We have reached the midpoint of the 2011 season for the New York Yankees. Despite the pundits dire predictions about their so-called “suspect” starting rotation, they have the second-best record in baseball and the best record in the American League. They finished the first half on a seven-game winning streak and they were 30-12 (.714) from May 17 to July 2, the best record in baseball. Now it is time to hand out our annual report cards for the players who built that record.
RIGHT-FIELD – NICK SWISHER (.248 BA, 10 HRs, 44 RBIs)
When the Yankees traded backup infielder Wilson Betemit for Nick Swisher in 2009, it turned out to beone of the best trades Brian Cashman has made. Swisher was coming off a career worst season of 24 home runs, 69 RBIs and a dreadful .219 average.
The funny thing is Swisher was acquired to play first base because all the outfield spots were taken by Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera and Xavier Nady. Then the Yankees unexpectedly received an enexpected gift when Mark Teixeira expressed an interest in signing with the Yankees. That left Swisher as a spare part.
But fortune has always shined a light on the upbeat Swisher. Nady tore an elbow ligament in April and Swisher became the Yankees’ full-time right-fielder. All he did was hit .249 with 29 home runs and 82 RBIs and help lead the Yankees to their 27th world title.
In 2010, Swisher vowed to raise his average and tinkered with his swing with hitting coach Kevin Long. The effort paid dividends when Swisher hit .288 with 29 home runs and 89 RBIs last season. Swisher even got married in the off-season to actress Joanna Garcia. So things in 2011 were looking up for the 30-year-old veteran.
But, a funny thing happened on the way to Swisher’s continued success. He took an unexpected detour.
Swusher slumped in spring training. Swisher slumped in April. Swisher even slumped in May. The usually ebullient outfielder was having a hard time staying positive when things were going so bad. Pitchers were using him and designated hitter Jorge Posada to escape jams and succeeding.
The failures piled up and it took its toll.
On May 25, Swisher was hitting .204 with two home runs and 18 RBIs.
But Swisher started hitting that last week of May and he has not stopped. After hitting a woeful .200 in May, Swisher hit .326 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs in June. At the midpoint he is hitting .249 with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs. After two months of darkness, Swisher is seeing light at the end of the tunnel.
The odd thing was Swisher was hitting exceptionally well right-handed (.333) and was not hitting as well left-handed (.215). But that is changing and Swisher has raised his average to around his career average of .252. The question is will Swisher raise his average back to his 2010 mark of .288 or will it stay closer to his career mark?
His power is down even though he is still getting on base and driving in runs like he always has. He is on pace for 88 RBis once again.
Swisher’s value is immense because he is a power threat who bats behind Robinson Cano. If Swisher hits well, Cano should flourish. If Swisher slumps, it’s a pretty good bet that Cano will not see as many good pitches to hit. So getting Swisher going in the right direction is very important to this team.
Swisher becomes a good barometer on how successful the Yankees will be in the second half.
With Alex Rodriguez out of the lineup for four to six weeks, Swisher becomes even more important as a power and production source in the middle of the lineup. Pitchers are no longer looking at him as an escape hatch out of danger. Swisher made a lot of pitchers pay for that strategy in June.
Swisher’s contributions with the bat are even more important when you realize that he contributes nothing on the bases and he is just about average in the field.
Swisher’s lack of foot speed limits his range in right-field. But it is hard to call Swisher a bad outfielder. He has not committed an error and he has seven outfield assists. He also has made some pretty difficult catches going back on balls and has adapted well to the Yankees’ decision to play the outfielders more shallow this season.
Still, Swisher is the outfielder manager Joe Girardi will replace when the Yankees are winning in the late innings because his lack of speed limits his range to his right. But Swisher is better than you would think as a fielder because of his effort and he has an exceptional arm. Those seven assists show that.
Swisher gets a solid C for his first half. He is going to have to continue to raise his average and hit for a more power in the second half. If he could hit right-handers better he will likely be able to do just that.
The odd thing is Swisher has always been a fast starter with the Yankees. This is the first season in which he has struggled so much in the early part of the season. But maybe that will mean that this season he will be fast finisher. The Yankees certainly hope that is the case. Swisher is just that much of a key to the offense.
His patience at the plate is excellent, He is on pace to draw 100 walks for the first time since he did it with Oakland in 2004. That patience allows Swisher to see more pitches than most hitters. It also gives him a chance to hit pitchers’ mistakes.
As long as Swisher can avoid injuries, he should have a resurgent second half and he likely will end up with about the same numbers he usually puts up with the Yankees.
The Yankees primarily have used only two other outfielders this season: Andruw Jones and Chris Dickerson.
Jones is hitting a woeful .210 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in 81 at-bats. He has started 21 games in the outfield, most of those in left-field to sit Brett Gardner against tough left-handers. But Jones has not produced like he did last season with the White Sox, where he 19 home runs in 278 at-bats.
In addition, Jones is a far cry from his 10 Gold Gloves with the Braves. Jones is overweight and it has significantly slowed him down in the outfield. He still can make the plays look easy. But he also is a few steps slow to some balls that drop in front of him or that sail over his head. If the Yankees need to upgrade one spot on the bench this might be it.
Dickerson was called up a few times after he recovered from a late spring injury and he has been solid.
He is hitting .263 in only 19 at-bats. His main value is as a defensive replacement for Swisher in the late innings. Dickerson is an excellent fielder and a very good athlete with a decent arm in right. He also can play left and center in a pinch.
Dickerson also can serve as a pinch-runner off the bench and he is a pretty good bunter.
The Yankees can also call upon infield reserves Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena in the outfield. Though both are good athletes, they are more suited as infielders. They likely will not see a lot of action in the outfield unless in an emergency situation.
The Yankees have some former major leaguers at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. They are Greg Golson and Justin Maxwell.
Golson has been up with the Yankees before. His calling card is his excellent speed and he has a cannon for an arm. He can also play all three outfield spots. But the Yankees have opted for Dickerson though Golson is hitting .295 with five home runs and 25 RBis in the minors.
Maxwell played last season for the Nationals and he is hitting .260 with 16 home runs and 35 RBIs. Maxwell is a talented athlete but he also strikes out too much (72 in 177 at-bats).
Most of the better Yankee outfield prospects are at the Double-A level and below. Melky Mesa at Double-A Trenton is hitting a disappointing .219 but the Yankees still think highly of his ability as an athlete and they believe he will hit for consistent power in the major leagues. Mesa is just 24 years old.
FIRST HALF GRADES
Dickerson I (Incomplete)
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C-