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Yankees Bought Low on Nick Swisher

Flash back to last offseason. Kenny Williams traded Fautino De Los Santos, Ryan Sweeney, and Gio Gonzalez to Oakland for Nick Swisher – basically killing what was an already-barren farm system. It wasn’t a terrible trade at the time – personally, I didn’t mind the move but thought it was odd timing, considering that I didn’t think the White Sox would compete in 2008.

But then Swisher went and hit .219/.332/.410 and fell out of favor with Ozzie Guillen, riding the pine in favor of Dewayne Wise towards the end of the season. And now, Swisher has been dealt to the Yankees (along with minor leaguer Kanekoa Texeira) in exchange for Wilson Betemit, Jeffrey Marquez, and Jhonny Nunez.

Let’s start with what the White Sox received. Wilson Betemit is a pretty good player, with a career line of .260/.325/.437 and 42 homers in 1098 at bats. He has played every infield position over the last few years – although he hasn’t played any of them particularly well. Betemit will be 27 years old next year and will be eligible for arbitration for the next two years. Given his versatility and pop, he’s a solid bench player; however, he’s likely to be stretched if given the opportunity to play every day. He may be adequate at third base, sharing time with Josh Fields next season. However, that is probably Betemit’s ceiling.

Marquez is a ground ball machine who stopped getting as many grounders at triple-A this year. This bodes very poorly for him, considering he neither walks few enough nor strikes out enough batters to survive without excellent ground ball rates. In triple-A, Marquez induced grounders on 45% of his balls in play, and posted a 33/24 K/BB ratio in 80 innings. As you might imagine, this led to a less-than-impressive 6.67 tRA, and a tRA+ of 62. In triple-A.

Marquez’s track record suggests that 2008 may have been somewhat of an aberration. In previous years, Marquez induced grounders on over 50% of his balls in play, and his K/BB ratio has hovered around 2-to-1. However, even when Marquez is at his best, he’s nothing better than a back-of-the-rotation starter – and it’s becoming increasingly less likely that he’ll ever reach that ceiling.

Should Nunez make it to the majors, he wouldn’t be the first “Jhonny” to play pro ball (Mr. Peralta has that covered). He has also been traded straight up in two separate deals before this, once for Marlon Anderson and another time for Alberto Gonzalez. The 22-year-old has pitched well throughout his minor league career, and posted a 116/33 K/BB ratio in 108 innings across high-A and double-A this year. Although his Wikipedia page claims that Nunez throws a sinker, he allowed more fly balls than grounders this year.

Perhaps the most ironic part of this trade is that in addition to obtaining Swisher, the Yankees got a decent minor league pitcher as well in Texeira. The 22-year-old Texeira spent the season as a reliever, splitting time between high-A and double-A. He posted impressive numbers, including a 60/21 K/BB ratio in 60 innings, while allowing only two homers. He also induced ground balls on 61% of his balls in play. Texeira may not be anything special, but those are above-average strikeout, walk, and ground ball numbers – all of which are excellent signs for the future.

And now the big prize: Nick Swisher. Sure, he hit very poorly this year (and was absolutely abysmal on the road, where he hit .189/.301/.294, as compared to .247/.361/.517 at home). That being said, Swisher’s career line is still .244/.354/.451 even after his poor season, he’s only 27 years old, he’s hit more than 20 homers in four straight seasons, he can play any outfield position and first base, and he’s under contract for the next three seasons for $22 million.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that Swisher was plagued by a lot of bad luck in 2008. His line-drive percentage was 20.9%, leading to an expected BABIP of .329. However, his actual BABIP was .248 – the fourth lowest in the American League, and the lowest of his career. His isolated power, walk rate, and strikeout rate remained essentially unchanged from 2007 to 2008.  Finally, in an upcoming study I co-authored on hitters’ BABIP, I found that Nick Swisher had the largest split of anyone in baseball between his expected BABIP (derived from a formula that includes many more variables besides just LD%) and his actual BABIP. The White Sox sold him incredibly low, and he’s a great bet to bounce back in 2009.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to trade someone for less than you paid to acquire him. However, to what end was this trade made? The Sox are obviously not in re-building mode. They have a hole in center field and an aging, injury-prone first baseman – both positions can be filled by Swisher. Swisher is not expensive and is not old. Why trade him, especially for pennies on the dollar? Even if they don’t think he’s going to rebound, the players they received from the Yankees were not particularly difficult to find – if they really wanted to, I’m sure the White Sox could’ve found a way to extract Wilson Betemit (or someone like him) without giving up Swisher. There’s no reason why the White Sox should make this trade – especially so early in the offseason.

For the Yankees, this is an absolute no-brainer. Even if they’re not that high on Swisher, they’re parting with a bench player, a low-end pitching prospect, and another higher-risk prospect for Swisher (and a decent-looking pitching prospect to boot). Swisher can play center field and first base, the two areas where the Yankees currently have holes. The Yankees have enough flexibility that if Swisher continues to play terribly, or the Yankees sign someone like Mark Teixeira, they don’t have to keep running Swisher out there every day. Essentially, this is a no-risk move, and I’m almost always in favor of no-risk moves, especially when there’s a fair amount of upside, as is the case here.