Pitchers and catchers report in just a few weeks and you can almost smell the freshly cut outfield grass that signals the start of baseball season. Still the local teams have a few holes – and the time to fill them – before the new season begins. First up, the Yankees:
Of the few big gaping holes the Yankees have in their lineup, as currently constructed, designated hitter is the biggest. And most gaping. If the season started today, Eduardo Nunez would likely fill the vacancy. With seven career home runs and a .701 on-base plus slugging percentage, that's not ideal. But there are at least two available free agents that would likely cost little money but could be potentially valuable:
Travis Hafner – From 2004-2007, the longtime Cleveland first baseman/DH posted at least 24 home runs. Then injuries began to take a toll. Still, he's hit double-digit homers each of the last four seasons and posted an OPS of at least .784 every year from 2009-2012. When he's healthy, he's productive. If he'll accept a cheap deal, he could easily be this season's Raul Ibanez. For comparison, Ibanez posted just a .761 OPS last season.
Luke Scott – The Yankees have seen first-hand how dangerous Scott can be. With the Orioles, he hit at least 23 home runs from 2008-2010 before injuries limited him the past two seasons. In 523 at-bats during the last two years, though, Scott mashed a combined 23 home runs: given at-bats, he can produce. However, after putting up decent-to-good average and OBP numbers from 2006-2010, he plummeted in 2011 and 2012, batting just .226 with a .291 OBP with the Orioles and Rays. He's likely looking at a one-year deal with a low base salary, which has been the Yankees' modus operandi this offseason anyway.
Austine Romine. Chris Stewart. Francisco Cervelli. Are you excited yet?
If not, there are some free agent options that could provide an upgrade over a trio that's posted a .246 average with 9 home runs in 860 combined career at-bats:
Miguel Olivo – Olivo won't be much of an upgrade in the average department, but he can hit home runs, posting double-digit totals each of the past seven seasons while playing with four different teams. Olivo owns a .241 career average and .275 OBP, but a .418 slugging percentage and launched 12 home runs in just 315 at-bats last year with the Mariners.
Kelly Shoppach – Shoppach has a .732 career OPS, has hit double-digit home runs three times and is familiar with the AL East, having caught for the Rays and Red Sox. He's also familiar to New Yorkers after arriving with the Mets in a late-season trade.
Brian Cashman has proven adept at building a strong bench. But Russ Canzler and Nunez aren't exactly Eric Chavez or Jerry Hairston Jr. Still, late in the offseason is the perfect time to pluck veterans to fill out your roster:
Ryan Theriot – Unlike many of the players on this list, Theriot has precious little power. However, he's displayed an ability to hit for a good average (.281 career) and decent OBP (.341). He might also be a good luck charm, having spent 2011 with the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals and 2012 with the World Series winning San Francisco Giants. A versatile infielder, he can make the plays without throwing the ball away.
Alex Gonzalez – The veteran's 2012 campaign was limited to just 81 at-bats due to injury, but he's shown an ability to hit for power (50 over the last four seasons) and post a passable average (.247 career average). Gonzalez has only ever played shortstop in his career, which could be a sticking point if he's not willing to play multiple spots. But he's savvy, smart and used to playing for winning teams.
Scott Hairston – Sure, Matt Diaz might pan out and return to his lefty mashing ways. Or you could just sign Hairston, who hit .286 with 11 of his 20 home runs against left-handed pitching in 2012. For his career, he hits .276 with a .500 slugging percentage against southpaws.