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.

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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.