2014 Season Preview: Final Bench Spot

Yangervis. (Presswire)
Yangervis. (Presswire)

Barring injury or a trade, 12 of the 13 position player spots are already set. Joe Girardi made it clear Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson will be the starting second and third basemen, respectively, leaving Brendan Ryan on the bench with Frankie Cervelli and Ichiro Suzuki. The fourth and final bench spot is up for grabs in Spring Training and the Yankees have indicated it will go to an infielder. More than a few players are competing for the job.

IF Dean Anna
Acquired in a minor November trade with the Padres, Anna had a big year in Triple-A (.331/.410/.482) but was unable to land a 40-man roster spot with San Diego. They flipped him to the Yankees for a Single-A reliever rather than lose him for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft. The 27-year-old lefty hitter has a ton of experience on the middle infield and a little at third, making him prime backup infielder fodder.

Anna lacks a standout tool but he’s okay at everything. His plate discipline is his strongest skill but there is more to life than minor league strikeout and walk rates. Last year was the first year in which he hit higher than .280 and he’s never been much of a power guy or base-stealer. His defense is generally regarded as solid even though last Saturday’s play in the hole makes you think he’s the best defender ever. It’s a classic backup infielder’s profile and a strong spring could push Anna onto the Opening Day roster.

1B/OF Russ Canzler
As of right now, Johnson is the backup first baseman according to Girardi even though he only has 18 career innings at the position. The 27-year-old Canzler is the only other true first baseman in camp, though he has a good amount of left field experience as well. The Yankees had him working out at third base earlier in camp in an attempt to increase his versatility. Canzler is a pure right-handed platoon bat, hitting .307/.390/.531 against lefties in Triple-A over the years compared to .267/.346/.442 against righties. He only has 102 career big league plate appearances to his credit. Canzler is a long shot for the bench despite his ability to play first, so he’s likely ticketed for Triple-A.

IF Corban Joseph
CoJo, 25, made his very brief big league debut last season before needing season-ending shoulder surgery. They Yankees dumped him off the 40-man roster over the winter and he went unclaimed on waivers, giving you an idea of how he’s regarded around the league. Joseph had a big 2012 season split between Double-A and Triple-A (.276/.375/.465 with 15 HR) and while he’s versatile in that he can fake first, second, and third bases, he’s a liability everywhere. If he shows he can hit like he did two years ago, Joseph might have value as a bench player. If not, well there’s really nothing he can offer. He seems to be well behind the rest of the pack in the race for the final bench spot.

IF Eduardo Nunez
Boy did Nunez blow a golden opportunity last summer. Rather than cement his place in the future of the team by playing well at shortstop during Derek Jeter‘s various leg injuries, he got hurt himself and showed little improvement at the plate or in the field. Nunez had a strong September as the (almost) everyday third baseman, but one good month wasn’t enough to salvage his season, nor should it be.

Nunie. (Presswire)
Nunie. (Presswire)

Nunez, 26, came to camp as the incumbent backup infielder but that doesn’t guarantee him anything. The Yankees could have very easily handed him the job and been done with it — they really seem to like Nunez, don’t they? — but instead they brought in several players as legitimate competition. It definitely appears as though he fell out of favor with last summer’s continued lack of progress. I don’t think they would bring in so many infielders if they were comfortable with him.

We all know what Nunez can do at this point, right? He is a high contact hitter who can run but doesn’t have much power — he did say he spent most of the winter trying to bulk up and add strength, for what it’s worth — and his defense is a complete wildcard. He’ll make a stunning play one inning and botch a routine one later in the game. Unfortunately the bad plays outweigh the good ones. Nunez is not being handed a bench job and if he doesn’t make a strong case for one in camp, he has a minor league option left and can go to Triple-A.

2B/3B Scott Sizemore
After missing all but two games over the last two years due to back-to-back torn ACLs, the 29-year-old Sizemore signed a minor league contract and got into his first post-surgery Grapefruit League game last night. He had a nice half-season with the Athletics in 2011 (.249/.345/.433 with 11 HR) but given the sample size and the long layoff, I don’t think we can say that’s the real Sizemore. Healthy or not, he’s a tough guy to predict for the upcoming season.

If you’re a believer in uniform numbers being an indicator of a player’s roster chances, then Sizemore is sitting pretty after being issued Robinson Cano‘s old #24. Everyone else in this post other than Nunez has a number north of 70. Maybe that’s a sign the team considers Sizemore the favorite for the job as long as he’s healthy. Who knows. Either way, he has a lot to prove after missing two full years. I believe Sizemore has a best chance of being a league average player (that’s very valuable!) out of everyone in this post but making the team is not a given.

UTIL Yangervis Solarte
I didn’t expect to include the 26-year-old Solarte in this post initially, but he’s hit the snot out of the ball early in camp (.778/.800/1.444) and is very versatile, spending a bunch of time at the three non-first base infield positions as well as both corner outfield spots in his career. That would be nice to have off the bench. The switch-hitting Solarte has hit .282/.332/.404 in 1,145 Triple-A plate appearances the last two years, which is pretty underwhelming considering how hitter friendly the Pacific Coast League is.

The Yankees have shown a willingness to give roster spots to big Spring Training performers in recent years (2009 Ramiro Pena and 2012 David Phelps, most notably), so it’s not completely out of the question that Solarte could sneak onto the Opening Day roster if he keeps raking. A versatile switch-hitter would be nice to have. Then again, nothing in his track record suggests he’s some kind of hidden gem or in the middle of an early spring breakout.

* * *

Others like Zelous Wheeler and Jose Pirela have utility man profiles and are technically competing for that bench job in camp, but they are clear long shots to me. Solarte really belongs in that group as well, hot spring start notwithstanding. Because of the questionable starting infield arrangement and various injury risks, whoever gets that final bench spot may wind up playing a larger role than expected. Despite being the 24th or 25th spot on the roster, this bench spot offers quite a bit of opportunity.

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Eduardo Nunez and the writing on the wall

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I can’t imagine this has been a comfortable offseason for Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees’ incumbent backup infielder and wannabe shortstop of the future has watched the team give Derek Jeter a raise, re-sign Brendan Ryan, sign Kelly Johnson, trade for Dean Anna, and sign Scott Sizemore. They’re still looking for infield help too, so there could be even more names added to the list. That’s a lot of moves involving players who play the same positions as Nunez.

Even before these moves, it was obvious the Yankees needed to prioritize middle infield depth this offseason. There was never a chance Jeter was leaving, even if he declined his player option. That just wasn’t happening. But, as we saw last year, he is not invincible and the team needed a better backup plan. That’s where Ryan comes into play. He can’t hit a lick but you can run him out there on an everyday basis if need be because of his slick glovework. Anna can play the two middle infield spots and has some nice on-base skills, plus he was basically free, so why not? Johnson and Sizemore are second and third baseman but two more infielders nonetheless.

None of this is good news for Nunez. Or at least it isn’t a vote of confidence, I should say. If the team had any real faith in his ability to play shortstop on a full-time basis should Jeter go down with another injury, they probably wouldn’t have given Ryan two years (and an option!) so early in the offseason. That just doesn’t strike me as something you do if you have a 26-year-old shortstop you believe in long-term. Am I wrong? If Nunez had shown any improvement with the glove — his throwing was way better early last year but that didn’t last — or more promise with the bat, finding a replacement for 2014 and 2015 wouldn’t have been much of a priority.

It’s not all bad news, however. Nunez did keep his job while others infielders like Jayson Nix and David Adams were non-tendered weeks ago. That’s better than the alternative. Cutting Nix was an obvious move given his projected salary ($1.4M) but keeping Nunez over Adams was not a given. Both players have a minor league option remaining and both will earn something close to the league minimum in 2014, so that stuff wasn’t a factor. The Yankees decided Nunez, who has a standout tool in his speed (and ability to make contact, really), was the one worth keeping. I know what Adams has done over the years and I’m not convinced the team made the wrong move, especially since Sizemore is almost the exact same player. Betting on the guy who can run and consistently put the ball in play is not unreasonable.

“[Nunez] has options and he could be a utility player. I wouldn’t want to start him [at third]. Regardless how he feels about it, I would want to find someone that I feel more comfortable with,” said Brian Cashman to George King earlier this winter, making it clear the Yankees have knocked Nunez down the depth chart a peg or two. There is only so much patience you can show with a guy who, even if everything breaks right, still projects to be a solid regular more than a star. In a perfect world, Jeter will play shortstop next year with Ryan backing him up and Nunez sitting Triple-A, rotating between second and short with Anna. That’s the best situation for the Yankees but a big step down for Nunez, who probably sees it coming.

Third Base Notes: Reynolds, Young, Drew

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)
(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

The Yankees now know, for certain, that Alex Rodriguez will not be available to them this coming season. Arbitrator Fredric Horowitz officially reduced A-Rod‘s suspension from 211 games to 162 games yesterday, but make no mistake, it was a huge win for MLB. They wanted Alex out of the game for the year and that’s what they got. The Yankees now have an extra $25M or so to spend but they also need a new third baseman.

With the ruling now handed down, the team will likely begin looking for a third base replacement in earnest. Here’s the latest on the hot corner situation courtesy of Anthony McCarron, Andrew Marchand, and Dan Martin:

  • The Yankees continue to mull a reunion with Mark Reynolds, but they are only offering a minor league contract at this time. Such an agreement has been dubbed “unlikely.”
  • Michael Young is also being considered and the two sides have been talking. It is “too early to tell” if anything will come from it, however. The Yankees tried to acquire Young at the trade deadline.
  • The Yankees remain uninterested in Stephen Drew for whatever reason. Brian Cashman said they won’t be signing him last week. Drew has never played a position other than shortstop as a pro.
  • Cashman said the team does not view Brendan Ryan or Eduardo Nunez as third base options, thankfully. Kelly Johnson is an option but his experience at the position is limited (16 games, all last year).

Utility infield spot already starting to take shape

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)
(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

Thanks to all the injuries, the Yankees went through a small army of infielders this past season. They went internal with Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, David Adams, and Corban Joseph before going outside the organization for guys like Alberto Gonzalez, Chris Nelson, Luis Cruz, Brent Lillibridge, and Reid Brignac. Seven different players started a game at shortstop for New York in 2013 while ten (ten!) started a game at third. Eventually Brendan Ryan and Mark Reynolds helped stabilize things.

All four infield spots are a question mark right now for various reasons. Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter are returning from major injury, Robinson Cano is a free agent, and Alex Rodriguez may or may not be suspended. Nunez, Nix, and (to a lesser extent) Adams played fairly regularly last season and failed to impress, at least impress enough to solidify their standing as viable infield options should the need arise in 2014. Adding infield depth will be a priority this offseason and so far it’s the only area the team has addressed.

Since re-signing Derek Jeter to a new one-year contract, the Yankees have reportedly agreed to re-sign Ryan and acquired Dean Anna in a minor trade. Ryan won’t hit at all but his defense is among the best in the game and allows him to be a net positive if playing everyday. He’s not great, mind you, but you can run him out there on a regular basis and get some return. The 26-year-old Anna is a lefty bat with little power but quite a bit of on-base ability, plus he’s capable at the two middle infield positions. With all due respect to Ben Paullus, the Single-A reliever who went to the Padres in the deal, Anna cost basically nothing.

To me, bringing back Ryan and adding Anna for depth is an indication the Yankees have either grown tired of Nunez or will non-tender Jayson Nix prior to next month’s deadline. Maybe both. Nix is projected to earn $1.4M through arbitration next year and although I think he’s perfectly fine as a rarely used backup infielder, that is a bit pricey for what he brings to the table. Maybe he’d be worth keeping at that price in a luxury tax-free world. Nunez has been in the big leagues for parts of four seasons now and he hasn’t hit (86 wRC+) or shown any real improvement defensively. There’s only so much patience you have have with someone who projects to be an okay player but not a star if things go right.

Nunez appears to have a minor league option remaining and can go to Triple-A Scranton next season, so the Yankees won’t have to worry about finding a spot for him. I doubt he would fetch much in a trade anyway. The club has him, Ryan, and Anna to serve as depth behind Jeter at the moment, though the obvious caveat is that the offseason is still very young. Nix could return on a minor league deal (I would like that very much, actually) but you couldn’t blame him if he sought out another team that offers more of an opportunity if he is non-tendered. As a veteran guy who’s been in the show a while, Ryan sits atop the utility infielder depth chart and will open the year on the bench if the Cap’n is healthy enough to play shortstop. Anna and Nunez are behind him.

Regardless of what happens to A-Rod, the Yankees have to bring in a capable third baseman because he’s going to miss time one way or another next season, either through suspension or injury. That still has to be done. Middle infield depth was another priority this winter given the uncertainty surrounding Jeter following his self-proclaimed nightmare season, and early on they’ve addressed that with the Ryan and Anna moves. Nix became expandable and so did Nunez, but there’s no sense in dumping him until absolutely necessary since he’ll earn something close to the minimum and can go to Triple-A. The Yankees have a lot of business to take of this winter, but they’ve already made a series of moves to upgrade the utility infielder spot and add middle infield depth.

What Went Wrong: Eduardo Nunez

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a young-ish player who couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Despite all the optimism about an Opening Day return, Father Time remained undefeated as Derek Jeter was slow to recover from his offseason ankle surgery and unable to start the season with the Yankees. That gave the team the opportunity to do something they’ve seemed eager to do for a long time: play Eduardo Nunez everyday. Jeter’s injury was the perfect chance to play the kid without him having to look over his shoulder.

For about three games, everything went fine. The 26-year-old Nunez went 4-for-10 with a walk in the season-opening series against the Red Sox, but then he took a pitch to biceps in the fourth game and went into a deep 7-for-55 (.127) slump through the end of the month. The bat wasn’t working, but Nunez actually showed off some improved throwing mechanics and went from disaster to merely shaky in the field. Errors aren’t the best way to measure defense, but he did go from 30.1 innings per error from 2010-2012 to 62.3 innings per error in April 2013. Like I said, shaky instead of a disaster.

With his batting line sitting at a weak .200/.290/.275 through 95 plate appearances on May 5th, Nunez was pulled from a game after hurting his ribcage, apparently on a swing. An MRI came back clean but rest and treatment didn’t work, so a few days later the Yankees placed their backup shortstop on the DL. On the DL is where he stayed for two months and 57 team games. In typical Yankees fashion, his rehab moved very slowly.

Nunez returned on July 6th and five days later, Derek Jeter came off the DL (for the first time). Luckily for Nunez, the Cap’n hurt himself in his first game back and the shortstop position remained open. Eduardo went 16-for-62 (.258) with three doubles and a triple (.611 OPS) in between his return from the DL and Jeter’s second return from the DL. Nunez sat on the bench for a few games while Jeter played short, but on August 3rd, the shortstop job was his once again.

During the Cap’n’s third DL stint, Nunez went a respectable 23-for-80 (.288) with seven walks (.341 OBP), three doubles, one triple, and one homer (.728 OPS) with four steals in four attempts. Jeter returned for about two weeks in late-August and early-September, but the combination of his need to DH and Alex Rodriguez‘s hamstring and calf problems kept Nunez in the lineup, either at shortstop or third base. Nunez had a very nice .295/.321/.487 batting line in September as the season wound down.

Surprised his helmet stayed on. (Scott Halleran/Getty)
Surprised his helmet stayed on. (Scott Halleran/Getty)

Despite that strong late-season performance, Eduardo’s season batting line sat at an ugly .260/.307/.372 (83 wRC+) with three homers and ten stolen bases (in 13 attempts) in 336 plate appearances. The league average shortstop hit .254/.308/.367 (85 wRC+), so Nunez wasn’t far off the mark with the bat. The problem was, as always, his defense. That improvement he showed in April was not evident late in the season, when he was back to booting grounders and airmailing throws.

The various defensive stats — -20.6 UZR, -28 DRS, -12.1 FRAA, and -18 TotalZone — absolutely crush him at shortstop, like worst defensive player in baseball bad, but defensive stats don’t really work in small samples. Nunez only managed 608.1 innings at shortstop this summer, only about 40% of a full season. Going back to silly ol’ errors, he made eight in the final month and a half of the season, roughly one for every 35.3 innings in the field. Right in line with his pre-2013 work.

Both fWAR (-1.4) and bWAR (-1.5) agree Nunez was one of the ten worst position players in baseball this season. That’s out of the 955 players who had at least one plate appearance. If you don’t want to use WAR — I actually don’t, I prefer it for multi-year stuff but not single seasons — then all you need to know is that Nunez was (at best) a league average hitter relative to position this season while being well-below-average defensively. That adds up to a below-average player.

This was Nunez’s Big Chance. Capital letters. Jeter was going to be out for a while and even if he came back at some point, A-Rod and Kevin Youkilis were sure to miss a bunch of time as well. Instead, Nunez did nothing to stand out in regular playing time. He didn’t hit all that much — not even show a sign that there was something more to come, really — and his defense was bad. Nunez seems to have some serious backers in the organization though, so much like Phil Hughes The Starter, I get the sense he will continue to get chances to show he is something he probably isn’t, which in this case is a depth infielder best used in an emergency.

Mailbag: Ryan, Nunez, Park Factors, Super Twos

I’ve only got four questions for you this week. Use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything at any time.

Ryan has some range, no? (GIF via Baseball Nation)

Anthony asks: If the Yankees sign Brendan Ryan in the offseason as insurance for Derek Jeter, do you think his defensive contributions would be more valuable than the light-hitting, terrible defense of Eduardo Nunez?

Oh yeah, I have very little doubt about that. We don’t even need to get into WAR to make the point. Nunez is a below-average hitter and a horrible defender. Ryan is a horrible hitter and an above-average (bordering on elite) defender. Let’s have some fun and use the 20-80 scouting scale, where 50 is average. Nunez is what, a 40 hitter and a 30 defender while Ryan is a 20 hitter and a 70 defender? I suppose Nunez could turn into a 50 hitter with some speed and contact-related BABIP luck, but that’s being a little too nice.

If I had to pick between these two, Ryan would be my everyday shortstop. The Yankees would need to boost their offense in other spots (right field, catcher, DH) to compensate for the noodle bat though. In a perfect world, neither guy starts next year. The team should look for a better, legitimate everyday option this winter. A more long-term solution. That won’t be easy to find and definitely won’t come cheap, but that’s the corner the Yankees have painted themselves into thanks to an unproductive farm system.

Vicki asks: What’s with park effects? How can we call it a stat when it changes significantly season to season, yet the park dimensions stay the same?

Park factors can be calculated in different ways and they’re all complicated. Long story short: they show how many runs are scored at one park compared to all other parks. For the long and painful to read answer, here’s how Baseball-Reference calculates their park factors. Like I said, they’re complicated. All sorts of adjustments are made.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Park factors are like just about every other stat in that they fluctuate from year to year. Robinson Cano is a lifetime .308 hitter, but he had one year where he hit .342 and another where he hit .271. Did his talent level change those two years? No, other stuff (injuries, mechanical funk, etc.) played a role. Park factors are the same way. They don’t change because of the dimensions, those are fixed and don’t change year to year (unless the team changes them), they change because of everything else. Something like the weather — a particularly hot summer in New York would boost the offense at Yankee Stadium even more, for example — or even the way a team stores their baseballs can change the way a park plays. There’s a million variables that come into play.

I treat park factors the same way I treat defensive stats. I use them directionally rather than for a hard, exact number. If a player has a +10.5 UZR and +8 DRS, I don’t take those exact numbers to heart, but I do consider the player to be an above-average defender. The system isn’t accurate enough yet to take those run totals at face value. Park factors can be used directionally as well. We know Yankee Stadium is a very hitter friendly park overall, it’s can just be slightly more or less hitter friendly in a given year. Same thing with Dodgers Stadium being a pitcher’s park or Progressive Field being neutral. Remember, single season park factors are based on an 81-game sample. That’s not much. You have to look at the overall picture, like Cano being a true talent .308 hitter and not a .342 hitter because that’s what he hit one random year.

Adam asks: Does Corban Joseph getting “called up” and put on the 60-day DL mean that he gets paid the MLB minimum for the last few weeks of the season? Does he get per diem too?

Yes, Joseph definitely gets paid a Major League salary and per diem (for road games) while on the 60-day DL these last few weeks of the season. He also collects service time. Being on the DL is exactly like being on the active 25-man roster with regards to salary and contract status and all that. Joseph was called up on September 6th, so by my unofficial calculation he’ll receive $72,592.59 in salary, $1,274 in per diem (13 road games at $98 per game), and 24 days of service time this month. Pretty sweet gig if you can get it.

Patrick asks: Ryan Galla of CAA Baseball is projecting the Super 2 cutoff to be 2.121. (2 years, 121 days) How much time does Michael Pineda have? Does this number effect any other Yankee?

Galla’s projection had the Super Two cutoff at 2.119 in April, but it has since moved two days based on the timing of call-ups this season. The Super Two cutoff is set at the top 22% of players with fewer than three full years of service time. Pineda is still working his way back from shoulder tightness won’t be joining the team this month, so he’s done accruing service time this year. I estimated his service time at 2.099 last month, but that is just an estimation. He’s still well short of the Super Two cutoff though, even if my number is off by 10-15 days. Pineda will be a regular pre-arbitration player in 2014. His free agency has been pushed back from after 2016 to after 2017 though, and that’s most important.

There are two other Yankees on the Super Two bubble: Nunez and David Huff. Nunez came into the year at 1.117, and since he hasn’t gone to the minors at all this season, he’ll finish at 2.117 of service time. Five days short of the projected cutoff. Huff came into the year at 1.166, and based on my estimation, he’ll spend 63 days in the big leagues this season between the Indians and Yankees. That puts him at 2.229. I could be off by a few days, obviously. This stuff is tough to figure out. Neither guy is anything special and they wouldn’t get a huge arbitration raise anyway, but those handful of days are worth several hundred thousand dollars in terms of salary next year.

Nunez day-to-day after MRI comes back clean

The MRI on Eduardo Nunez‘s right knee came back clean, the Yankees announced. He is day-to-day. Nunez hurt himself on Tuesday when he caught a spike on the Rogers Center turf and fell to the infield. It would have been the most 2013 Yankees injury ever. Nunez worked out prior to yesterday’s game but had to sit out because he was unable to run at 100%. With Jayson Nix done for the year and Derek Jeter still a relative unknown following a third leg injury, losing Nunez would have been a pretty big blow. The team doesn’t have much infield depth.