Travel with me to a time before the Yankees missed the playoffs two years in a row, before fans knew utter disappointment, before Derek Jeter retired, and before Alex Rodriguez was suspended in disgrace, then made his way back for a triumphant return, it was the 2013 offseason and things could have gone at least a little differently.
During the 2012 season, the Yankees traded for Ichiro Suzuki, and the 38-year-old future Hall of Famer had seemingly revitalized his career with a .322/.340/.454 batting line and 14-stolen base half-season. There was much debate over whether the Yankees should re-sign Ichiro for the 2013 season, not just among fans, but apparently also within the front office. Ownership hoped to cash in on the 3,000-hit milestone that seemed within Ichiro's grasp, while Brian Cashman wanted to go with someone younger, less pricey, and more likely to perform, like outfielder Nate Schierholtz. Ownership eventually won out and they inked Ichiro to a two-year, $13 million deal that looked destined to be a clunker before too long.
We all know what eventually happened: Ichiro's production slipped and he hit a meager .271/.308/.341 over the life of his contract while also being forced into regular playing time when Curtis Granderson was hurt in 2013 and Carlos Beltran was unable to play the outfield in 2014. But what if the Yankees had gone the way Brian Cashman wanted them to go in? What if the Yankees signed Nate Schierholtz for the 2013 season instead?
As a left-handed batter, Schierholtz would have been expected to come in off the bench in order to face right-handed pitching whenever needed. The plan for the 2013 season was to have a starting outfield of Vernon Wells (OMG) in left, Brett Gardner in center field, and have Curtis Granderson move to right field. Schierholtz's representation specifically asked the Yankees not to sign Ichiro if they wanted the 28-year-old outfielder, but once ownership overruled Cashman and brought back Ichiro, any chance of landing Schierholtz ended. Schierholtz signed with the Cubs a few days later and Ichiro went on to play in 150 games during the 2013 season. However, what would the 2013 season had been like if the Yankees had signed Schierholtz instead?
That season, Nate Schierholtz and Ichiro provided similar value overall, thanks to Ichiro's glove, but Schierholtz had a much better bat:
|AVG/OBP/SLG||wRC+||HR||SB||RBI||WAR||wRC+ vs. L||wRC+ vs. R|
Neither hit lefties worth a lick, but where they really differed was in their game against right-handed pitching. Schierholtz proved to be an above-average hitter against righties, hitting 20 of his 21 home runs against them. Ichiro, meanwhile, was even more useless against righties as he was against lefties. For a team that was as strapped for offense as the 2013 team was, this would have made a world of difference.
Of course, it's easy to say what could have been when you really don't know what would have happened, but thanks to the miracles of the internet, we can at least get a very good idea of what it would have been like if Schierholtz played his home games at Yankee Stadium instead of Wrigley Field and faced the American League East more often than the National League Central. Using Baseball Reference's statistical converter, we can convert Schierholtz's statistics as a member of the 2013 Cubs into those of a Yankee. His .251/.301/.470 batting line with 68 RBI becomes a 258/.308/.483 line with 72 RBI, which would have been a welcomed improvement.
In 2013, Wrigley's park factors for left-handed home runs was 98–just below league-average–while Yankee Stadium had an above-average 116, which would have given Schierholtz a better venue from which to launch home runs from. In fact, as a left-handed pull hitter, Schierholtz would have benefitted greatly from the Stadium's right field short porch and the AL East's smaller parks, which is likely why Cashman wanted him, and he could have hit 30+ home runs overall that year:
Those additional home runs in right field would have likely increased the gap between his and Ichiro's 2013 WAR counts, making Schierholtz an even more superior offensive upgrade than he already would have been.
The only issue that would have come up was that Schierholtz's 70 plate appearances against lefties would have greatly increased after Granderson's injuries and he was thrust into regular playing time. His negative-value glove would have also been greatly exposed, but perhaps his superior bat would have been well worth the tough play in right field–after all, the Yankees somehow survived the Raul Ibanez experience and this couldn't have possibly been as bad.
Another issue that arises is that signing Nate Schierholtz to a one-year deal would have spared the Yankees two years of Ichiro, but it would also expose the team in 2014 when Carlos Beltran got hurt and was unable to play the outfield. Maybe the Yankees re-sign Schierholtz–which would have been a disaster in 2014–or sign Nori Aoki or Jonny Gomes to a one-year deal. With Beltran in the fold, Cashman wouldn't have signed Nelson Cruz or Yasmany Tomas, but they also wouldn't have been able to rely on the farm system like they have in 2015 since Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams were disasters and Aaron Judge hadn't even played yet. Aoki was worth 2.3 WAR in 2014, so he might have been the best option, but would he have been interested in taking a job that didn't promise a starting roll?
Nate Schierholtz wasn't an amazing baseball player–in fact, he's currently playing in Japan right now–but he was at least better than Ichiro in 2013. We'll never know what could have been, but we do know what was, and maybe if the Steinbrenners had listened to Cashman, things would have worked out differently. Maybe the Yankees would have been better overall or been in real trouble in 2014, but the 2013 team would have at least been a little more watchable.