X-rays came back negative on Brian Roberts‘ right knee following tonight’s game, according to various reporters with the team. Roberts fouled a pitch off the knee — it was a direct hit and he was in a lot of pain — but he stayed in the game and hobbled around for another few innings before being lifted in the ninth. I’m sure Roberts will be sore tomorrow and I’m guessing he’ll get a day or three off. Given his injury history, every little bump and bruise is a concern.
The Yankees came into 2014 with some very real infield concerns, both in terms of production and durability, and sure enough those concerns manifested themselves within the first week of the season. Just not necessarily in the way I expected — Mark Teixeira caught a spike in the turf in Toronto and landed on the 15-day DL with a hamstring injury. Just like that, the team without a backup first baseman lost their starting first baseman.
Teixeira returned after the minimum 15 days and the Yankees managed to win seven of 12 games during his absence because the replacement infielders played well. Kelly Johnson was adequate (not great, not awful) at first base and Yangervis Solarte did a mean Bernie Williams impression for a few weeks, which made life a lot easier. Derek Jeter has been getting on base a bunch early on as well, and while Brian Roberts has been better of late, he’s been not so good overall. Three out of four ain’t bad, I guess.
Now that the Teixeira has returned, the Yankees have five infielders for four spots. Jeter and Teixeira are going to play no matter what because of who they are. That’s not something worth debating. That leaves Solarte, Johnson, and Roberts for second base and third base. Solarte has hit the skids lately and has seen more time at the bench, but Johnson has seen his playing time take the biggest hit. He’s started only three of seven games since Teixeira came off the DL. Roberts has started every game since Teixeira returned, though he was supposed to sit last night before Solarte’s shoulder acted up.
Because it has been only seven games, it’s unclear how the Yankees are going to squeeze all these guys into the lineup on a regular basis. I mean, yes, Roberts should probably sit because he is the worst player of the bunch, but that seems unlikely to happen right now. The Yankees appear to be determined to give him a chance to show he can have an impact from the bottom of the order. I don’t agree with that — is there even anything left to reclaim at this point? he hasn’t been good in a while now — but that seems to be the plan. Whatever.
Because Solarte and Roberts and switch-hitters, platoon problems don’t really exist and the Yankees have more flexibility. Johnson has been sitting against lefties given since Teixeira returned and I would bank on that continuing going forward. All three of these guys are part-time players to me. Guys who likely get exposed playing everyday but can be productive in say, 400 plate appearance roles. Except Roberts. I’m still not very optimistic about him. But, like I said, he’s going to play so they might as well make the best of it.
Juggling these three will be a difficult situation for Girardi. Maybe difficult isn’t the right word. It’ll be a juggling act though, that’s for sure. Solarte has swung the bat well overall, Johnson has legitimate left-handed power, and Roberts is the proven veteran. There is a reason to keep all three in the lineup. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. Three players for two spots is better than being short a player or two, but keeping everyone happy and productive is not easy. This isn’t a video game; sitting on the bench a few days a week and being productive right away when pressed into duty is pretty tough.
In all likelihood, this will be one of those “it’ll sort itself out” situations. Someone will play themselves out of regular at-bats or someone will get hurt. Heck, Roberts’ back and Solarte’s shoulder have already acted up. That’s usually how this stuff goes. Until that happens, Girardi will have to juggle Solarte, Johnson, and Roberts between second and third base. The two switch-hitters and the versatility of Solarte and Johnson give the manager lots of options. No one is married to position and Johnson is the only one who will see the platoon disadvantage. That we’re even having his conversation is good news. Three useful pieces for two infield spots was not something I expected to see this early in the season.
10:22pm: An MRI can back negative, the Yankees announced. Roberts will be re-evaluated in a few days.
8:44pm: Via George King: Brian Roberts is not playing tonight because of a back problem. “Not sure if it’s serious,” said Brian Cashman. Roberts has a very long injury history, so anything that causes him to miss time is a big red flag. With Derek Jeter‘s quad acting up and Robertson banged up, the Yankees are woefully short on infielders at the moment.
I suppose the silver lining of last season’s terrible offense was a strong team defense. The Yankees employed guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay, Luis Cruz, Alberto Gonzalez, Reid Brignac, and Brendan Ryan as regulars at various points of the year, guys who can’t hit but can play some solid defense. The club sported a collective +12.5 UZR and +21 DRS in 2013, rates that are only slightly above-average (13th and 10th in MLB, respectively) on a team-wide scale.
The roster has turned over substantially this past offseason, especially on the position player side. That should greatly improve the lineup, but it will also impact the team defense. Some of the players the Yankees acquired over the winter are very good defenders but others simply are not. Not every player the team added is a two-way threat. Far from it. Let’s look at where the Yankees are vulnerable in the field thanks to subpar defenders.
Last month I detailed how the team’s ground ball heavy pitching staff is not a good mix for their generally shaky infield defense, particularly at the non-first base spots. Mark Teixeira is a stud in the field and I have no reason to think a wrist injury will severely compromise his glovework. Maybe he’ll lose a step or two or some hand-eye coordination with age, but I don’t think the injury will have a huge factor on his defense.
Derek Jeter has moved around well in the field and on the bases this spring following all the leg injuries, but he’s still a negative on defense. We all know that. Brian Roberts has looked surprisingly agile during Grapefruit League play, so maybe he’ll be a positive in the field, at least while he’s healthy. Kelly Johnson comes into the season with only 118 career innings at third base and only 18 innings at first base, where he’s expected to be the starter and backup, respectively. He’s muffed a few hard-hit balls in camp so far, the kind that earned the position the nickname the “hot corner.”
The backup plans aren’t much better. Eduardo Nunez is inconsistent at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst defensively, and Scott Sizemore is coming off back-to-back left ACL surgeries. He hasn’t played enough in camp for us to get an idea of how he’s moving in the field. The various scouting reports indicate Dean Anna is an adequate to solid defender. Teixeira should be fine at first but all of the other infield spots come with defensive questions. I think the Yankees would be pretty happy if the infield graded out as a league average unit come the end of the season.
As of right now, it seems like the plan is to have Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran split right field and DH duties most of the time in 2014. There have been some rumblings Brett Gardner could wind up in right with Soriano in left, but that seems unlikely to happen. The Soriano/Beltran timeshare in right field appears to be the way things are heading.
Aside from one defensive inning in right field during Game Five of the 2003 World Series, Soriano has never played the position. Moving over there at 38 years old may not be an easy transition, and that doesn’t even consider his weak throwing arm. Runners will be going first-to-third on him all day. Beltran was once a top flight defender but he has slowed down considerably with age and injury, to the point where he’s graded out as a below-average defender over the last few years by the various defensive stats. Regardless of whether Soriano or Beltran starts, the Yankees will have a subpar gloveman in right.
It’s not all bad though. First and foremost, right field in Yankee Stadium is pretty small, so there’s isn’t much ground to cover in the first place. Two, with Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Ellsbury figures to shade towards right to help cover the gaps. Three, Ichiro will almost certainly come off the bench as a defensive replacement for right field whenever the game is close. Even if Ichiro is traded or released or whatever, Zoilo Almonte can do the same job. Whenever they’re in right though, both Soriano and Beltran will be liabilities.
I mentioned this with Soriano in right, but it’s worth pointing out the Yankees have some weak outfield arms in general. Beltran’s is by far the best and might be the team’s best right field arm since Raul Mondesi way back in the day. Ellsbury’s arm is laughably weak and downright Damon-esque while Gardner’s is solid at best. Not particularly strong but accurate. Soriano’s arm is both weak and not accurate while Ichiro’s strong arm plays down because he takes forever to get rid of the ball. Gardner and Ellsbury more than make up for their arms with their range, but don’t expect to see many plays at the plate this summer. Beltran’s the only regular with a quality arm.
Brian McCann‘s Arm
McCann does a lot of things well, specifically hit and frame pitches. He is also said to be very good at blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers. The one thing McCann does not do well is throw. Last season he threw out only 24 of 100 attempted base-stealers, below the 27% league average. The year before it was 22%, and in case you’re thinking this might be related to his October 2012 labrum surgery, McCann threw out only 24% of base-stealers from 2006-11. He’s simply not good at shutting down the running game.
In order to compensate for McCann’s arm, the pitcher will have to make sure to pay attention to runners on first base. CC Sabathia should have it the easiest as a left-hander, but runners have been successful in 70% of their stolen base attempts the last three years. Hiroki Kuroda has held runners to a 62% success rate since coming to New York and Ivan Nova has held them to a 63% success rate in his relatively short big league career. Masahiro Tanaka … who in the world knows. Frankie Cervelli has an excellent arm (after some mechanical tinkering last spring) but McCann is going to be the starter because he does so many things well. One of those things is not throwing and it’s something the Yankees will have to deal with this summer. It’s the essence of taking the bad with the good.
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The Yankees have premium defenders at first base and in both left and center fields. The rest of the team will probably be net negative in the field, which is not ideal in an offensive ballpark in a tough division with a sketchy middle relief crew. This club is going to have to out-hit and out-pitch their defensive shortcomings in 2014.
As Joe explained last week, the Yankees have several important players coming back from injury this season. They also have several players who, due to their age and/or recent history, are at risk of getting hurt in 2014. Injuries are part of the game and many times they’re completely unpredictable or unavoidable, but there are certainly players who are more likely to get hurt than others. The Yankees haven’t exactly been good at keeping their guys healthy these last few years either. Here are New York’s biggest injury risks for the coming season and their respective backup plans.
Injury Risk: Derek Jeter
Backup Plan: Brendan Ryan
Aside from the dislocated shoulder back in 2003, last season was the only time Derek Jeter spent an extended period of time on the DL in his career. A twice-fractured left ankle and various leg muscle problems limited him to only 17 games, and even though he’s been healthy this spring and working out for weeks, his age (39) and the series of leg problems will make him an injury risk pretty much all year. The Cap’n is very much day-to-day at this point of his career.
The Yankees acquired Ryan last September when Jeter went to the DL for the fourth and final time, then they re-signed him to a two-year contract (with a player option!) over the winter to serve as shortstop insurance. If Jeter does go down with injury this summer, regardless of whether it’s two days or two weeks or two months, Ryan will step right in and play shortstop everyday. He can’t hit a lick but his defense is among the best in the game.
Injury Risk: Brian Roberts
Backup Plan: Ryan, Dean Anna, Eduardo Nunez, etc.
There is no greater injury risk on the roster than Roberts. He has appeared in only 192 of 648 possible regular season games since 2011 due to a variety of injuries, including back spasms (2010), concussions (2010-11), hip labrum surgery (2012), and hamstring surgery (2013). Second base is a dangerous position because of the blind double play pivot and it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Roberts hits the DL, kinda like it did with Travis Hafner last summer.
Infield depth is something the Yankees spent most of the offseason accumulating, though none of it really stands out. They don’t have a 2005 Robinson Cano waiting in the wings, for example. Ryan, Anna, Nunez, Yangervis Solarte, and Corban Joseph are the various backup plans at second base, though only Ryan and Nunez have any kind of substantial MLB time. The player who gets the job when Roberts goes down with injury may simply be the guy who’s playing the best at that time.
Injury Risk: Frankie Cervelli
Backup Plan: Austin Romine, John Ryan Murphy
Cervelli seems to have a knack for the fluke injury. His wrist was broken by a home plate collision in Spring Training 2008 and he’s also had foul balls break his foot (2011, again in Spring Training) and hand (2013) in recent years. The broken hand last year turned into a stress reaction in his elbow. More seriously, Cervelli has had four concussions in his pro career, including three from December 2009 through September 2011. Romine and Murphy will both be stashed in Triple-A as insurance, and I suspect Romine would get the call as a short-term replacement while Murphy would be the guy if Cervelli misses most of the season again.
Injury Risk: Michael Pineda
Backup Plan: Vidal Nuno, David Phelps, Adam Warren
When a player misses two full years due to a major surgery, it’s really hard to count on him staying healthy going forward. Pineda is an unknown and unreliable until he proves otherwise, which might never happen. His surgery was serious stuff and that’s why he hasn’t been handed a rotation spot as of yet. Pineda has to earn it by showing he can be effective post-surgery in camp. Phelps, Warren, and Nuno are all competing for the same fifth starter spot and will be ready to jump into the rotation at a moment’s notice if Pineda makes the team and goes down for any reason.
Injury Risk: Jacoby Ellsbury & Brett Gardner
Backup Plan: Ichiro Suzuki, Zoilo Almonte
Over the last three seasons, Ellsbury and Gardner have combined to play in 686 of 972 possible regular season games, or 71%. Go back four seasons and it’s only 66%. Both guys have had injury problems over the years but the major ones can mostly be classified as flukes. Here are Ellsbury’s notable injuries …
- Fractured Ribs, 2010: Crashed into a teammate chasing a pop-up then suffered a setback after returning too soon.
- Shoulder Subluxation, 2012: Fielder fell on top of him following a break up slide at second base.
- Foot Fracture, 2013: Fouled a ball off his foot.
… and here are Gardner’s:
- Fractured Thumb, 2009: Slid into second base on a stolen base attempt.
- Wrist Debridement, 2010: Hit by a pitch, needed offseason surgery after playing hurt in second half.
- Inflamed Elbow, 2012: Made a sliding catch and suffered three setbacks (!) before having season-ending surgery.
- Oblique Strain, 2013: Swung a bat. Nothing more.
There has been other day-to-day stuff over the years but those are the big injuries. Gardner’s oblique strain last September is the only one that isn’t a fluke to me, though I think it’s also important to understand both guys have a playing style that puts them at greater risk of injury. When you steal a ton of bases, you risk hurting your fingers and having an infielder fall on top of you. When you run around the outfield making sliding and diving catches, you can jam something pretty easily.
Is it fair to consider Ellsbury and Gardner injury risks for 2014? Maybe not, but they have been hurt a bunch in recent years and I felt they were worth discussing. If Ellsbury were to get hurt, Gardner would slide right into center field. If Gardner got hurt, Alfonso Soriano would probably take over as the everyday left fielder, as he would if Gardner moved to center. Ichiro would see more playing time — I think Soriano and Carlos Beltran would still get regular turns at DH even if Ellsbury or Gardner gets hurt — and Zoilo is the early favorite to be the first guy called up from Triple-A. If both Gardner and Ellsbury got hurt at the same time … well that’s a mess I don’t want to think about. A trade for a center fielder would seem likely.
Injury Risk: Mark Teixeira
Backup Plan: ???
A tendon sheath problem in Teixeira’s right wrist that eventually required surgery limited him to only 15 games last year and still has him on the mend in camp. He’s been brought back slowly — he faced live pitching in batting practice for the first time just today — and is slated to get into a game later this week, but wrists are very tricky. Even if the doctors say they’re healed, they tend to sap power for another few weeks and months. David Ortiz (2008-09) and Jose Bautista (2012-13) have had similar tendon sheath problems and they didn’t regain their previous form until well after returning to the lineup.
Given the nature of the injury, it might be more accurate to say Teixeira is a risk for reduced production than he is a risk for injury. He hasn’t exactly been Mr. Durable the last few years though, most notably missing more than a month with a calf strain in late 2012 and blowing out his hamstring during the 2010 postseason (forgot about that, huh?). That doesn’t include the infamous cough/vocal cord damage that hampered him two years ago. The Yankees don’t have an obvious backup first baseman — Kelly Johnson and his 18 career innings at the position is currently the backup at first — so a trade would be in order if Teixeira goes down. It’s either digging up another Lyle Overbay or playing Russ Canzler everyday.
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I think it goes without saying that pitchers are inherently risky. CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, and Masahiro Tanaka have been very durable throughout their career (Kuroda less so, but he’s been healthy with the Yankees) but it would surprise no one if they got hurt this year. Same with all the relievers. Pitchers get hurt. It’s what they do.
Carlos Beltran’s knees were a big problem from 2009-10, but he has played at least 140 games in each of the last three seasons. Brian McCann had shoulder problems in 2012 that required offseason surgery, which kept him out for the first month of 2013, but he has been healthy and productive since. Scott Sizemore has played a total of two games the last two seasons because of back-to-back torn left ACLs, but he is far from a lock to make the roster, nevermind play regularly. Same goes for Nunez, who missed a bunch of time with a ribcage problem last year. Just about every player has been hurt somewhere along the line.
The Yankees are well-equipped to deal with an injured outfielder, catcher, or back-of-the-rotation starter. The infield is were it gets dicey and unfortunately that is where we find the most at risk players (Jeter, Roberts, Teixeira). The backup plans on the infield are interesting of nothing else, but they’re all wildcards. I don’t think we can reasonably estimate what any of them would do if pressed into regular duty. The Yankees have a lot of important players at risk of injury this year and their ability to stay on the field will play a huge role in whether they return to the postseason.