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Any Right-Handed Hitter Will Do

On Turner Ward, Disappointment, and Platoon Right-Handers.

Alex Trautwig

Last week, the Arizona Diamondbacks added two former Yankees, Steve Sax and Turner Ward, to their coaching staff as first base coach and assistant hitting coach, respectively. (I almost typed "assistant first base coach" -- can you imagine anything more useless than an assistant first base coach?)

When I call Ward an ex-Yankee, I am being slightly inaccurate -- he never played for the Yankees in the majors. However, he was drafted and developed by the Yankees, having been selected in the 18th round of the 1986 draft and rising to Triple-A Columbus before packed up with Joel Skinner and dealt to the Indians for Mel Hall, a left-handed-hitting outfielder of moderate gifts who main contributions to Yankees were (a) bad on-base percentages, (b) the terrorization of a young Bernie Williams, (c) subsequently being sent to jail for 45 years for sexual assault of a child. No previous Yankee had been so good as to check that one off on the organization's career accomplishments list, although Chad Curtis may yet make it two.

Ward and a few of his farm contemporaries were a good lesson for me at a time when the art of armchair prospect evaluation wasn't nearly so advanced as it is now. Then as now, the Yankees needed an injection of youth, particularly on the pitching staff, which was literally the domain of 40-year-olds. There were a few soft spots on the offensive side as well, and at first glance, the switch-hitting outfielder seemed like he might be able to help. Playing in A-ball in 1987, he hit .294/.380/.375. He didn't hit for much power, but few do in the Florida State League, and he took 64 walks and stole 25 bases.

That looked good to me. Today I would know better than to get too excited by a performance like that in the low minors, but I was more inclined to take things at face value then. Among Ward's teammates were 20-year-old right-hander Dave Eiland, who made eight starts at that level and put up a 1.88 ERA, which sounds great until you realize he struck out just four batters per nine innings. Another teammate was left-hander Steve Adkins, who would briefly be called the best prospect in the system a couple of years later. "He's not wild," they would say, "it's just that minor league umpires can't call his curve." Um, no -- he was just wild. Put that one on the "won't get fooled again" pile as well.

On the other hand, today it would pretty good if the Yankees had Turner Ward. He might be the platoon left fielder or something. Then again, what do I know-today's stories are all about how the Yankees didn't make an offer to Raul Ibanez (good, for whatever reason), because they're more focused on acquiring a right-handed hitting outfielder. That's well, but then I think of Ronnier Mustelier, who hit .324/.378/.497 in the minors this year and will be 28 this year-this item does not have a long shelf life. I don't know if he can actually field left (he hasn't spent much time in right) with any kind of ability, but then, neither could Ibanez, and we already know that you can get through a game using the formula of three at-bats+defensive substitute without too much damage.

Turner Ward never got a chance with the Yankees-they met their Ward quota of that time with Gary instead (he subsequently had the worst season in history by a Yankees outfielder), and given both his minor- and major-league performances maybe he shouldn't have had one. Still, you can't know what might have been, or what you would have done with the money you saved, and so on.

Ward isn't the perfect analogy here because he wasn't a platoon anything; as a switch-hitter, he favored hitting from the left side of the plate. The real point, I guess, if you want to get all dry ‘n' baseball-y about it, is that you don't have to be too picky about that right-handed outfield platoon bat. Almost every right-handed hitter has some advantage over opposite-side antagonists, so unless you're sure you're going to get an Ultimate Left-Masher there's really no point in splurging. You might as well try your Wards or your Musteliers, or anyone else you might have handy. You might be pleasantly surprised.

The alternative doesn't even forego the possibility of disappointment.