Thursday, July 9, 2009

Nick Swisher is more important than you think

Take a moment with me, and imagine the following scenario:

It is, say, April 14, 2009. The season is a week old and your baseball team, your beloved New York Yankees have gone to war with an outfield that consists of Johnny Damon, Brett Gardner and Xavier Nady, with Melky Cabrera available off of the bench.

Technically, you do have a fifth outfielder in Hideki Matsui, but his legs can't play in the field until mid-season, and that's if the baseball gods are smiling.

The Yankees have used the extra roster spot for another utility infielder--because Alex Rodriguez is out for another month with the hip injury and Mark Teixeira's wrist has been hurting.

You're watching the Yankees take on the Tampa Bay Rays. It's the middle innings of a game. A Ray, let's say for the sake of story it's Carl Crawford, hits a single to right. Xavier Nady goes to throw it back into the infield and feels a sharp pain in his elbow. He has to take himself out of the game.

That very night he goes for an MRI and word comes back: torn UCL; he needs a second Tommy John surgery.

The Yankee outfield is down to Damon, Cabrera and Gardner. Damon's body can't play every day and together the Yankees can't carry both Cabrera and Gardner's bats while also missing A-Rod and, for all intents and purposes, Mark Teixeira. The top outfield prospect is in his first year at AAA and bringing him up now would kill an option, a year and, more importantly, said prospect is nowhere near ready with his bat.

Your options: take a flier on someone that couldn't make the cut out of spring training, or orchestrate a trade that every other team might see as desperation.

Now what?


Remember back to late 2008.

In Yankeeland, there is talk of three big free agents: CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeira. Even Derek Lowe creeps in a little bit.

Surely the Yankees are going to sign one, but which?

Then, suddenly, news comes of a trade:

The Yankees have traded Wilson Betemit and minor leaguer Jeffrey Marquez for OF/1B Nick Swisher and RP Kanekoa Texeira.

There is one throught that races through the minds of Yankees' fans: Swisher is a 1B. Does this definitively mean the Yankees will not sign Mark Teixeira?

That answer comes just before Christmas, when the Yankees shock, well, a lot of people by not just signing CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, but also sign Mark Teixeira as well.

Nick Swisher goes from the presumptive first baseman to an extra outfielder, one that can play corner spots, hit for some power and strike out a ton, but is a clear upgrade over Wilson Betemit. It's not that it'd be hard to find an upgrade over Betemit, but an upgrade that can hit 20 home runs and take 80+ walks? A bit harder.


Fast forward to April 2009 as it does happen.

Xavier Nady does, indeed get hurt while Rodriguez is still out and Teixeira has a bum wrist, but no one panics. In the scheme of things, the response is "it stinks, but it's not Sabathia/Burnett/Jeter, etc".

Nick Swisher is making a decent name for himself, too.

In the month of April he hits .312/.430/.714/1.144 with seven home runs. He is virtually carrying the team, and it's not just with his bat, either.

When Chien Ming Wang bombs in his second start, Joe Girardi has to resort to using a position player to pitch in the eighth inning. Not only does Swisher take the ball; he is the only Yankee starter in the game to not surrender a run.

Very quickly, he becomes a fan favorite.


By the end of May the luster on Swisher has dulled. His bat has gone ice cold; he's made some stupid base-running blunders and plays in the field...but it's not as though the Yankees are batting him clean up.

He's hitting usually sixth, towards the bottom of the order, although he occasionally hits second to spell Damon or Jeter.

Despite batting all of .150, Swisher walks 19 times, and, more importantly, the Yankees are winning.


In a lot of ways, Nick Swisher personifies the 2009 Yankees.

He's quirky, like those walk-off pies, fun to root for and easy to like. He's got a good heart, hitting his first Yankee Stadium home run of the year the same day he gave a fan battling cancer the experience of her life.

He struggles with RISP, and the occasional moment that makes you go "head-meet-desk", but he's also on pace for more than 28 home runs out of the sixth spot in the line up. He doesn't hit for a high average, but he works counts, takes walks and switch-hits.

You can get caught up in the bad streaks, but if you take a step back you realize just how important to the team he is--like (well, nearly) everyone else--and how much worse things could have been otherwise.