abreu had a good year for the Yankees at the plate, but his indicators are all pointing in the wrong direction. His home run rate was nothing special, his walk rate was down, and his baserunning and fielding skills aren’t what they used to be, with the resultant give-back on runs severely denting his offensive value. While a one-year deal at a low salary represents a minimum of risk — the Angels are betting that Abreu at least holds his 2008 value for one more season — the danger here is not financial but to the winning effort. With even a smidge of further attrition, Abreu is going to be no fun at all.
Over the last three years, the typical Major League right fielder has hit .277/.347/.451. The PECOTA projection for Abreu for next season, which does not reflect his move to Anaheim (a good thing in this instance) is .282/.368/.436. Thanks to the high on-base percentage, that would be a better than break-even performance, but not one that’s a huge benefit. Nick Swisher should be able to approximate the on-base and slugging percentages while doing a better job of actually catching the ball. The Yankees are already paying him Abreu’s salary plus a little ($5.3 million this year), and there’s little reason to double up.
Now, Jay’s question would be a lot easier to answer if the Yankees only had Xavier Nady to play right field, because even a diminished Abreu is likely to out-hit him, especially in the key area (really the only area) of on-base percentage. PECOTA’s weighted mean projection for Nady is .270/.323/.444, which falls short of even the average right fielder.
Parenthetically, I know I’ve been like a broken record on the Nick Swisher-Nady stuff, but as we head into a Spring Training season in which the Yankees have few big decisions to make, right field stands out as a position where the Yankees can make a choice that will significantly impact the outcome of the season. Johnny Damon is almost certain to regress. The center fielder, whoever he, she, or it proves to be, will not be a major run producer, and maybe not a minor run producer. It will fall to right field to salvage the outfield production.
Sorting out who starts shouldn’t be difficult at all, and is being complicated by a lot of statistical noise from last season. Swisher had a bad year by his standards, Nady a very good one. However, extrapolating from either season is unwise; Swisher is unlikely to have suffered a complete breakdown at age 27, just as Nady is unlikely to have found new strengths at age 30. Even a bad Swisher drew 82 walks and hit a home run every 21 at-bats; even a good Nady drew 39 walks and hit a home run every 22 at-bats. We’re talking about a difference that comes down to a fistful of singles, and we know those tend to come and go for hitters. Throw in that Swisher is the superior defensive player, and this really shouldn’t be a discussion at all.
In summary, to round back to Jay’s question about Abreu, the differences between Abreu and Swisher, if any, will be small enough that had the Yankees been given the opportunity to top the Angels’ offer to the former by some small number of dollars, they would have been correct to demur. Regardless of the resolution to the battle, the Yankees have already gained one victory in saying “Nyet” to their California-bound alumnus: this year’s right fielder may not hit, but he’s certain to catch a few balls at the wall, something we haven’t seen a Yankee do in years.