Remembering when the Yankees had the best infield in baseball

Those were the days. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Those were the days. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

By their own admission, the Yankees are heading into the season with some serious question marks on the infield. Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira are both coming back from what amount to lost seasons while Brian Roberts has been battling injuries for almost a half-decade now. Kelly Johnson is a solid player but nothing more, yet he is the surest thing on the infield at the moment.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the infield was the strongest part of the Yankees’ roster. Jeter has been anchoring the infield (and the entire team, really) since 1996 and he’s had some truly great teammates over the years, so strong infield units are nothing new to New York. In fact, only five teams have had a 4+ WAR player at the four infield positions throughout baseball history, and a recent Yankees squad is one of them. Here’s the list:

Fifty-nine teams have boasted three 4+ WAR players on a single infield (most recently the 2013 Rangers), but only five teams have managed four such players. That’s it. It’s happened once in the last 30 years and three times in the last century. The Yankees, of course, had that one infield full of 4+ WAR players just five years ago, during their 2009 World Championship season. Let’s look back at their performances.

1B Mark Teixeira – .292/.383/.565 (141 OPS+), 43 2B, 39 HR, 5.1 WAR

Teixeira’s first year in pinstripes was his best by a not small margin, as he led the league in both homers and runs driven in (122). He finished second to Joe Mauer in the AL MVP voting but, in reality, he wasn’t even the best player on the Yankees’ infield. We’ll get to that in a bit. Following his typically slow start to the year — he was sitting on a .191/.328/.418 batting line as late as May 12th — Teixeira was a monster all summer, hitting .315/.396/.597 with 32 homers in the team’s final 129 games of the season. He just straight mashed that year. What a beast.

2B Robinson Cano – .320/.352/.520 (121 OPS+), 48 2B, 25 HR, 4.5 WAR

Man, remember how awful Robbie was in 2008? He hit .271/.305/.410 (86 OPS+) and was worth 0.2 WAR during that miserable campaign, which landed him in plenty of trade rumors. I’m sure you haven’t forgotten about all the Cano for Matt Kemp talk. My favorite part of that was signing then-free agent Orlando Hudson to take over at second. That would have been a disaster given the player Cano developed into. That 2009 season was Robbie’s first step towards joining the game’s elite, but on a rate basis, he was the least productive player on his own infield. Bananas.

SS Derek Jeter – .334/.406/.465 (125 OPS+), 27 2B , 18 HR, 30 SB, 6.6 WAR

Remember when I said Teixeira was not even the best player on the infield? That’s because Jeter was. The Cap’n was a monster from the leadoff spot, hitting for average, getting on base, stealing bases (30-for-35!), and, believe it or not, playing solid defense. The various metrics all say Jeter was above-average with the glove that year (+3 DRS, +6.3 UZR, +4 Total Zone), and while you can’t trust one season’s worth of defensive stats, I definitely remember believing he was playing better defense that year based on what I saw. Know how I always say you need unexpected contributions if you want to win the World Series? Jeter’s defense was an unexpected contribution in 2009. His bat was pretty awesome as well. What a season that was.

3B Alex Rodriguez – .286/.402/.532 (138 OPS+), 17 2B, 30 HR, 14 SB, 4.2 WAR

When the 2009 campaign opened, Cody Ransom was the starting third baseman. A-Rod was scheduled to miss the first few weeks of the season due to hip surgery, a surgery that kept him out until early-May. He famously hit a three-run homer on the very first pitch he saw in his first game back, then proceeded to hit (almost) like vintage A-Rod for the remainder of the summer. He and Teixeira were the most devastating 3-4 combination in the game for this one year. Rodriguez also managed to extend his record streak of consecutive seasons with 30+ homers and 100+ RBI to twelve thanks to a two-homer, seven-run batted inning in the final game of the regular season.

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Know what is really amazing about this infield? These four guys combined to play 594 of 648 possible games (91.7%) even though A-Rod missed the start of the year with the hip issue. They were awesome when they were on the field and they were on the field pretty much the entire season. The Yankees didn’t just have the best infield in baseball back in 2009, they legitimately had one of the best infield units in baseball history. It was the centerpiece of the championship team — everyone else was part of the supporting cast.

Former Yankees player and broadcaster Jerry Coleman passes away at 89

Former Yankees infielder and broadcaster Jerry Coleman passed away at age 89 on Sunday. He spent his entire nine-year playing career in the Bronx, hitting .263 with 16 homeruns and 22 stolen bases from 1949-1957 while helping the team to four World Series titles (1949-1951, 1956). Coleman has made several appearances at Old Timers’ Day over the years.

After his playing career ended, Coleman broadcast Yankees’ games for WCBS radio and WPIX television from 1963-1969. He returned home to California in the early-1970s and broadcast the Padres from 1973 through last season. Coleman received several military medals after serving in both World War II and the Korean War. He is the only MLB player to see active combat in two wars and he spoke to Bryan Hoch about his military service a few years ago. Condolences to his family and friends.

Former Yankee Paul Blair passes away at 69

Former Yankees outfielder Paul Blair passed away at age 69 yesterday. He reportedly died shortly after collapsing at a celebrity bowling tournament in Maryland. Blair, who spent the majority of his career with the Orioles, was with the Yankees from 1977-1980 and helped the team to the 1977 and 1978 World Series titles. He was one of the best defensive center fielders in history and a staple at Old Timers’ Day. Condolences to his family and friends.

Former Yankee Mike Hegan passes away at 71

Former Yankees first baseman and outfielder Mike Hegan passed away at his South Carolina home yesterday due to heart problems. He was 71. Hegan played two stints in the Bronx (1964-1967 and 1973-1974) and was part of the 1964 AL pennant squad. He later won a World Series with the 1972 Athletics. Hagen was the last player to bat at the pre-renovation Yankee Stadium in 1973 and he also hit the first homer in Seattle Pilots franchise history. He worked as a radio broadcaster for the Indians for 14 years after his playing days were over. Condolences to his family and friends.

Cashman confirms Yankees planning to retire Joe Torre’s number … eventually

While speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees are planning to retire #6 in honor of Joe Torre at some point. “We haven’t given it out for a reason,” said the GM. “It’s been tucked away for quite some time. At some point, that’ll happen, not doubt about it. Clearly it has already unofficially happened.”

Torre, 73, was unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame by the Expansion Era committee on Monday thanks to his 12-year stint in the Bronx. The divorce was not pretty, but the two sides have since made amends and Torre has returned to Yankee Stadium on several occasions. Old Timer’s Day, Mariano Rivera‘s going away ceremony, stuff like that. He deserves to have his number retired and I’m glad the team will make it official at some point.

Fun Fact: The last player to wear #6 before Torre was Tony Fernandez in 1995. Here’s the full list.