The Future in Right Field

Nick Swisher’s grand slam last night got me thinking about his upcoming free agency this winter. He’s become a fan favorite and been productive for the club since being acquired from the White Sox after the 2008 season.

It’s one of the best trades the Yankees’ have made in recent years, surrendering Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez, and Jhonny Nunez. Since 2009, Swish has accumulated 13.1 WAR. The other three combined? 2.3, all credited to Wilson Betemit. Marquez even returned to the Yankees in 2011, while Nunez only made seven appearances in 2009 and hasn’t seen the majors since.

Swisher’s 13.1 WAR since 2009 makes him the 6th best right fielder in the majors in terms of WAR during that period. In terms of wRC+ for right fielders since 2009, he’s 10th best. For all the postseason struggles he’s had, his regular season performance cannot be denied. He’s been a key cog in the Yankees’ lineup and clubhouse since being acquired.

With free agency looming, I decided to find some similar corner outfield types and compare them to Swisher. I picked out Jayson Werth, Jason Bay, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel as a few guys who have been signed recently and have had relatively similar production. Take a look at the chart below:

Aside from Jason Bay, I accumulated the statistics above using three years prior to these players hitting free agency. Obviously, Swisher can still improve (or hurt) his results over the next month and a half or so. Next, I sorted the five players by wRC+. As you can see, the average annual salary positively correlates with wRC+ starting from bottom to top of the chart. What does this mean for Swisher? Probably an annual salary in between the $16.5M and $10.5M that Bay and Cuddyer make. As for years, I would anticipate at least three, but more likely four or five. Perhaps something like four years and 54 million would do the trick.

So, would that type of contract make sense for the Yankees? Not at all. Ownership has targeted a $189M payroll by 2014 in order to avoid the luxury tax, and with more important free agency issues arising next year (Cano, Granderson), the club needs to save their chips.

I did a very rough estimate* of the team’s payroll obligations for 2012, including guesstimates of arbitration cases (I’m far from an expert) and contract renewals of players with less than three years service time. These players will all receive slight raises, and the sum for the roster comes out to about $165M. Players who are eligible for free agency: Swisher, Pettitte, Kuroda, Martin, Garcia, Jones, Chavez, Ibanez, Ichiro, and Rivera.

Next, I took a stab at who I thought may be back. I figured Rivera (wants to make a comeback), Kuroda, Martin, Jones, and Chavez will likely return, all on one year pacts. Everyone other than Rivera should receive a slight raise, with Rivera getting the same salary as this year ($15M) given his injury situation. I’m also assuming that Pettitte retires. In total, everything adds up to $202M.

After 2013, there’s a good chance Rivera will retire. In addition to Cano and Granderson, Rafael Soriano, Phil Hughes, Boone Logan, and Joba Chamerblain will all be free agents. Brett Gardner and David Robertson will be entering their final year of arbitration. In all, there will be a lot of money needed to bring back a good portion of these guys, and there is a decent chance that only one of Cano and Granderson will be brought back.

What does this all mean? 2012 will be Swisher’s last year in pinstripes. The big problem the Yankees face is their inability to fill the void from within, as there are no outfield prospects in the upper levels.  There isn’t much to offer on the current 40-man (Melky Mesa and Zoilo Almonte). They’ll need to find a stopgap on a cheap short term deal (ideally on a year-to-year basis until prospects Slade Heathcott or Mason Williams are ready).

This year’s free agent class for the outfield has some pretty big names (Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Melky Cabrera, Torii Hunter, BJ Upton, Shane Victorino), but given the organization’s financial goals, none of these players will be pursued. There are some guys who would likely be cheaper fits, but all have their issues. Examples include: Delmon Young (headcase), Ichiro (old), and Luke Scott (headcase). In the end, I think there may be a platoon in right field for 2013, with Andruw Jones and a left-handed bat acquired in a trade.

Again, while some critics say the team would be better off without Swisher given his poor playoff performances, I say: good luck replacing him over the next few years. There’s no doubt in my mind that if there was no austerity budget, Swish would be back in pinstripes next year.

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