Nick Swisher has had a remarkably normal and uneventful season. He’s showing an expected slight decline in skills from age, but all in all, not much has changed for the charismatic New York Yankees right fielder. So for this edition of “Sabermetric Outlook”, I’m going to stray from my usual “What’s wrong with ____?” or “Why is ____ so good?” format and instead look into whether or not the Yankees should re-sign Swisher next year.
If you haven’t done so already, I’d encourage you to first check out the primer that I wrote for this series, which outlines some of the most important statistics that I’ll employ in this post and others. If you’re unfamiliar with sabermetrics, or you’re not sure about a particular statistic I mention, check out that post (if you still don’t understand, please leave a comment below or email me and I’d be happy to help).
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Swisher is currently on his last year of a 3-year contract with the Yankees. He’s making $10.5 million this year, and will hit free agency at year’s end. So should the Yankees re-sign Swish or let him go, given their well-documented goal of cutting their payroll to $189 million or lower by 2014? There are two questions we need to answer before we can answer that. First, what will the Yankees have to pay to keep Swisher – that is, what will he be worth on the free agent market? Second, how much value will he have during a hypothetical new contract, and would it be worth the money that the Yankees would have to pay to re-sign him?
Predicting market value is extremely tough, and I am by no means an expert at it. However, we can get a fairly good idea of what Swisher will likely make by comparing him to other similar players’ contracts in the past. After filtering through the FanGraphs leaderboards, two interesting comparisons came up: Pat Burrell and J.D. Drew. Here are what Burrell, Swisher, and Drew did in their age 28-32 seasons, right before they hit free agency.
As you can see, Burrell and Drew were very similar types of hitters as Swisher. They had high walk rates, average to below average batting averages, and decent power as outfielders. They were both better overall hitters than Swish, but Burrell’s fielding was very poor, leading to worse WAR totals throughout these years, and Drew’s 2004 season, in which he accrued 8.9 WAR, inflated his numbers above. Without that season, his average WAR during those years was about 3.0, much closer to Swisher and Burrell’s WAR totals. Overall, Swisher, Burrell, and Drew were fairly similar hitters during their age 28-32 seasons, and each reached (or will reach) free agency at the end or near the end of that time period.
In 2009, after the years shown above, Burrell was signed by the Rays to a 2-year, $16 million contract as a designated hitter. J.D. Drew, on the other hand, was signed to a five year, $70 million contract by the Red Sox when he was 31. Obviously, these are pretty different outcomes, and I think it’s fair to say that Swisher’s contract will end up being somewhere in between the two.
But where? Because Swisher can still play average to above average defense, he’ll likely be signed as a right fielder rather than a designated hitter like Burrell. While aging DHs are rarely given long-term large contracts, corner outfielders often are, as evidenced by right fielder Jayson Werth‘s massive 7 year, $126 million contract with the Nationals in 2011. Werth was a much better player than Swisher is, but the point still stands: good hitting corner outfielders can command a lot of money as free agents.
Swisher is about the same age as Drew and Werth were when they signed their big contracts, so we can probably expect him to get signed to around a 4-year deal or more, though a 7 year deal is unlikely because he isn’t the caliber of hitter that Werth and Drew were. Burrell was paid $8 million a year in his contract and Drew was paid $14 million a year. Swisher will probably be closer to Drew than to Burrell since he can field, though he doesn’t have the upside that Drew had given that monster 2004 season.
Taking all this into account, I think it’s fair to assume that the Yankees would have to pay Swisher about $11-12 million a year for 4+ years. That comes to about $50 million plus over the course of the contract. So should the Yankees sign him? Let’s take a look at the numbers and find out.
Between 2009 and 2011, Swisher’s first 3 years on the Yankees, he was worth about $16 million per year. This year, Swisher is on pace to be worth about $12.5 million. So for the first year or two, Swisher might be worth about what he is getting paid – however, the Yankees would probably have to sign him for 4-5 years, and by the end of that contract, it is very unlikely that he would be worth $12 million a year. Not only would his hitting gradually get worse from age, but more importantly, his defense would decline, and possibly make him a DH-only option by the end of his contract.
The Yankees are trying to get their payroll down to $189 million in two years, and while Swisher may be worth what he was paid for the first few years, he wouldn’t be a bargain, and would most likely be a burden by 2015 and beyond. Matt Swartz recently wrote an article on FanGraphs on the relative replacement level value of different positions relative to what players of those positions get paid. He ended up concluding that corner outfielders have the highest $/WAR – that is, they get paid the most for how much value they return. This is largely because it is very easy to find relatively valuable corner outfielders either from the minors or as cheap free agents. The Yankees found that out this year with the success of Andruw Jones and Raul Ibanez in left field.
I love Nick Swisher – he’s charismatic, fun, and adds a lot to the Yankees team chemistry. I even like him as a player, but unfortunately he’s not the best thing for the Yankees in the future. Based on previous contracts for similar players, it is very unlikely that the Yankees would be able get much surplus value out of Swisher. Instead, like they did with left field this year, the Yankees should find cheaper options from the free agent pool or from the minors to fill right field rather than re-sign Swisher. They can use the extra money to strengthen their pitching staff and keep the payroll down for 2014.