Of the 146 players to reach the 506 at-bats required to qualify for a batting title last season, Nick Swisher finished last. This is a special achievement. It necessitates that you play horribly, but not so horribly that you are benched. One could make an argument that Swisher, the first-baseman/outfielder for the White Sox in 2008, caused his team more damage than anyone else in the sport. After all, he wasn’t just bad; he was bad a lot.
In most areas of business, this sort of performance would get you marched out of town, preferably trailed by pitchforks and torches. In baseball, this gets you traded to the Yankees.
With Yankees fans salivating over C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira, or, God forbid, Manny Ramirez, Brian Cashman and company started off the free-agent season by trading Wilson Betemit and some minor leaguers for Swisher, adding a mediocre player to a position in which they are stocked with enough mediocrity already. The team says it gives them “positional flexibility,” which is true. It’s also true that if you have a pocketful of dimes and nickels, you have financial flexibility. You still don’t have much of value.
Yes: To be fair, as Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus points out, Swisher’s a much better player than he was last year, and he’s entering his prime. And yes, we know, thanks to the late Fire Joe Morgan, batting average doesn’t actually mean much. It was still an odd way to start free agency.
As if there were any doubt, this secures Jason Giambi’s exit from town, along with his mustache. The Yankees will spend a lot of dollars over the next couple of weeks, and their every move will be followed. Few of those dollars, and those eyes, will be on Swisher. Though as Sheehan points out, this doesn’t necessarily mean Mark Teixeira can’t come to town. As we’ve mentioned, the Yankees have clearly decided to spend their way out of their mess. The first target, as everyone suspected, is C.C. Sabathia.
The Sabathia situation is the best indicator how, no matter how much baseball might try to even the playing field through revenue sharing, the Yankees still rule the free-agency planet. By every account except for one, the Yankees are exactly the type of team Sabathia does not want to play for. They’re in the American League (he likes to bat), they’re not on the West Coast (he’s from California), and they’re without question the most stressful team in baseball to play for (as you can tell from his stomach, Sabathia is not exactly a model of discipline). But they do have cash. The Yankees have offered Sabathia $140 million over six years, which would make him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history. The offer is so much higher than any other team can offer — Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who desperately wanted to keep Sabathia, can only put up $100 million and is screaming about the Yankees “overbidding” — that even if Sabathia wanted to spurn their offer, there is a question of whether the players union would even let him.
The Yankees are going to sign someone big this week. It’ll probably be Sabathia. And they won’t be done there, either: No free agent (and even, in the case of Jake Peavy, players who aren’t free agents) is doing anything until they hear from the Yankees. When this free-agency period is done, you just have to hope the Yanks still have a roster spot left for Swisher.