If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While the adage is usually excellent advice, it may not always be helpful to major league general managers. That especially includes Yankees GM Brian Cashman, whose job requirement is succinct: win the World Series every year. Big-league GMs don’t have the luxury to leave well enough alone. They must tinker, investigate and explore constantly in anticipation of and response to injuries and ineffectiveness. Although the Yankees seemingly have little need for tinkering at the moment (their 42-26 record is tied for the best in the baseball), a rash of injuries has plagued the team all season. As the trade deadline nears, Cashman will be especially cognizant of ensuring his ballclub is built to compete deep into October. Houston’s Lance Berkman may be a multi-faceted solution.
Berkman is floundering in Houston. The Astros (26-43) are battling the Pirates for the worst record in the National League and the team ranks last in the major leagues in a slew of offensive categories, including all four ‘slash’ stats. The pitching is only slightly better. They have a payroll over $90,000,000 but draw only 26,000 fans per game. Little hope is on the horizon also: Baseball America ranked Houston’s minor league system as the worst in the sport in each of the last two years. Perhaps symbolic of the frustration and losing, Berkman was seen flinging his bat in disgust at least three times during New York’s recent sweep of Houston in the Bronx.
The Astros, with little chance of competing now or in the foreseeable future, will be sellers at this season’s trade deadline. GM Ed Wade must convert some of his trade chips, especially Berkman and ace Roy Oswalt, into young pieces. The Yankees should be first in line if and when the bidding starts on Berkman. The 10-year veteran is currently hitting 60 points below his career average of .297 and his lifetime slugging percentage of .550 is down a whopping 167 points this season. Once one of the most reliable sluggers in baseball, Berkman has managed only six home runs and 28 RBI in 49 games this season. If there was ever a time to buy low on 30-100-100 potential, this is it.
Nick Johnson’s injury (and before that his batting average) left the Yankees a gaping hole at the designated hitter spot. Imagine manager Joe Girardi’s chagrin as he agonizes where to put the four-time All-Star and his .410 career on-base percentage in the batting order. The Puma can also play first base and in an extreme emergency, the outfield. New York’s already potent lineup would be further lengthened by another switch-hitter capable of working counts and leaving the yard at a moment’s notice. Fans could reasonably expect a rejuvenation from Berkman if he were to move, literally, from the outhouse to the penthouse and the accompanying electricity of a pennant race in Yankee Stadium. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada would also provide slightly more protection than the lineup Houston currently fields around Berkman.
The impetus to acquire a hitter of Berkman’s caliber is not related to New York’s recent power outage. Such mini-slumps are unavoidable throughout the 162-game marathon. Instead, it is the sense that the Yankees need to insulate themselves from a more serious swoon or even worse – a devastating injury to a premium player. The Bombers have been skating by with Marcus Thames, Ramiro Pena and Kevin Russo and have lived to tell about it. The AL East, as we know, has two chairs available in a high-stakes game of musical chairs.
The obvious question remains: what would the Yankees have to give up for Berkman? The slugger makes $14.5 million this year and has a club option for $15 million in 2011. Any guesses would be speculative but the Yankees do have prospects around the diamond that could impart Houston with cost-effective talent for its re-building campaign. Other deadline deals involving sluggers could set the bar but the Yankees might be best served doing what they do best: shoot first and ask questions later.
Anthony Federico covers all levels of the game for Baseball Digest and Gotham Baseball. He is the author of “Must Be Nice” – a novel about the glory of beer-league softball. Check out www.mustbenicebook.com for more info or follow him on Twitter @AntFeds