NEW YORK -- Before setting their sights on the rotation holes that are sure to dominate their offseason agenda, the Yankees on Thursday made an acquisition unrelated to their pitching staff. Just hours before they can begin signing free agents, the Bombers instead made a trade, acquiring power-hitting first baseman Nick Swisher from the White Sox for three players. "I know one thing about Nick Swisher from afar," general manager Brian Cashman said. "He's a very competitive player. He's a grinder. He plays at one level at all times."
Swisher, 27, came to New York in exchange for utility infielder Wilson Betemit and Minor League pitchers Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez. The Yankees also received Minor League reliever Kanekoa Texeira from the White Sox.
"We're excited with the addition of Nick Swisher," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in a statement announcing the trade. "We feel he has a ton of upside. He's a patient switch-hitter, adds versatility at a number of defensive positions, including first base and the outfield, and will be a positive presence inside the clubhouse."
What attracted the Yankees to Swisher was the versatility that saw him play at least 18 games at all three outfield positions, and split the bulk of his time between first base and center field. With Johnny Damon likely to start most games in left field and Xavier Nady in right, Cashman said he envisioned Swisher playing at first base nearly every day.
Despite playing 70 games in center field last season, Swisher, whom Cashman called an "average" defensive center fielder, is not likely to see much time there next year. He will instead play first base and fill in at the corner outfield positions, where the Yankees consider Swisher a "plus defender."
"One of the reasons we were attracted to Nick," Cashman said, "is that he's got the flexibility, the versatility to play left, center, right, first. We obviously have a vacancy at first base, but the winter is early."
It originally seemed as if the Yankees would attempt to fill that void by throwing money at Mark Teixeira, far and away the top free-agent first baseman on the market. And even though Cashman said that the addition of Swisher wouldn't preclude him from pursuing Teixeira, it stands to reason that Girardi's lineup is now all but set heading into 2009.
Instead of spending money on a first baseman, the Yankees can now focus almost exclusively on pitching -- their top priority all along.
That's not to say that the Yankees acquired Swisher for free. Marquez ranked among the organization's top pitching prospects heading into 2009, and one of a select few capable of stepping in and helping the big club right away. Despite missing nearly two months last season with a right shoulder strain, Marquez produced an 8-8 record and a 4.47 ERA in 19 games split between Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Double-A Trenton.
They Yankees also dealt away Betemit, a utilityman who saw most of his playing time at the corner infield positions, and Nunez, a reliever who struck out 26 batters in 19 1/3 Double-A innings following a midseason trade.
The Yankees received Texeira, who was 6-3 last season with 21 saves and a 1.33 ERA in 51 relief appearances between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. Those numbers included 20 saves and a 0.93 ERA with Winston-Salem, and a scoreless-innings streak that hit 22 straight appearances before the 22-year-old's promotion.
Yet from a Yankees perspective, the most intriguing numbers are the 26 homers that Swisher, a former first-round Draft pick of the Athletics, has averaged over his four full big league seasons. As impressive as that is, a steep drop in average and on-base percentage -- he fell more than 40 points in both categories from 2007 to '08 -- made Swisher expendable, and New York offered enough to pry him out of Chicago.
Cashman was the first to admit the risk of acquiring a player who hit .219 overall last season and .197 from the left side, though he pointed to past seasons for justification. In 2007, Swisher hit .262 with 22 homers, following a career year that saw him hit .262 with 35 home runs in 2005. He has also averaged 93 walks over the past three seasons.
"The fact of the matter is he had his worst Major League season as an everyday player," Cashman said of 2008, "which probably put him in play for an acquisition."
The Yankees attempted to acquire Swisher during their search for a first baseman last winter, but they could not convince the Athletics, his employer at the time, to bite. Swisher instead went to the White Sox for three Minor Leaguers, and seemed out of play until his subpar season forced Chicago to look at other options.
Swisher's reputation as a positive clubhouse presence also intrigued the Yankees, as did his baseball pedigree -- his father, Steve, played nine seasons for the Cubs, Cardinals and Padres. Add that to the fact that Swisher is just entering the prime of his career, and the Bombers seem justified in pursuing a player wholly capable of approaching Jason Giambi's numbers over the past two seasons.
If nothing else, the acquisition means one less void for the Yankees to fill come Friday, when they can begin to negotiate contracts with free agents.
"It's early in the winter," Cashman said. "Our main focus is to try to improve our pitching staff, and that has not changed."