The Muscle on the Town

If I had been running the Yankees (I turned it down because they wouldn’t let me both be GM and blog for The Score), I probably would have been inclined to hang on to super-prospect Jesus Montero, and in addition to Kuroda, would have thrown a big one-year contract at Edwin Jackson or Roy Oswalt, instead. But they had their reasons for doing what they did, and it is water under the bridge.

While they did get a good, young pitcher in Michael Pineda, the immediate upshot for the 2012 Yankees’ offense is that they are appear to be looking at having Zombie Andruw Jones platooning with a Mystery Man at designated hitter. The pickings are slim, but let’s take a look at what the newly-thrifty Yankees’ best option might be from among what is still out there: Raul Ibanez, Johnny Damon, and Russell Branyan.

There are a number of good projection systems out there, but for this post I am going to use Oliver, Brian Cartwright’s system that is published at The Hardball Times. I try to avoid reliance on subscription-based projections in public posts, but Oliver is as good as any, and is convenient in that all the player projections are already out. Oliver also already has projected wOBA posted, which is very handy in saving me extra work for a post like this.

We can’t just look at the straight player projections when comparing the hitters, since the scenario we are discussing involves using them as the strong (left-handed) side of a DH platoon. While people often like to simply look up a player’s one-year or career splits, accurately gauging platoon skill (“projection”) requires even more regression than regressing a full-season of observed performance. I have discussed how this is done at length here, in a post based on the ideas given in The Book, so I won’t get into all of that stuff here. Let’s talk hitters.

Earlier this week there were rumors that the Yankees were looking at Raul Ibanez for their DH spot. Ibanez’s three-year contract with the Phillies prior to the 2009 season was widely mocked, but an incredibly hot start to that season seemed to prove Ruben Amaro right. Happily, the first three months of a contract outweigh everything else. Oh, wait. Basically, Ibanez was good in 2009, was mediocre in 2010, and beyond horrible in 2011.

Ibanez has had a nice run, but he willll be 40 in June. He does have a pretty big career split, so maybe he has something left as a platoon hitter. Well, Oliver projects him to hit .245/.307/.407 for a .310 wOBA. Uh, yeah, the league average was around .316 last season, so that would make him unworthy of a major-league roster spot. But how about if we estimate his platoon split? I have Ibanez projected as a dreadful .287 wOBA hitter versus southpaws, and a .320 wOBA hitter versus righties. That’s slightly above league average, but just barely. At .320, he’s still a replacement-level player at DH, and Ibanez is not known for being defensively useful, either.

Johnny Damon is bitter about leaving the Rays, which I guess he probably was after he was not re-signed by the Yankees after the 2009 World Series (no WAY Brett Gardner can start in the majors, amirite, Fire Joe Morgan? A fast white guy with no power hahahahaha. Hey kids, remember to watch Parks and Rec tonight!). No, wait, I hear Damon he has always wanted to play for the Yankees Tigers Rays Yankees! I have not heard much of anything on the rumor front with respect to Damon and the Yankees (I’m sure Jon Heyman has probably said something about it for some mysterious reason).

My initial thought would be that Damon would be a better choice than Ibanez given that he has hit better in recent seasons. Oliver is more optimistic about Damon than it is about Ibanez, but only a bit, projecting him for a .314 wOBA in 2012. However, Damon actually has a pretty small observed platoon split, and given a situation such as this, it actually makes him less useful. While he projects better than Ibanez versus lefties (.302 wOBA), he only projects as a .319 wOBA hitter versus righties. That is essentially the same as Ibanez. I suppose that if the Yankees really want a player who might play the outfield now and then Damon is less horrible than Ibanez, but Andruw Jones is already their backup outfielder.

This brings us to long-time sabercrush Russell “The Muscle” Branyan. The Yankees recently signed him to a minor-league deal, so this might actually happen. After getting ignored because of, well, I’m not sure why, for years, Branyan in 2009 at 33 Branyan got a full-time job in Seattle and raked, and had another pretty good year in 2010. His was dreadful in 2011, but in only 146 plate appearances. Teams are probably worried about the back problems he has had for years. Still, Oliver projects him to hit for a .330 wOBA in 2012. Yes, he has been rather heavily platooned in the past, but even so, based on that Oliver projection I have him as a “true talent” .338 wOBA hitter versus righties in 2012. That is far better than either Ibanez or Damon, and definitely makes him worth considering.

Before we close up shop and make a tentative judgment, let’s take a look at the right-handed side of this hypothetical platoon: Andruw Jones. Jones has hit well in a (mostly) platoon role the last couple of seasons with the Rangers and Yankees, and Oliver projects him to for a .338 wOBA in 2012. However, keep in mind that that projection is based on seasons in which he was already platooned. In any case, the right platoon partner for Jones could still increase the Yankees’ production out of the DH spot. I have Jones projected for a .351 wOBA versus left-handed hitters and a .333 wOBA versus lefties. That may surprise some. Keep in mind that right-handed hitters regress more heavily to the average in terms of platoon skill, however, and that platoon skill does not change that much over the years, at least relative to other skills (there may be new research to be done in this area, though).

The upshot is that even if Jones’ split is, say, 10 points of wOBA bigger, according to the projections done here, just having him be the full-time DH would be better than platooning him with either Ibanez or Damon. Branyan might offer a small upgrade, however. Perhaps that is what the Yankees are already thinking, and they certainly have him at an affordable price, even given their newly stringent austerity measures. It will be interesting to see if the Yankees stick to their guns on this one or if they give in to the urge to bring in a “big name” for their DH spot.