1:16 pm Jan. 17, 2012
Now that the Yankees have acquired Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda to fortify their starting rotation, the remaining roster problems for New York to resolve are minor. Finding a final roster member who can hit better than Ramiro Pena would be a nice start, and determining whether Joba Chamberlain should come back as a starter or reliever would clarify the pitching situation as well.
But really, the only personnel choice left likely to have much impact on the 2012 team is what the Yankees will do at designated hitter, the spot that was to be occupied by Jesus Montero before he was traded for Pineda.
Rumors are circulating that New York is considering returning to some old names, with Johnny Damon, recently of Tampa Bay, and Hideki Matsui, recently of Oakland, both still available. The reason to bring in another bat is a fairly simple one.
While New York employs aging stars like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and even Mark Teixeira, all of whom will benefit from some days working halftime at DH, the three simply need to be on the field as often as possible for New York to maximize its offensive production. The backup plan for both Rodriguez and Jeter in the field is Eduardo Nunez, and it isn't clear yet who will be backing up Teixeira at first base.
Nunez is a perfectly acceptable fielder, but his 84 OPS+ in 2011 is a far cry from Rodriguez's 116, and even well below Jeter's 97. Damon's 110 in 2011 is right in line with Rodriguez and Jeter, but Damon is an outfielder. So anytime the Yankees wish to give a fielding day off to either member of the team's left side of the infield, Damon would sit on the bench, and Nunez would degrade the offense.
Alternately, they could do something like sign Wilson Betemit.
In Betemit, most recently with the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees wouldn't be getting a defensive superstar. (Of course, at this point in their respective careers, that is also true of Rodriguez and Jeter.) But Betemit has played third base and shortstop in his career, posted a 117 OPS+ in 2011 and a 141 OPS+ in 2010. Those numbers actually exceed the offensive outputs of both Jeter and Rodriguez over the past two seasons. And just 30 years old, Betemit is a good bet to continue at such levels.
Betemit has also played a decent amount of first base in his career, providing the Yankees a method of giving Teixeira a day off in the field without losing much offense. In fact, Betemit can provide a useful complement to Teixeira, whose numbers against righties dropped to just a .779 OPS last year. In case that wasn't a fluke, the switch-hitting Betemit can help the Yankees in such matchups, with a career .817 OPS against lefties, and an .865 mark against them in 2011.
By contrast, it is hard to see exactly how Damon fits into the Yankee roster at all. While he is left-handed, and already-signed backup outfielder Andruw Jones is right-handed, Damon has never had much of a platoon advantage against righties. In fact, in 2011, his OPS was nearly 100 points lower against righties than lefties. So even in the positions he does play, Damon doesn't help very much.
As for Matsui, it has been quite some time since he could be relied upon to play any defensive position at all. His OPS+ dropped to just 92 last year in Oakland. He'll be 38 in June, and the smart money is on Matsui's best days being behind him.
Then there's Jorge Vazquez, an in-house option, who hit 32 home runs for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre in 2011. The Yankees probably know he’s not the answer here. He'll be 30 in March, so his development is almost certainly over. Even in his breakout 2011, he struck out 166 times in just 500 plate appearances, a poor enough rate that he'd almost certainly crack 200 strikeouts over a full M.L.B. season. He walked just 30 times, so the offensive value he'd provide beyond the occasional home run would likely be nil. And he's a first baseman at this point, a right-handed one, who'd do little to complement Teixeira and nothing to help keep the offense strong on days Jeter or Rodriguez needed time off.
Just as they did in augmenting pitching staff, it seems probable that the Yankees will bide their time, then make the intelligent acquisition. Kuroda and Pineda were sure signs that New York has no intention of punting the 2012 season (as if they ever would). Making a move for someone like Betemit would show the same kind of purpose.