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How the Yankees can change course at designated hitter

The Yankees had a great offense in 2017, trailing only the Astros in runs scored. Barring any trades, the Yankees could go into 2018 with a very similar cast of characters. The infield is set, with Greg Bird, Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius, and Chase Headley around the diamond. The outfield is squared away, with Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, and others in tow. Gary Sanchez isn’t going anywhere from behind the plate. The only players the club is poised to lose are Todd Frazier and Matt Holliday. Though the former was helpful after the trade deadline and the latter productive early in the season, losing both wouldn’t significantly hurt next season’s outlook. Frazier could be back at the hot corner, anyway. Regardless, the front office could stand pat and have a fine offense in 2018, but of course, there’s always room for improvement. In particular, the Yankees have struggled to adequately fill the designated hitter slot in recent seasons.

Here are some of the primary designated hitters the team has recently employed: the aforementioned Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez, and Travis Hafner. Though the Yankees struck gold with Rodriguez in 2015 and Beltran for part of 2016, the rest of the two’s time as designated hitter is not as pretty. Rodriguez offered little in 2016 before ceding the position to Beltran, and Beltran was brutal in the spot in 2014. The other two, Holliday and Hafner, both had strong starts in their seasons as designated hitter, but fizzled out quickly. What does this group have in common? They were all past their prime with various health questions. None of them could really play the field in a pinch, either (though it happened sporadically). Moving forward, it would behoove the Yankees to veer away from a lumbering, no position, aging bat-first player as the designated hitter.

If the Yankees do nothing to change the makeup of its position player roster this winter, there would probably be a rotating designated hitter in 2018, likely among the outfielders. Either Clint Frazier or Jacoby Ellsbury could alternate with the others to provide half days off while a regular only hits for the game. Doing this be something like having an extra roster spot, as having a player like Holliday in 2017 effectively limited the team’s defensive options. Having a rotation would be a practical solution and would provide extra versatility, but it comes at the expense of production. Frazier has plenty of offensive upside, but is he going to realize it immediately in 2018? Ellsbury is unquestionably not much of a threat at the plate, and doesn’t even have the pop that Frazier has to offer.

Instead of staying within the organization, there are a couple of attractive options that the Yankees could pursue. Most of the upcoming proposed targets would also be of assistance at first base, a position that the Yankees absolutely need some insurance. Though Greg Bird looked great in the postseason, health has always been his downfall, so having someone capable in his stead would be a plus. Indeed, the Yankees tried to do this with Chris Carter last season to spectacular failure, but it appears there are better options this offseason.

Carlos Santana, a free agent, would be a swell fit. He’ll be 32 in April, so he’s a spring chicken compared to others the Yankees have trotted out at designated hitter in the past. Further, he’s played 143 games or more annually since he became a regular in 2011. And of course, he can hit. He’s a career .286 TAv hitter with power (.196 ISO) and makes a good amount of contact (17.0 strikeout percentage). He should have no problem spelling Bird at first, a position he’s handled in Cleveland for the past few seasons. He even played some right field in 2017, though I cringe thinking about what that probably looked like. Signing Santana probably requires a three or four-year commitment, which could scare the Yankees away. Of course, the luxury tax in 2018 is the immediate concern, so perhaps the Yankees could trade an additional year to lower his average annual value, but Santana will likely garner $15 million annually nonetheless.

On the trade front, Jose Abreu could be available from the rebuilding White Sox. Abreu, soon-to-be 31, has a slightly better offensive profile than Santana. Abreu boasts a career .302 TAv, .224 ISO, and 19.4 strikeout percentage. He’s a bastion of health, too, playing no fewer than 145 games in every year since coming from Cuba. As you can probably tell by now, my targets for the spot are prolific hitters with above-average contact rates. Abreu’s downfall is his defense, as he’s a poor defender at first. Of course, if all goes right, Bird stays healthy and Abreu doesn’t have the see the field, but that’s an unlikely scenario.  The problem with Abreu could be his salary, which is estimated at $17.9 million through arbitration.

Justin Bour makes sense as a trade candidate too. Bour, 29, is arbitration eligible for the first time and is projected to obtain $3.5 million in 2018. The Marlins want to dramatically slash payroll, so Bour could be on the chopping block. He’s another first baseman with power and decent contact skills (.303 TAv, .217 ISO, and 21.2 strikeout percentage for his career). He’s not a butcher at first base defensively, but he’s nothing special either. He’d be a fine designated hitter and occasional Bird replacement, especially with his left-handed stroke at Yankee Stadium. Compared to Santana and Abreu, Bour would be far cheaper in terms of dollars, though likely a costlier proposition in prospects in a trade compared to Abreu.

What about Shohei Ohtani? If the Yankees nab him and are willing to regularly insert him in the lineup when not on the mound, forget about the three targets I’ve mentioned. Of course, whether or not the Yankees want to let him hit is a mystery. And though it appears he has the potential to be a good major league hitter, that’s no certainty either. Ohtani really throws a wrench into the equation, though the timing of his posting appears somewhat imminent and could help the Yankees determine the club’s direction soon.

Aside from Ohtani, who is a wild card, the other players listed fit the mold of what the Yankees should be seeking. They all hit for power without sacrificing contact, all could serve as protection for Bird, and all are far younger and healthier than recent designated hitters used. Most teams would like to have a player like Santana, Abreu, or Bour on its roster, so it makes sense that the Yankees would investigate acquiring any of these three in the coming weeks and months.

For better or for worse, the Yankees are constraining themselves to the $197 million luxury tax threshold in 2018, so improving the roster is a bit trickier. Finding a designated hitter from outside the organization probably isn’t priority number one, considering the likely monetary cost. Additionally, the chance of adding a multi-faceted solution like Ohtani alters the thought process. If nothing else, rotating outfielders in the designated hitter role will be the team’s safety net. Doing that probably won’t pack a punch in the batter’s box, but at least there’s some versatility available and not an aging, slogging, positionless hitter shackled to the roster.

Photo credit: Adam Hunger / USA TODAY Sports

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