The Yankees' Real DH Dilemma

Jesus Montero had been burning a hole in the New York Yankees’ pocket for about two years. Although he was a highly touted and anticipated prospect, who did not disappoint when brought up to the big leagues at the end of 2011, Montero had been mentioned in so many trade rumors since mid-2010 that it was no surprise when the Yankees finally pulled the trigger and traded him. It was, however, somewhat surprising that the Yankees managed get in return for Montero, not some highly paid veteran pitcher who was already in the decline phase of his career, or a top flight pitcher poised for free agency at the trade deadline, but Michael Pineda who is only 23 and one of the top young pitchers in the game. While Yankee fans may be sad to see Montero go, and anything can happen particularly with young pitchers, Pineda could be a very valuable contributor to the Yankees for several seasons.

With Montero, who had been expected to take over as the Yankees full time DH in 2012 gone, much speculation has begun about who will fill that role for the Yankees. One of the reason’s Montero was expendable is that Alex Rodriguez, who will be 36 years old next season with seven years remaining on his contract, is expected to take over more of the DH duties as he continues to slow down in the field. Because Montero was not going to push Rodriguez off the DH spot, he had less value to the Yankees. One problem with making Rodriguez the full time DH, or using Rodriguez and fellow aging star Derek Jeter as the teams’ primary DHs is that Eduardo Nunez, a light hitting utility infielder would fill in at short and third depending on who was the DH on a given day. Giving Nunez 450 or so plate appearances will not bolster a strong but aging Yankee offense.

This is the simple analysis, but it overlooks one more significant and potentially significantly more troubling possibility. Unless he turns around his current rate of decline, Rodriguez will no longer hit well enough to be a full time DH in 2012, not to mention 2013 and beyond. When the Yankees overpaid to extent Rodriguez’s contract, they must have assumed he would not be able to play 3rd base into his early 40s, but that he would at least hit enough to be a productive, and very lucratively compensated, first baseman or DH beginning in his late 30s. This assumption, however, may be proven wrong.

In 2007, when he was 31 years old, Rodriguez hit .314/.422/.645 good for an OPS+ of 176 and an MVP award. It was one of the best season’s in Rodriguez’s career. Since 2008 he has posted OPS+ of 150, 138, 123 and 116 while never playing in more than 140 games, an achievement he had exceeded in every year but one since 1996. An OPS+ of 120 from a player who splits his time between third base and DH, while no longer enough to place Rodriguez among the game’s elite, still has a lot of value. An OPS+ of 120 from a full time DH has less value, but is still useful. However, an OPS+ of much less than that from a full time DH, particularly one who will be as well compensated as Rodriguez, is not enough. Moreover, if his numbers continue to decline, Rodriguez would become a drag on the team’s offense just as he would become the team’s full time DH.

The Yankees can put this problem off for the short term by adding a left-handed bat to platoon with Andruw Jones at DH for 2012, but for the medium term, all they can do is hope that Rodriguez gets healthy and becomes an impact hitter again. The Yankees are developing into a team where the two most important hitters are no longer Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, but Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano. Montero was poised to join Grandreson and Cano in the heart of the next iteration of the Yankee offense, but that is not going to happen now. Instead, Pineda will join CC Sabathia in what almost overnight has become one of the AL’s top pitching rotations. This is part of the transformation of the team from an offense heavy team to one with an aging offense, a few players, like Russell Martin, who don’t hit much, and excellent pitching. It is not yet clear which of these approaches will be more successful, but for the Yankees being aware of these changing dynamics, and the declining centrality of Rodriguez, Teixeira, and even Jeter is critical.