With the signing of outfielder Randy Winn, the Yankees officially ended JD’s four-year stay in pinstripes by inking Winn to a one-year, $2 million deal. Honestly, this signing would leave me with little more than a yawn as a reaction were it not for its implications on a still-uncertain left field situation, and the lingering questions remaining about the degree to which the Yankees can successfully replace the offense JD and Matsui provided.
With his best days well behind him, Winn will be expected to provide some bench depth and will likely play some in left and, in a pinch, possibly a little right field, where he spent most of his four-plus years with the Giants. A nice career hitter (.286) who still possesses some speed (stealing 56/63 the last three seasons), Winn will be an asset on the base paths when he plays. However, the question at this point in his career is how often will he get on base? Winn’s productivity drastically tapered off last season, in which Winn hit a mere two homers and drove in 51 in 597 at-bats. His average and OBP also dipped to.262/.318 last year from .306/.363 in 2008, and .300/353 in 2007, in no small part from his abysmal .158/.184, with 0 homers and 8 RBI in 120 at-bats, against lefties–against whom he is a career .280 hitter.
This isn’t a completely useless signing, for Winn’s speed does matter on a team still possessing an older lineup, and he’s a decent and versatile outfielder. But I still can’t help but ask myself if this was the best the Yanks could do for another outfielder. I know it’s easy for me to tell the Yankees what to do with their money–and this clearly indicates a somewhat concerted effort to stay within the budgetary parameters they laid out–but Winn’s signing would have been less objectionable to me had the Yankees kept Matsui, who signed with the Angels for one year and $6 million. Other than the possibility that Matsui’s knees are even worse than he and the Yankees heretofore let on, thus making him a continued considerable injury risk despite his prodigious bat, could the Yankees really not have re-signed him for one year, $6 million to DH instead of Nick Johnson, who couldn’t outrun most regular readers of this blog around the bases, who gets hurt often, and whose own power has tapered off? I’m not convinced. Bad knees and all, Matsui to me was still a preferable alternative to Johnson at DH, and not keeping him this off-season was the real sin.
That to me underscores the real issue I have with some of the Yanks’ off-season moves–they’re gap fillers. Johnson is a gap filler; so is Winn. Now, Winn’s being so is understandable, for he is who he is; Johnson’s less so. The combined presence of the two–and neither JD nor Matsui–rankles me. The Yankees lost 52 homers and 172 RBI and, while Granderson if healthy will undoubtedly make up for some of that while also covering for Melky’s departed 13 HR/68 RBI, expecting Johnson and Winn to account for, say, 30 homers and 130 RBI combined seems to be asking a lot. I’d be downright shocked if they approached that.
It could well be that JD’s and Boras’s demands were too high for the Yankees, who may not only have wanted to keep payroll in check but also may not have felt that JD in the next couple years would have warranted the $13 million per year he received for the previous four–in which he was very productive, a likable guy, and who helped make the Yankees considerably less uptight. I’m just unwilling to take sides in the negotiations for, in sports, agent-player-team negotiations are to a good degree kabuki. Given the sordid history of collusion in the 1980s, I’m also not convinced that there isn’t some collusion occurring now–so many free agents dangling after a few months, so much low-balling free agents to salaries so consistent as to parallel local gas stations that, despite differentiated ownership, mysteriously offer exactly the same price for a gallon of gas. Nevertheless, my hope–not entirely unreasonable or seemingly unaffordable–was for the Yankees to at least retain either JD or Matsui primarily to DH. Neither will do that, and Matsui it appears was the more attainable or, pardon the rhetorical concoction, retainable. In his and JD’s absence, banking on Johnson and Winn hardly inspires confidence in me.
One can, however, read much into it. As mentioned earlier, the Yankees seem to be paying more than lip service to a loosely defined self-imposed cap on salaries, at least for this year. They may also be thinking that, with a very stacked team, they can platoon Gardner with Winn, or have Gardner start outright, take the improved defense in left–which includes Winn, who would certainly be better than JD–and accept whatever offense the aggregate left field position yields in the best lineup in baseball with Jeter leading off, Teixeira and A-Rod anchoring 3-4, Posada, Cano, Granderson, and Swish. To some degree, I can accept that too, except for the possibility that injuries occur and, God forbid they do, having Matsui and/or JD to supplement the loss of others would have been far better than Johnson (who can play first if Teixeira [gasp] falls) and Winn. That is, the theory that the Yankees can accept two possible fourth outfielders manning LF works as long as the rest of the lineup doesn’t just produce, but stays healthy. That would be great, but is no given.
Barring yet another outfield acquisition–and remember that Jamie Hoffman still lurks somewhere in the organization and, I hope, gets a legitimate shot at making the club–it seems that Gardner is slated to play LF. While I mainly feel iffy about that because he has thus far been inconsistent at the plate, a good part of me wants Gardner to get a crack at it. His speed is simply irreplaceable and, when he is on base, he is downright disruptive. If he were to get 500 at-bats and hit, say, .270/.335, he should steal 45-50 bases. That’s a lot, especially on a team that in the last six years has only had two seasons with a player with 30 more stolen bases–both of them from Jeter, 34 in 2006, 30 last season. I love the speed that Gardner provides, but he also needs to show in 2010 his historic propensity to adjust to each level, as Chad Jennings (who I think is tremendous at LoHud) said a while back. For Gardner in 2010, that means recognizing pitches better to prevent getting behind 0-2 and 1-2 so often, preventing looking at called third strikes by being a little more aggressive, ensuring he has level swings to split gaps and let his great speed take over, and continuing to learn about hitting from Kevin Long, and about reading pitchers. If he can do that, he can be in 2010 for the Yankees what Melky was in 2009–a solid contributor on a stacked team–if not more.
Not to be overlooked is that, if he starts in left, the Yankees’ defense will be markedly improved. Gardner’s defense will undoubtedly be there, which should make the Yankees much better defensively in the outfield; the Yankees need his offense to be better if he will be the everyday left fielder. Yet while I love JD’s bat, demeanor, and clutch hitting, we must peer back through the halcyon fog of the great World Series win and his Game 4 heroics to recall that he outright dropped three balls, three cans of corn, last season alone. Still blessed with good speed, he failed to track down some balls in left center that he would have a few years ago. Still clutch and game, his legs came up lame in the Game 6 clincher of the World Series–not the first time he left a game with leg cramps or some such ailment. If healthy, Gardner and Granderson will more than adequately cover the deep LCF. Plus, Gardner tends to judge and track balls very well–very well. The dude flashes the leather, and that will save the Yankees some runs.
It also says to me that, even if Gardner has a fairly good 2010–and I hope he does–the Yankees will still make a serious run in the 2010 off-season at Carl Crawford as well as a starting pitcher, which may well be Cliff Lee. Something about these moves, which I admittedly question if not outright disapprove, bellows that the Yankee are biding their time–with a pretty damn good team which just so happened to win the World Series last season, ahem–to further stack the deck. Maybe I’m wrong, and I’ll be the first to admit to the perennial man-crush I’ve had on Carl Crawford. But something about these moves cries save a bit now, pay out later for Grade A. If that were fueling Cashman, who despite my head-scratching about Johnson and Winn pulled off two sterling moves for Granderson and Vazquez, OK.
In the meantime, however, we’re left to dissect and digest moves–shedding JD and Matsui and acquiring Johnson to DH an Winn for some OF role–that for good or ill will certainly play a key part in the success of the Yankees’ lineup in 2010. I am trying to think optimistically about Gardner, for the guy still has some untapped potential that I would love to see realized in 2010. But the acquisitions of Winn and Johnson just don’t sit well with me at all.