I’m going to come right out and say it: the Yankees have a glaring hole on their big league roster and have for quite some time. No, this is not a new weakness, but it is a weakness that has become increasingly noticeable and yet one this organization does not appear ready to deal with. There have been whispers. Inquiries into availability. They even made a run at a Japanese import. But as we stand on Friday the 13th of January it looks like Brian Cashman is perfectly willing to head into this season with the same flawed group as he did last season. He’s perfectly willing to trust his guys, the team’s fortunes be damned.
I’m talking of course about the infield bench.
Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez are all former All-Stars. All four are signed through the 2013 season and it is practically impossible to imagine any of them losing their starting jobs in the intervening two seasons. This is all true. But it is also true that there is a need for subs, for backups, for spot starters, and potentially for short-run replacements. Jeter is 37. Rodriguez in 36. The two of them combined to missed a total of 113 games at their respective positions between injuries, days off, and time spent at DH last year, over 1000 innings in the field and almost a full season of plate appearances.
One might consider this an anomaly, or even if not anomaly at the very least a small problem. It is not a problem on the magnitude of bringing in a number two starter, sure, yet given the age or Rodriguez and Jeter, their recent history of injuries, and their declining quality of play, there is a need for a solid group of backups and the internal options have been greatly disappointing. Ramiro Pena, a favorite of Joe Girardi from years past, continues to show why he was never much a prospect. Eduardo Nunez, a prospect in his own right, continues to show that while he has solid offensive potential and some flexibility as a utility man, his glove is far from ready to play and his raw skills are far from translating on a Major League field. In nearly 800 big league innings between SS and 3B, Nunez has a career -13 DRS and -18 UZR at the two positions.
Of the Yankees backup infielders from last season, three remain with the organization. These three are of course Pena, Nunez, and Brandon Laird who was used only sparingly. These three last season combined to produce -1.6 fWAR. To put that in perspective, according to fWAR the presence of these three players as compared to the baseline replacement player, the average AAA call-up, effectively neutralized 55-60% of the innings David Robertson pitched. Allowing Ramiro Pena, Eduardo Nunez, and Brandon Laird make appearances at shortstop and third base instead of acquiring a better alternative was the equivalent of pitching Aaron Laffey instead of David Robertson in more than half of Robertson’s appearances in 2011. That’s a pretty big deal.
One poor season does not, of course, destroy all hope for internal, cost-controlled players filling this hole in the long run. After-all, even if we concede that Pena and Laird are likely organizational afterthoughts (in the case of Laird, there is some debate to be had here, but ultimately I don’t believe the ability to hit for power is enough when the ability to hit is not present), Nunez was viewed as a capable defender coming through the minor league system and while his bat will probably never play up to starter level at any position but shortstop his versatile skill set is going to keep him around. He’s been asked about in trades and the front office seems hesitant to part with him. Assuming he’s with the club, I think he absolutely takes a spot on the bench. If the glove can improve he could be the long term utility answer. In the short term, though, I’m not sure I or many Yankees fans are comfortable with him a heartbeat away from the starting shortstop or third base job and Laird and Pena are, in my opinion, organizational pieces. With that in mind, it might make sense to look at some external options. If the price is low, as it likely is, and if the alternatives are as of yet fairly week, why not?
The front office made some noise last month in winning the rights to negotiated with Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. The 29-year-old Seibu Lion has a career .310 average in the Nipon baseball league, a decent amount of power and speed for a middle infielder, and could theoretically fill in at three of the four infield positions. Whether he’d be able to make the transition to the big leagues while providing enough value to justify the additional cost over Nunez, and Pena, we will never know, because after winning the rights to negotiated with Nakajima, the Yankees proceeded to offer him $1 million to sign while demanding six years of team control. Nakajma, a year away from unrestricted free agency, predictably declined, and negotiations ended there.
So with Nakajima out of the picture, what’s next?
Eric Chavez: The most realistic external option out there, the Yankees are already in talks with Chavez that could see the injury prone third baseman rejoining the team. Chavez took 175 plate appearances last season playing mostly at third base in place of Rodriguez, and he wasn’t as ineffective as Nunez and Pena. But Chavez is far from the ideal backup. The injury prone former-Athletic made more appearances last season than he did in any year since 2007. He also hit .263, got on base at a .320 clip, and produced offensively at a level approximately 20% worse than league average. Not what you want to see from a corner infielder. Matt Imbrogno made the case against Chavez a week ago. While he’ll likely hit at least as well as Nunez and play a better defensive third base he offers little flexibility and his health history makes any guaranteed contract a big risk. He’ll likely cost upwards of $2 million.
Wilson Betemit: A former Yankee, Betemit was traded after the 2008 season in the deal that landed Nick Swisher in pinstripes. Since then, he’s been largely unable to find full-time work while terrorizing AL Central pitchers as a part-timer for Chicago, Kansas City, and Detroit. Over the past two seasons, Betemit has come to the plate 674 times and produced a line of .290/.359/.479. Like Chavez, Betemit does not provide a great degree of versatility. He’s a pretty bad third baseman, though arguably a better defender than Eduardo Nunez at the position and clearly a superior offensive option. He crushes right handers and could provide the Yankees with a convenient way to rest Alex Rodriguez against tough righties. Should Alex go down, Betemit would put the lineup in a much better position to replace his production. Betemit was close to a deal with the Pirates a month ago, but the club pulled out of negotiations, and since then there has been little word on his plans for next season. I’d love to see him back in pinstripes – he could be an excellent fit.
Ryan Theriot: The World Series champion is, at 32-years-old, already well into the decline stage of his career after being non-tendered by the Cardinals last December. A 3.6 fWAR player in 2008, Theriot has gone from a decent offensive shortstop with a solid glove to a bellow average offensive middle infielder with a bellow average glove at each infield position. Still, he’s not a bad player. He’s a better fielder at this point than is Eduardo Nunez and while he won’t hit for any power, a .270 hitter with a .320 on base percentage who can play short and second and maybe even third is worth something. The Rays seem interested in Theriot and I don’t think he really provides the roster what it needs any more than what it already has. He hasn’t played much third and his bat is no better than that of Nunez. I’d probably pass.
Jeff Keppinger: Non-tendered by the Giants, Keppinger does not initially appear to offer a significant upgrade over Eduardo Nunez. He doesn’t have a terrible glove, but not a great glove either. He’ll hit for a solid average but won’t walk much or hit for much power. Still, Keppinger has played at short, second, and third in past and his defense would likely be a minor upgrade over that of Nunez. He was also as recently as 2010 a a .288/.351/.393 offensive player in nearly a full season of at bats. The market for Keppinger is slim and if he could be brought in on a minor league contract or as a spring training invitee it might be worth taking a look. He’s not terribly old and not too long ago he was a very solid player with a diverse skill set.
Carlos Guillen: Once one of the better and more versatile middle infielders in baseball, Guillen is now strictly a second baseman, outfielder, and designated hitter. He’s also not nearly the hitter he once was and has struggled for the past three seasons to get on the field. While the price might be through the floor on Guillen, so is the potential value. There is some upside here. He might be worth a spring training invite. He’s not really going to fill a void, though. He won’t play third or short, he won’t hit, and he’s not worth a roster spot at this point in his career.
Orlando Cabrera: See Carlos Guillen.
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