To look at this year's Yankees team is to experience a rather confusing form of cognitive dissonance.
Around the diamond, New York assembled an impressive collection of castoffs, a veritable island of misfit toys. The team's catchers, Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, have combined for just 12 home runs in more than 1,000 career plate appearances. Left fielder Vernon Wells has long been considered one of the worst players and contracts in baseball. First baseman Lyle Overbay is on his fifth team in three seasons and was signed by the Yankees in the final week of spring training. Designated hitter Travis Hafner hasn't played more than 100 games in a season since 2009. Of the 10 Yankees who hit double-digit home runs last season, only one — Robinson Cano — is currently on the active roster.
And yet somehow, the Yankees are 10-7, just a game and a half out of first place, and boast a top-five offense. Wells, perhaps the most widely mocked of New York's offseason pickups, is hitting .317 with five home runs, or only six fewer than he hit all of last season. Hafner has provided thump with a .319 average and five homers. Cervelli and Stewart have been one of baseball's top duos at catcher, and Overbay has hit far above expected for an emergency replacement for the injured Mark Teixeira. And all those players were brought in on the cheap and with little fanfare.
In the last few years, New York's offseasons have resembled bargain shopping more than the team's usual free-for-all spending. The team hasn't gone on a big offseason splurge since before the World-Series winning 2009 season, when the Yankees picked up Teixeira and CC Sabathia. Since then, New York has built on the margins, signing veterans to one-year deals while trying to strike gold with career Minor Leaguers, rookies, and discounted former top players.
Amazingly, that strategy has worked season after season, as the Yankees have apparently discovered baseball's version of the philosopher's stone. Players thought to be on their last legs — Bartolo Colon, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez, Freddy Garcia, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones — have come to the Bronx and found themselves hitting or pitching as if they were 10 years younger. And while the Yankees haven't won the World Series or a pennant since 2009, they've been in contention every year, with their cast-off all-stars boosting them.
How have the Yankees done it? It's important to note that, while the misfit toys have helped, they're not being counted on to carry the team. New York has regularly had a sterling core of Hall of Fame veterans and top-caliber players in their prime. Boasting homegrown superstars like Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera means you have fewer holes to plug and less need to bring in impact players. Guys like Chavez or Jones have been asked only to be complements — bench players who can give their stars a rest or be a regular for a week or two in case of injury. As full-timers, their skill level or injury propensity kept them below average. But playing two games out of every five has given them the air of excellence.
Keeping those players as part-timers also preserves the benefits of small sample size. Jones, for example, went from an .851 OPS in 222 plate appearances in 2011 to a .701 OPS in 269 plate appearances in 2012. His walk and strikeout rates barely changed from one season to the next. What did him in was a plummet in batting average on balls in play, from .296 to .212, coupled with a drop in percentage of flyballs turned into home runs. In other words, balls that got through the infield in 2011 found a glove in 2012, and flyballs that edged over the fence or got a wind boost one year died on the warning track the next.
Jones had essentially been written off as washed-up by the time he signed with New York at age 34. But the Yankees saw a player who, even in limited time, showed immense power and decent on-base skills, and had experienced bad luck on balls in play recently. Most importantly, Jones had a knack for hitting left-handed pitching.
Then there's Wells. There was little to suggest that Wells — who'd been sent from Toronto to Los Angeles as a salary dump in 2011 — was anything other than an overpaid backup outfielder. But clearly, the Yankees' front office saw something they liked. Maybe it was Wells' walk rate doubling from 2011 to 2012, or the modest improvement in his line-drive rate. Either way, the Yankees took the gamble, and so far, it's paid off.
Of course, the Yankees don't always hit it big with their cheap lottery tickets. For every Jones and Chavez, there's a Chan Ho Park or Austin Kearns who comes in with low expectations and doesn't even meet those. Some can't maintain their success: Garcia and Jones went from valuable complements to below-average dreck in the span of a season. Wells and Hafner and Overbay will all hit slumps, and by season's end, maybe New York won't look so smart with those signings.
But what matters most for the Yankees is that their fringe players are producing now, giving them a viable bridge to the return of Curtis Granderson and Teixeira and Jeter. Every Wells or Hafner homer is like finding free money, and for a team as rich as the Yankees, that's money saved for the next big core acquisition.