While the Yankees are caught in a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ scenario with their pitching situation—a barren rotation and a market lacking in good arms at a reasonable price—they did get lucky in their other main weakness: designated hitter. At that position, the market was flush with options, from the elite, such as MLB home run champion Mark Trumbo and perennial 40 HR threat Edwin Encarnacion, to the cheaper but still productive, like Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales. Overall, this offseason may not feature the most exciting of free agents, but there were plenty of names to go around for the needy Yankees, starved for power after the departures of Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, and Alex Rodriguez.
The Yankees, still rebuilding and unlikely to contend in 2017, wisely passed on the most expensive of designated hitters and instead opted for a short term, but cheaper and lower risk, player in Matt Holliday. Holliday, who spent most of last season in the Cardinals’ outfield, was a Carlos Beltran-like liability and should be the Yankees’ designated hitter (with Greg Bird receiving the lion’s share of first base duties and Tyler Austin serving as the backup).
The second veteran hitter to come from the Cardinals to the Yankees in three years, Holliday had the worst season of his career in 2016. The 37-year-old had his campaign defined by injuries for the second straight year, and has combined for just 183 games over that same time period.
The Yankees should be optimistic that Holliday will be able to stay relatively healthy, though, as he’ll be limited to designated hitter (and some first base) while in New York. The injury which knocked out much of his 2015 was suffered while playing left field, and 2016’s fractured thumb came from a fluke hit by pitch. Considering his track record of durability before 2015, Holliday’s health isn’t something to worry about just yet.
On the other hand, his steadily slipping performance on offense is a red flag. Holliday had nine straight seasons of a 130 wRC+ or higher before 2015, before dropping to 124 that season and a mere 109 wRC+ last season. While that still marks slightly above average offensive production, the offensive expectation for designated hitters is far higher than other positions, meaning his work with the stick was below average last season.
The pessimist’s view of this situation would be that things will only get worse next season, with Holliday continuing to decline, especially after losing the infamous Cardinals’ Devil Magic with his move to the Yankees. And that’s a very possible outcome—the Yankees could have just shelled out a hefty $13 million for a below average designated hitter.
However, for as low as the floor may be on this transaction, there’s a decently high ceiling. One could posit that Holliday’s poor performance the past two seasons were a result of his injury troubles, and with a year of health he could rebound. Moving to Yankees Stadium will only help Holliday’s power numbers, and it won’t hurt Holliday’s WAR totals when he’s no longer a defensive liability in the outfield.
Still, the median outcome is, as always, the most likely of results. In that scenario, Holliday should see a bit of a rebound in his production at the plate, with the hitting environment of the AL East and health both lending him some help. Last year’s uncharacteristically low BABIP (.253 vs. a career mark of .333) should also tick up, and a tweak in his approach at the plate, which took an odd turn last year, will be key as well.
Last season, Holliday opted to sell out a bit on offense, giving up patience at the plate for power. His walk rate was his lowest since 2006, and his on base percentage suffered as a result, which was too much for his strong .215 isolated power and 20 home runs to offset. Hopefully, Holliday can rediscover his patience next season and watch his on base percentage rise to previous levels. Even if the power drops, improved ratios should make up for it.
While the batter I described above isn’t quite the dominant middle of the order hitter the Yankees would have liked, that version of Holliday (think 2014’s .272/.370/.441 line with a bit lower batting average and on base percentage) is still an at least league average DH who can be a strong contributor to the Yankees’ lineup. While $13M may feel a bit steep, in this year’s market that’s a perfectly reasonable price for a hitter of Holliday’s caliber and track record.