Chris Carter is probably wondering what he did wrong. His job is to hit home runs, and hit home runs he did, tying for the league lead with 41 round-trippers last season. He’s not too old by any measure, coming off of his age-29 season. Yet he could barely find a major-league offer for much of this offseason, contemplating a move to play in the Japan or Korean leagues before finally accepting a one-year, $3 million pact with the Yankees in mid-February.
The Yankees probably thought they got a bargain, adding premium power for just $3 million and a non-risky one-year commitment. However, the Yankees probably should’ve taken queues from the rest of the league, because Carter doesn’t have a place on this roster, either.
To begin, Carter is basically unplayable in left field, or any position on the diamond besides first base, where he rates as below-average as well. That limits his utility to first base and designated hitter, where the Yankees have more desirable options for the present/future.
Greg Bird is the projected everyday starter at first base and understandably so. Besides the fact that PECOTA projects him for a serviceable .244/.328/.456 line, he’s also the one out of the 1B/DH players with the most upside for the future. In addition, Bird’s a more agile defender at first than Carter, making him the easy choice to start. An argument could be made that Bird should be platooned with Carter, but that really should only apply if the Yankees were in a higher position on the win curve. And, Bird hit a respectable .238/.347/.405 against southpaws in his debut season, meaning Carter may not even be a meaningful upgrade in a platoon, the Yankees should be more focused on developing Bird and getting him repetitions against left-handers while the plate appearances aren’t as meaningful as they will (hopefully) be in future seasons.
Designated hitter would be the other spot for Carter, but the Yankees inked Matt Holliday this offseason, a veteran who happens to be a superior hitter (.303/.382/.515 career, .262/.352/.447 projected) to Carter (.218/.314/.463 career, .222/.318/.466 projected). Carter is therefore probably relegated to being a bench bat for this season. However, as teams like the Rays, Cubs, Dodgers, and Pirates have shown in recent years through their own bench construction, positional flexibility is often more valuable than a one-dimensional slugger that doesn’t offer value in the field or on the basepaths.
In none of this have I even mentioned Tyler Austin, who will be out for the next six weeks but should be available to play for five-plus months of the regular season. Once Austin returns, the playing time for everyone I’ve been discussing becomes even more scarce, and Austin is in the category of “young player that could use developmental at-bats in the majors.”
Assuming health, one of two scenarios will play out this season:
1) The Yankees make a surprising run for the playoffs, and every win matters.
In this case, the Yankees start Bird and Holliday at first base and DH, respectively.
2) The Yankees fall out of contention and turn both eyes towards developing the young core for the future.
In this case, the Yankees start Bird and Austin at first base and DH, respectively. Moreover, they may also want to use the DH position to provide additional at-bats for an outfield that could become more crowded with younger players like Aaron Hicks, Mason Williams, Clint Frazier, Billy McKinney, Dustin Fowler, etc.
Of course, there’s one scenario in which the Carter signing becomes a win, and that’s if Holliday or Bird gets injured early on in the season. Carter would then step in as the starter, and should he produce, he would either help the Yankees’ playoff chances or build enough trade value for himself for a late-July swap. The Cubs showed just how valuable this type of one-year contract can be for a rebuilding team when they signed Scott Feldman in the winter of 2013 and dealt him mid-season for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop.
Still, if everyone’s healthy, the Carter signing doesn’t make a ton of sense, and the upside for even a full season of his peak is quite limited. We actually saw last year what a 40-plus home run season from him would look like, and it resulted in 0.8 WARP. The lack of defense, baserunning, and positional flexibility severely limits both his ceiling and his floor, and in late-February, the signing just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
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