On Friday afternoon, the Yankees reinstated five players from the 60-day disabled list. Among the returning players was utility man Dustin Ackley, who suffered a labrum tear on May 29th. He injured his shoulder while diving back to first base against the Rays. Missing the majority of the season while being an arbitration eligible bench player proves a bad combination. The Yankees are expected to non-tender Ackley rather than pay his projected $3.2 million salary.
Assuming that Ackley is non-tendered, would it make sense for the Yankees to bring him back on a minor league deal? There are cases to be made on both sides. Examining these arguments could lend insight into the club’s decision making.
The Case in Favor
The Yankees acquired Ackley on July 30th, 2015 from the Seattle Mariners. He fit into the buy-low on change of scenery characters mold. The same type of deal as the Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi trades. The Yankees were all over former top prospects who wore out their welcome. It wasn’t a splashy acquisition, but at the cost of Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez, it was worth a flyer.
Prior to the trade Ackley was pretty bad. Legitimately bad, like one of the worst hitters in baseball bad. He hit an anemic .215/.270/.366 (75 wRC+) across 207 plate appearances. It makes sense why Seattle put him on the trading block. They were tired of waiting for him to reach his ceiling. The Yankees rolled the dice, and to everyone’s surprise, it worked out fairly well.
Ackley suffered a lumbar strain almost immediately after being acquired. He returned to game action in September, which isn’t ideal, but that’s when he showed off his potential. In 57 plate appearances, he put up a .288/.333/.654 batting line. He also clubbed four home runs, making his offense worth 162 wRC+. Those home runs were also pretty important, too. His most memorable one came against R.A. Dickey while the Yankees were in a heated division race with the Blue Jays.
There’s some small sample size noise in there, but that’s the type of damage that Ackley’s capable of. There’s a reason he was once the number 11 prospect in all of baseball. For a bench player, that’s pretty good. If you buy into his 2015 Yankees numbers, then he makes a good candidate to invite back for a closer look.
Ackley’s also an appealing option considering his versatile defense. Joe Girardi can slot him into second base, first base, or right field. Ackley gives the Yankees insurance if Greg Bird’s recovery isn’t as speedy as they expected. He can give Starlin Castro a day off as needed, and he can hold his own in right field. Tyler Austin, another bench candidate, is a first base only type of player. Ackley’s a true utility player.
The Case Against
Before suffering his season-ending injury, Ackley wasn’t hitting at all. He managed a weak .148/.243/.148 with no home runs in 70 plate appearances. That rings up to a dreadful 11 wRC+. Small sample size again, but yikes.
Power was never Ackley’s calling card, but the Yankees expected those numbers to go up after leaving the cavernous confines of Safeco Field. Instead, he failed to hit the ball with any authority. One way to measure is by examining through launch angles. According to Major League Baseball’s Statcast, 10-25 degrees puts a batter in line drive territory. That’s hitting the ideal range. Ackley did a far better job at hitting in that range in 2015 than he did in 2016.
2015 Launch Angle
2016 Launch Angle
When Ackley played in 2016, he was hardly driving the ball. That’s when he was healthy. Now he’s coming off of a major shoulder injury. Ben Diamond recently examined how hitters have fared when returning from labrum tears. He found that older players, in the 28 to 33-year-old range, had a rather successful return rate. That’s good to know. The trouble is that Ackley was bad before his injury. It’s more likely he returns to his poor hitting ways instead of his 2015 output.
There’s also the fact that Ackley isn’t exactly young anymore. He’ll turn 29 in February and the Yankees already have in-house options. Ronald Torreyes isn’t going anywhere, and Tyler Austin has earned a closer look. There’s also Rob Refsnyder, who has a very similar profile on the defense side. He may not have the top prospect pedigree, but his results are more immediate, and that could matter to the Yankees.
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the club is going to non-tender Ackley. If he’s willing to take a minor league contract, then the Yankees should go for it. There’s no such thing as a bad minor league deal. If he rakes in camp, stick him on the bench, and if not, oh well. That said, I suspect that Ackley will somehow find a guaranteed deal somewhere. If that’s the case, it’s wise for the Yankees to move on. They have plenty of replacement options.