After A-Rod suspension, infield a concern for Yanks
Question marks at third, second add to uncertainty of Jeter, Teixeira bouncing back
Say what you will about Alex Rodriguez (and, well, plenty is being said right about now), but he was, even at his advanced age, the Yankees' best available third-base option.
Of course, A-Rod was an exorbitantly costly option, and the $25 million in salary the Yankees will save as a result of his full-season suspension almost undoubtedly adds more positives to the Yanks' fortunes for 2014 than anything the 38-year-old Rodriguez would have reasonably contributed at the plate or in the field.
Indeed, the added flexibility brought about by Saturday's news affords the Yankees even more opportunity to be aggressive in the bidding for Masahiro Tanaka and, if that doesn't work out, Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana or Matt Garza. And there's no question the rotation is the chief concern for a Yanks club that, no matter the specifics of the luxury tax cap, is perpetually in "win-now" mode.
Make no mistake, though: Third base, in particular, and the infield, at large, are pretty big concerns, too.
While the late arrival of the A-Rod decision shouldn't impede the Yankees' pursuit of a top-flight starter (the equally late posting of Tanaka and the Draft pick compensation situation impeding the progress of Jimenez and Santana finding a home helped the Yanks on that front), it does leave them with only unappealing options in the infield.
This is, you'll remember, an infield anchored by a starting shortstop (Derek Jeter) who is 39 years old, is coming off a season in which he logged just 73 plate appearances and whose past ankle problems could impede his already limited range. Offensively, it's an infield anchored by a first baseman (Mark Teixeira) who is approaching his age-34 season, logged just 63 plate appearances in 2013 and has seen his OPS decline in each of the last five seasons.
I guess what I'm saying is it's an infield not exactly oozing with upside.
The Yankees committed the bulk of their winter resources elsewhere, and in Brian McCann at catcher and Jacoby Ellsbury at center field, they've given themselves a good shot at getting above-average production from two cornerstone spots.
They've also added Carlos Beltran, who won't replace all the offense lost when Robinson Cano got swept up by Seattle, but will provide pop and presence.
Alas, the Yankees have given themselves a glut of outfield and/or DH types -- Beltran, Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki -- that eat up some much-needed roster flexibility, unless they're going to go with a six-man bullpen (don't bet on it). Even with Vernon Wells ousted, it's increasingly difficult to justify a roster spot for Ichiro, who is best left to a bench role at this stage of his career. The elimination of A-Rod's 2014 salary could allow the Yanks to bite the inevitable bullet that is the $6.5 million remaining on Ichiro's deal and either cut ties or swap him for a spare part.
Whatever the case, the infield is muddied with question marks, and it will take creativity on the part of Brian Cashman and Co. to address it -- if not now, then potentially as the season evolves.
For now, the Yankees have a variety of in-house options for third base, none of them all that desirable.
The first and most likely option, as MLB.com's Bryan Hoch reported Sunday, is for Kelly Johnson to see ample time at the hot corner, despite the 32-year-old utility man's relative lack of experience at the position. Johnson has played more than 800 games at second base and 132 in the outfield in his Major League career, but he's notched just 16 games at third, all last year with the Rays. You don't necessarily doubt the potential for his athleticism to translate to that spot, but you do wonder if he's capable of handling any position in a full-time capacity. Johnson's greatest value, after all, is his versatility and ability to bounce between spots. He is, at best, a league-average hitter.
Johnson would appear to be a better option than Eduardo Nunez, who is a weak defender. The recently added Brendan Ryan is a stellar defender (at short, at least), but his bat is too feeble to justify anything other than a part-time role.
All indications are that the Yanks will go with their in-house options (read: Johnson) for now, and that's understandable given their roster crunch. In addition to all of the above, they've also added second baseman Brian Roberts, who comes equipped with his own series of question marks given past concussion issues.
So, yeah, the infield's kind of a mess, and as we sit here today, it's hard to see the Yankees, even with Ellsbury and Beltran aboard, making their best bid for an American League East title without addressing it at some point in the coming months. This is an infield too old and injury prone and too lacking in offensive upside to be relied upon.
Until or unless the Yankees make another roster move -- and the Ichiro situation is one worth monitoring -- this is what they'll roll with. I still think that oft-floated but ultimately unconsummated Brandon Phillips possibility with the Reds makes a ton of sense for both sides, but Phillips' cumbersome contract has made that a no-go. It's hard to know if the Rodriguez situation will change that, because we don't yet know how the Yanks will apply those funds.
Odds are, they'll apply them to Tanaka. Or another starter. And there's no question that this is the Yankees' greatest remaining need as they try to repair themselves after 2013's injury-riddled disappointment.
The infield, though, can be expected to assert itself as an area of need, too. If not immediately, then eventually.