Originally published on Baseball Prospectus
These are the names Joe Girardi wrote on his lineup card on Friday several hours before Alfonso Soriano boarded a red-eye flight to New York, where he met his former and new team.
Ichiro Suzuki, RF (L)
Brent Lillibridge, 3B (R)
Robinson Cano, DH (L)
Vernon Wells, LF (R)
Eduardo Nunez, SS (R)
David Adams, 2B (R)
Lyle Overbay, 1B (L)
Melky Mesa, CF (R)
Austin Romine, C (R)
Even relative to position, there's one league-average hitter in that lineup, and he hits left-handed.
As a team, the Yankees hit .221/.283/.311 from the right side of the plate before Soriano's arrival. That's 30 points of OPS worse than the Marlins, who rank 29th in that category (and who play in a pitcher's park and don't have a DH). The Yankees haven't hit a right-handed homer in over a month (Jayson Nix, June 25th), and they went three weeks without one before that (Mark Teixeira, June 4th). It's like the whole team has turned into Pete Kozma.
This is historic offensive futility, and the fact that the Yankees had the highest payroll in baseball before trading for Soriano adds insult to impotence. The Yankees' .594 OPS from the right side is the 17th-lowest ever (or since 1916, which is as far back as Baseball-Reference goes when searching for that split). None of the entries on the list below them is from the last 30 seasons; most are from low-offense eras and pitcher's parks. In fact, considering the context, the 2013 Yankees have a real claim to the title of worst right-handed-hitting team of all time. They rank at the very bottom of the list in right-handed TAv—which adjusts for park, era, and league—since 1950:
The presence of three teams from strike seasons on that list is a reminder that extreme performances tend to regress over time, and it's likely that the Yankees' right-handed hitting would have improved going forward even without Soriano. But one look at how bad it's been so far tells you why they want him.
The Yankees have been a bit better from the left side, thanks mostly to Cano and Brett Gardner, but their right-handed struggles have made this one of the organization's worst offensive units ever. Yankees fans who came of age in the Jeter-Rivera era don't remember what a below-average lineup looks like; the Yankees haven't had one since 1991. But this one ranks among the three worst the franchise has fielded since 1950:
This is CBS ownership-era, Steinbrenner suspension-era bad. The 1990 Yankees won 67 games and give Yankees fans old enough to remember the lean years before Bernie Williams painful flashbacks to Alvaro Espinoza and Oscar Azocar. The '67 team, which won 72, was a few years removed from its last trip to the World Series but still had some famous relics on the roster: a gimpy Mickey Mantle in his second-to-last season and a fragile Whitey Ford, who retired that year. You could say the same about this year's squad, which has a gimpy Derek Jeter in what might be his second-to-last season and an ancient Mariano Rivera making the rounds for the final time.
The only thing separating these Yankees from the depressing squads of the late 1960s and early 1990s is pitching, which the 2013 team has plenty of. On Thursday, the star-and-scrubs lineup above scratched two runs off of Derek Holland, but Hiroki Kuroda, David Robertson, and Rivera made it hold up, combining on a seven-hit shutout. Kuroda-Robertson-Rivera is a blueprint that's worked well, but it's not a first-place formula, especially since none of the Yankees' other starters has shown Kuroda's consistency. To have any hope of keeping up with the Rays, Red Sox, and Orioles, New York has to hit.
The Yankees aren't the Cardinals, who have a matryoshka doll of perfect prospects waiting to fill in for fallen major leaguers. They have only potential bench bats in the upper minors, most of whom have already been brought up. The disabled cavalry—Curtis Granderson, Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Kevin Youkilis—could arrive, but we've been saying that since spring training, and given the age, injury histories, and (in A-Rod's case) Biogenesis links of the last three players on that list, it's safer not to expect much assistance from them. And to this point, the position players from outside the organization whom the Yankees have imported to plug holes have been a who's who of "Who?", a collection of long-faded former prospects, glove-first guys, and prototypical replacement players: Alberto Gonzalez, Josh Bell, Chris Nelson, Reid Brignac, Brennan Boesch, Randy Ruiz, Fernando Martinez, Lillibridge, Corey Patterson, Luis Cruz, Travis Ishikawa.
Enter Soriano. Soriano hits right-handed, and more importantly, he hits, at least relative to every other right-hander on the roster. He's still a free swinger—only Adam Jones and Pablo Sandoval have offered at a higher percentage of pitches outside the strike zone—and his walk rate is at its lowest level since 2002. He hasn't hit for a high average since 2008, and his .287 on-base percentage is the fifth-lowest among qualified outfielders, putting him a point below Vernon Wells. But he has 17 homers, which ranks second to Cano, and 24 doubles, which leads the team. This stat says it all: Soriano has gone deep 10 times since the Yankees hit their last right-handed homer.
There's a nice sort of symmetry to Soriano's return, in that the Yankees are welcoming back the player they traded for Alex Rodriguez just as they're waffling about whether do the same for Rodriguez himself. Of course, Soriano isn't the player he was when that deal went down in February 2004; he no longer steals often, and he's a net negative on the bases. He's also a corner outfielder who's either still playable or better suited as a bat-only player, depending on your defensive metric of choice (and your willingness to believe that no one told him how to play defense until 2012). Whether he DHs or plays left field, he'll be displacing a player who hasn't hit in months: Travis Hafner has hit .170/.254/.293 since the end of April, and Wells has been only slightly better at .217/.256/.298.
Trading for Soriano will help the Yankees avoid making right-handed history. For a player who's been regarded as an albatross since a couple seasons into the eight-year, $136 million deal he signed before 2007, he's still fairly productive, and he might be worth a win to his new team—maybe more, given that the alternative seems to be sub-replacement play. Even with him, they have only about a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs, which is better than they deserve given that they've outplayed their third-order record by a major-league-leading seven wins. (In our Adjusted Standings, the Yankees trail Toronto.) Twenty percent's not nothing, and continuing to kind of contend costs the Yankees only a low-ceiling pitching prospect and $7 million of the money they didn't spend on, say, Russell Martin before this season. (For luxury tax purposes, the Yankees will pick up some of Soriano's salary this year, and the Cubs will pay most of the $18 million he's owed next season.)
But Soriano does little to address the roster's fundamental flaws. Back in April, I noted that the 2013 Yankees as a group were more productive in the mid-2000s than they projected to be this season, and Soriano fits right in with the rest. At 37, he makes the majors' oldest team even older. He has been relatively durable compared to the rest of the team's walking wounded, but he's unlikely to be a big asset at age 38. Papering over an old roster's cracks with other old players only works for so long, as the late-'60s and late-'80s/early '90s Yankees found out. At some point, you need an influx of new talent, and with most of the Yankees' top prospects in the midst of disappointing seasons, it's tough to see where they're going to get some.
If the Yankees weren't the Yankees, they might look at their lineup, at their age, and at the three teams ahead of them in their own division, and decide to sell and restock the system. In other words, they might do what the Cubs did. In a market with many contenders but few teams making impact players available, even shopping some of the team's non-Rivera impending free agents—Cano, Granderson, Kuroda, Pettitte, Phil Hughes, Boone Logan, Joba Chamberlain—could bring back some transformative talent. But the laws of the universe say the Yankees can't be sellers, so instead they'll add more of the same.
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus.