The Yankees, Derrek Lee, and a Failure of Nerve


Buying off the shelf because you can't imagine growing your own.

One of a general manager's chief responsibilities is creating value where none exists. That is, "One of a general manager's chief responsibilities, at least where 29 major league teams are concerned, is creating value where none exists." If you want to know why the Yankees are willing to let Brian Cashman do a Batman impression down the side of buildings and go plummeting out of airplanes, it's for this reason -- the way he approaches his job, the way they insist on him approaching his job, means he's entirely dispensable.

In largely relying on other team's veteran products, the Yankees have a longstanding tradition of foregoing doing their own player analysis in favor of that of other organizations. Why gamble on your own prospects when the Detroit Tigers have scouted, signed, developed, and played Curtis Granderson to the point that he is incontrovertibly a major-league player? Why pray that your own unrefined hurler can add a changeup to his fastball/curveball arsenal when the Dodgers have shown that Hiroki Kuroda is a more-than finished product? The Yankees are in the business of certainty, hence the big disbursements to veteran free agents and, from time to time, Carl Pavano-sized disappointments, because putting your faith in an old man isn't any more of a sure thing than putting it in a kid, just more expensive. If the Yankees had an executive and a baseball operations department whose judgment mattered, it might be different.

Discuss the first base situation with our Yankees' community: Pinstriped Bible

That the team has no faith in its own valuations is demonstrated by the team's pathetic outreach to the retired All-Star Derrek Lee. Lee has officially told the Yankees he's staying home. The Yankees should consider themselves lucky to have been spared this particular flight of fancy given that Lee had been idle since September 28, 2011 and hadn't played well since 2009. In his prime, Lee was a solid performer, a mostly good-not-great first baseman who had one season, 2005's .335/.418/.662 for the Cubs, that falls somewhere in the top 50 offensive seasons of all time at that position. That was eight years ago, though, and skills are not immune from the ravages of age and disuse. The chances of Lee coming back at 37 and equaling even the meager .263/.337/.436 that he put up from 2010 to 2011 had to be rated as small.

Photo credit: Christian Petersen

That benchmark, .263/.337/.436, is key to understanding Cashman's thinking. Last year, the average major league first baseman hit .262/.336/.442. The average American Leaguer hit .255/.320/.411. Thus, in calling upon Lee to substitute for Mark Teixeira, Cashman was not looking for even average first base production and perhaps not average production for any position. In other words, unless he was basing his estimate of Lee's production on a completely unrealistic return to his career rates of .281/.365/.495, his estimate of his current first base options is that they won't hit as well as (a) a 37-year-old retiree, and (b) anybody.

This is troubling, because it speaks to a mindset that can't admit the possibility that youth might surprise. In the Yankees conception of a ballplayer's progress, a veteran might, as Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter did last season, take a draught from the Fountain of Youth, but a youth can't take a sudden step forward. As the New Yorker's Lee Ellis asked earlier this week, "The pursuit of retirees like Chipper [Jones] and aging free agents like Derrek Lee is beginning to look desperate. Jones was great, and might still be, but does a team featuring a thirty-eight-year old shortstop and forty-three-year-old closer want to add age to their roster?" Can anyone doubt that if Bryce Harper had been a Yankee he would be starting this season at Double-A Trenton?

Of course, even asking that question is unfair, because the Yankees don't have a Bryce Harper -- their history of high finishes make it impossible for them to get access to that level of amateur talent. However, a combination of fecklessness in the draft and an unwillingness to invest money in picks before the system was regulated so as to remove their advantages (such as going cheap with Cito Culver in 2010), has left them with a gap in talent that has meant that their best prospects are a year behind where they're needed -- some kids may be ready late this year or early next, but the opportunity is now.

Those prospects, outfielders Slade Heathcott, Tyler Austin, and Mason Williams among them, haven't progressed further than High-A Tampa (Austin had two games at Double-A Trenton last season) and so the thought of rushing them is barely realistic, more akin to trying to catch lightning in a bottle than a leap of faith. Giving an almost-ready prospect a nudge is one thing, just throwing an unready neophyte into the fire is another. That has consequences, not just in terms of possibly retarding a player's professional development, but in speeding up their arbitration clock and thereby potentially costing the club part of the player's prime in return for a month of hitting .150.

It's a bad bet, and yet sometimes bad bets pay off. Put that aside, though, because we're talking first base, not the Yankees' currently Granderson-free outfield. There, the club has options in veteran journeyman Dan Johnson and/or 28-year-old Cuban import Ronnier Mustelier, who would apparently play third base, pushing Kevin Youkilis across the diamond to first base, where he won a Gold Glove in 2007 and has hit much better both in his career and of late. Johnson, 33, has struggled to hit in the majors since his .275/.355/.451 debut back in 2005, but he's a career .294/.408/.533 hitter in nearly 700 games at Triple-A. Mustelier, a right-handed hitter, has played a total of 150 minor league games in the U.S., but has done extremely well, hitting .324/.378/.497 overall and .303/.359/.455 in 89 games at Triple-A. Are those two players guaranteed to combine to hit .263/.337/.436? No. Is it likely that they could? Hell yes. Even as bad as Johnson has been since 2005, he's been good for about .220/.330/.400, while Mustelier is all about making contact and batting average. There's every reason to think that they could battle the position to a draw with what Lee might have been expected to do, just without the million-dollar pedigree (both are in the lineup for Friday's game).

The Yankees might not prosper with those two in the lineup, the might not win (there are enough other factors mitigating against them), but what they might have is something where nothing was before, an asset where previously they had only the void left when Mark Teixeira disappeared. Had Lee come back, even had he played well, there would have been nothing to carry into the future except memories of a random manifestation, a poltergeist-like disturbance.

But then, that's the problem with having a baseball operation that has let part of its brain atrophy. You can't give to your team, but only take from others. The Yankees cut the latter option off in the name of austerity this winter, and now that the injuries have occurred, they don't know how to proceed. What they are experiencing now isn't a failure of depth, so much as it's a failure of depth compounded by a failure of imagination -- or more aptly, a failure of nerve.

More in baseball:

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