Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 23, 2012

Pursestrings Tightening, Yankees Bid Farewell To Swisher

It won’t be officially announced until after Christmas, since like every free agent signing the deal is contingent on the player passing the requisite physical; but multiple sources are reporting that right fielder Nick Swisher has agreed to a four-year, $56 million contract with the Cleveland Indians. Since one of those sources is the Ohio native’s own tweet of “Wow! What a crazy few weeks. Hey Cleveland! Are you ready? Because I’m coming home!” it’s safe to say that the reports are accurate.

Thus in less than Twitter’s 140 character limit comes word of the end of Swisher’s four years in pinstripes. As easy as it was to post the news, for the Yankees and their fans replacing the 32-year old will be considerably harder. New York signed Swisher as a free agent prior to the 2009 season, after he had played four seasons in Oakland and one in Chicago with the White Sox. At the time the Yankees had declined their option on Jason Giambi, and Swisher, who had played both first base and right field, appeared to fill New York’s need for a first baseman. But after missing out on the playoffs in 2008, General Manager Brian Cashman was allowed to spend freely to get the team back to the postseason. Thus even after inking pitchers CC Sabathia and A. J. Burnett to expensive contracts the Yankees swooped in with a late offer that brought Gold Glove first baseman Mark Teixeira to New York, moving Swisher to the outfield.

The switch-hitting Swisher averaged .268 at the plate in the Bronx, almost twenty points better than he had hit at Oakland and nearly fifty points above his off year in Chicago. But the Yankees weren’t interested in Swisher for his batting average; rather they liked his patience at the plate and his power, especially from the left side when facing right-handed pitchers; and Swisher gave the team what they were looking for. His 327 walks over four seasons led the team, and his 105 home runs were fourth most, behind Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and 2010 arrival Curtis Granderson. In the field Swisher was never going to win a Gold Glove, but he proved to be an above average corner outfielder and a more than adequate fill-in at first on days when the Yankees wanted to give Teixeira a day off. Swisher’s first base skills proved particularly important when Teixeira lost significant time to injury both of the last two seasons.

Swisher’s contributions extended beyond the field as well. His outgoing personality and irrepressible sense of humor lightened the too-often staid Yankee clubhouse. Some players come to New York and wilt under the white-hot lights of the Gotham media, but Swisher seemed to thrive on the big stage. He was well liked by most Yankees fans, and developed a special rapport with the Bleacher Creatures, the long-time denizens of the right field stands who begin each game with the ritual roll call of the players on the field. Whenever the Creatures began their repeated chant of “Swisher, Swisher,” the right fielder would turn to face them, and standing at attention offer a sharp salute as the chant morphed into cheers.

Yet despite all that it was clear long before the Yankees season ended with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS that the team would not seriously pursue their right fielder once he entered free agency. On the surface, Yankee management could point to Swishers post-season performance as a reason to let him move on. In thirty-six games spread over four years and eight different playoff series Swisher batted just .162, with four home runs and only seven RBIs. His only successful series was the 2010 ALDS sweep of Minnesota, when he hit .333. His next best performance was a .250 average in the losing effort against Detroit last October. Five times he failed to hit above .200. For a franchise that looks upon the 162-game regular season as but prelude to the real business of October, those numbers offered plenty of justification for not offering Swisher a new contract.

But of course the entire Yankee lineup went to sleep against Detroit, and the decision to part ways with their popular right fielder was one the Yankees had made before the quest for a 28th championship ended in the Motor City. The reality is that the end of Nick Swisher’s time in the Bronx is but the latest reflection of the new economic reality that is driving the Yankees. Tired of being hit with luxury tax payments year after year because of the size of the team’s payroll, and mindful of the fact that under the current collective bargaining agreement the tax rate will climb next year to 50% of the amount that total player salaries exceed the salary cap, managing partner Hal Steinbrenner has ordered that New York’s payroll be cut so that the Yankees will be under the $189 million cap for the 2014 season.

It’s a decision that’s hard to argue with financially. If the Yankees can get under the cap level even for a single season, their potential luxury tax rate in the following year would fall back to 17.5%. After ten consecutive years of luxury tax payments now totaling more than $224 million, a tax rate that climbed to 42.5% this year from 40% in 2011, and with next year’s increase already certain, the long-term benefits of hitting the reset button are plain. But the short-term result is that the Yankees are acting very un-Yankee like. With several prime years ahead of him and with perhaps the second best power numbers behind Josh Hamilton among free agent outfielders, Swisher was certain to receive a multi-year contract worth something well north of $10 million per season; as his deal with Cleveland proves. But in both dollars and years those numbers are something the Yankees couldn’t even consider.

The decision to let Swisher go isn’t the only one dictated by the Yankees’ sudden frugality. New York was not a factor in any of the major free agent negotiations this year. There was never a chance that Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, Anibel Sanchez, B. J. Upton, or Mike Napoli would be coming to New York. They couldn’t even retain some of their own role players, with Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez signing with Arizona and Seattle. With the exception of a two-year, $13 million deal for outfielder Ichiro Suzuki all of the Yankees’ signings this off-season have been for one year only. Though they have no obvious major league ready replacement, the Yankees even let catcher Russell Martin sign with Pittsburgh rather than match a two-year offer.

Yet for all that, it will still be a challenge for GM Cashman to bring the 2014 payroll in under the $189 million cap. The Yankees have huge commitments to Sabathia and Teixeira, the dead weight of A-Rod’s unending contract, and will have to pay dearly next off-season to retain All-Star second baseman and first-time free agent Cano. Which means this winter’s frugality is but a preview of what is to come. So Yankee fans need to adjust to a new reality; one that in the near term might well include plenty of free time in October. Meanwhile, thanks for four good years Swish. Good luck in Cleveland.

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