If yesterdays installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series was full of promise – detailing Twins prospect Josmil Pinto’s opportunity to shine before his hyped peers join him in the bigs – todays portion… well, there’s not so much potential. Yes, it’s the turn of the New York Yankees, who having spent nigh on half a billion dollars on free agents this winter, still enter Spring Training play with question marks at every infield position.
The 2013 Yankees infield wasn’t really much to write home about in terms of startling production – a sentiment ESPN’s Paul Swydan astutely evidenced: “for the first time in 11 seasons, the WAR posted by the New York Yankees’ infield starters was less than 10.0. In fact, it fell well short of that mark, as Lyle Overbay, Robinson Cano, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez combined for a more modest 5.3 WAR.” Riddled by injuries across the diamond, the Yankees still somehow bumbled their way to a 85 win season, vastly outperforming their pythagorean winning percentage (which called for a 79-83 record) in the process, but finished 2013 with plethora of questions surrounding their future infield; the health status of presumed starters Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, the future availability of Alex Rodriguez, and the free agency of their best player – Cano. How they addressed such matters this past offseason can only be summed up by the title of the aforementioned Swydan’s article: “Yanks infield could be worst ever.” Oh.
Brian Cashman knows it: “our strength is not our infield this year.” Despite spending close to half a billion dollars in free agency this past offseason (exact figures are hard to come by, and depend on the inclusion of Masahiro Tanaka’s posting fee), and blowing past the luxury tax figure the Yankees had been so austerely attempting to duck for the last couple of years, Cano was allowed to leave for Seattle Mariners. As a result, heading into Spring Training with no one else left on the market (I feel we can safely rule out Stephen Drew and his draft pick compensation), New York’s infield profiles to be cobbled together out of a collection badly aging former stars, injury risks, and career backups. Perhaps put best by SB Nation’s ‘Pinstripes Alley’ , “With as much money as the Yankees have spent this offseason, having an infield as shaky as this seems like building a fancy luxury liner with the most amazing amenities without reinforcing the hull.” So while manager Joe Girardi can say “There’s a lot of competition here” all he wants this Spring Training, it doesn’t obscure the fact that it’s a contest between separately dire possibilities.
It’s fairly impossible to say anything with certainty regarding first baseman Mark Teixeira, aside from his contract officially taking on albatross status (he is still owed $67.5 million through the next 3 seasons); missing all but 15 games of 2013 with a torn tendon sheath in his wrist – an injury that has claimed the career of many a hitter before – was a good method in masking the dramatic extent of his recent decline however.
At the keystone, 36-year-old Brian Roberts will be first up in attempting to fill the void left by Cano – if he makes it through Spring Training first that is; his 77 games of wRC+ 90 level offensive production marked his largest workload since 2009, having played only 59, 39, and 17 the three years previous, though were still not enough for AL East rivals Baltimore to offer their seasoned veteran another chance. When he inevitably hits the DL though, Scott Sizemore might be there to fill in – the former Athletic having failed to log a full season since 2011 himself after tearing, then re-tearing, an ACL.
At shortstop there’s a 40 year old with a propensity for gift baskets who, if he stays healthy, will be oldest starting shortstop in the history of baseball. Naturally, he was limited by injuries in 2013 too, playing only 17 games.
Manning third base is future Hall of Famer Alex Rodrig… 32 year old Kelly Johnson, who has played 16 games total at the position over his career. To be fair to the journeyman Johnson, he most probably represents New York’s best chance at real production from their infield – he did after all crack 16 homers in 118 games for the Rays in 2013. Backing him up, Eduardo Nunez, with Brendan Ryan’s (immensely better than Jeter’s) glove and PCL batting champ Dean Anna expected to duke it out for any remaining playing time.
Once the backbone of a World Series offense, the Yankees infield now resembles a hospice, full of ailing players long removed from the peak of their powers – had they any real ones to begin with. More than simply an injury risk though, whichever quartet thrown out by Girardi each day will a liability on both offense and defense, something to be overcome by the seemingly strong outfield and starting pitching staff. If they’re to win close to 85 games again, it will most certainly be in spite of the (lack of) production of the ‘Poor Four’. With 2014 being Jeter’s final season, only God knowing how everyone else will hold up, and not much coming down the minor league pipeline, the Yankees face an uphill struggle in restoring their infield to its former glory beyond just this season. Cashman will certainly have plenty of work to do next winter in finding better than the current replacement level players (at best) he’ll be responsible for trotting out this summer.
Until then, I give it two weeks before Yankees fans long for the days of Robinson Cano not running out routine grounders.