Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Yankee Weakness (and Strength) Revealed

It's just a few days into Spring Training and already the Achilles Heal of the New York Yankees is showing: the injuries have started. The Associated Press, a few minutes ago, released a story detailing how Bernie Williams, the Yankee center fielder, will miss much of Spring Training and possibly Opening Day due to an emergency appendectomy the 35-year-old had today.

By the end of the Hot Stove League, a few weeks ago, we all knew that the Yankees' weakness would be injuries. If one starting pitcher goes down (like Lieber has, at least for a few days), there are no sixth or seventh starters this season to pick up the slack. If A-Rod or Sheffield goes down, the effects would be devastating to the Yankee offense. And while it's never good to lose your Opening Day center fielder, if one Yankee regular had to suffer an injury now, Bernie actually may have been the most ideal candidate, or at least the best worst choice.

The Yankees have another center fielder in Kenny Lofton who will be able to adequately replace Bernie Williams; none of the other Yankee regulars enjoy this quality of play from their back-ups. Lofton, who will turn 38 two months after Opening Day, will assume the lead-off spot in the order and Bernie's position in the outfield. Last season, Lofton's numbers were respectable. He hit .296-.352-.450 with 97 runs scored and 30 stolen bases in 140 games. While the Yankees now have a guy to replace Soriano's missing speed at the top of the lineup, their outfield defense will suffer. Lofton's fielding percentage was .991 compared to Bernie's .997, and his range factor was significantly lower than Bernie's (2.64-2.47). Considering how bad Bernie's knees were last season, it's not a good sign that a healthy Lofton covers less territory than an injured Williams.

Furthermore, Lofton actually put up a better offensive season than Bernie did last year. He had 19 Win Shares compared to Williams' 12, and Williams' .266 average last season was down over 30 points from 2002. Lofton, I feel, should not replace Bernie permanently in center. He should probably DH so that the Yankees have speed at the top of their line-up. That did indeed seem to work well with the Marlins last year. However, Bernie is supposedly physically healthier than last year. His knees and shoulders, Steinbrenner claims, are better than they've been in a while. I think Bernie would, in the long run, make a better center fielder, and his clutch hitting is needed in the line up, even if he'll only be batting seventh or eighth this season. As a temporary replacement, however, Lofton will do just fine.

This injury to Williams will have some trickle-down effects in the Yankee line-up, too. Joe Torre now has the option of using the newly-acquired Travis Lee to spell Jason Giambi at first base. Originally, my thinking was that it would be a mistake not to use Lee in the field every day. He is regarded as one of the best fielding first basemen in the league, ranking 2nd behind Paul Konerko in Bill James' 2004 Handbook. Giambi, on the other hand, is very average in the field and also suffers from weak knees. The more pressure he puts on his knees in the field, the more his average will suffer as the season wears on. Or so I thought.

This assumption of my does not really bare out statistically. Looking at last season, during which Giambi had 50 more at-bats while playing first than while DHing, I noticed that Giambi's offensive production increases dramatically when he's playing the field. In 292 at-bats as a first basemen, he hit .270-.441-.592. He launched 25 homers and drove in 66 runners. While DHing, in 241 ABs, he hit .220-.377-.452. He homered only 16 times and drove in 41 times. Clearly, when Giambi plays the field, he is more focused on all aspects of his game, including his potent offense.

Furthermore, the difference in Win Shares would show that having Giambi in the field would be beneficial to everyone involved. Travis Lee's fielding accounted for 2.30 win shares (according to Baseball Graphs), while Giambi's only 1.63. That's not a very big difference, and Giambi's 26.04 offensive win shares dwarved Lee's 10.88. If Giambi's healthy and not suffering too much from steroid withdrawl, his offense as he plays 120 games in the field will be more potent than it was last year when he suffered from eye problems and a down year. My assumptions about Lee and Giambi were disproven.

In the end, then, it seems that the Yankees could escape relatively unharmed from missing Bernie once again to an injury. Torre would do well to make the obvious move: Lofton will lead off and set the tables for an incredibly dangerous heart of the order consisting of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and Jorge Posada. What Torre should do however is to make the unintutive move: Giambi should, if health permits, of course, remain at first base where his offensive production should make up for average defense. Whether Lee or someone else assumes the DH role is really a toss-up. Lee has little DHing experience, but offensively last season, he hit .275-.348-.459 with 19 home runs and 75 RBIs for the Devil Rays. He would make a fine DH until Bernie returns to complicate the picture.

It seems clear that Bernie should play the outfield, Lofton should DH and lead off, and Giambi should stay in the field when the line-up is back to full strength. But if another injury hits the Yankees, all bets are off. Bernie was the most replaceable Yankee in terms of stats (not personality), and another injury to one of the Yankee All Stars would be devastating.

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