2014 Season Review: Broken at 1B without a backup

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

How durable was Mark Teixeira when the Yankees signed him after the 2008 season? Since his debut in 2003 he’d played in fewer than 145 games just once, when he appeared in 132 in 2007. He’d been on the DL just twice, totaling 41 games.

Even after he joined the Yankees, Teixeira stayed on the field. He averaged 155 starts from 2009 through 2011. Even in 2012 he didn’t miss a game until August. But that started a cascade.

As Teixeira tells it, the cascade actually started many years earlier, back in his Georgia Tech days. He broke his right ankle, causing him to miss considerable time. While he stayed on the field afterward, he feels, according to this Men’s Journal article, that the injury caused “a chronic overloading of the muscles and joints on his left side.”

An athlete in his prime can compensate and play through such issues.

An athlete at age 32? That’s a completely different story. While Teixeira took care to diagnose and rehab his underlying problems in the off-season before 2013, his efforts didn’t help him avoid a wrist injury that cost him essentially the entire season.

As we saw in 2014, Teixeira hasn’t shown much in the way of physical improvement since late 2012. Maybe missing a season left him out of game shape. Maybe he took it too easy on his surgically repaired wrist. Maybe the way he chose to rebuild his body wasn’t ideal. Whatever the case, Teixeira looked more broken down in 2014 than he did in even 2013. At least then he had a specific injury.

In 2014 Teixeira’s injuries ran the gamut:

  • Hamstring strain (his only DL stint)
  • Groin tightness
  • Wrist inflammation (to be expected)
  • Ribcage tightness
  • Back strain
  • Wrist soreness again (first the left, then the right)

And that’s not to mention the three games he missed when a catcher stepped on his finger, necessitating stitches. Not that it was his fault. (Well, other than him being slow enough that there was a play at the plate.)

All in all the injuries cost Teixeira 33 games (by Baseball Prospectus’s count). He started just 120.

He also produced the worst non-injury-decimated season of his career. His 101 OPS+ was a point lower than the 102 OPS+ he produced in his 2003 rookie campaign.

It’s not as though no one saw this coming. How much could the Yankees have reasonably expected from Teixeira after his late 2012 and 2013 season woes?

A lot, apparently, seeing as they didn’t bring in anyone as his backup.

The implicit vote of confidence cost the Yankees. Here’s a list of players who took reps at first base — previous games in parenthesis, 2014 games following.

Kelly Johnson (3) 27
Brian McCann (0) 16
Chase Headley (2) 7
Francisco Cervelli (0) 5
Brendan Ryan (0, duh) 5
Carlos Beltran (0) 1
Scott Sizemore (0) 2
Austin Romine (0 – though 13 at AAA in 2014) 1

To put that in clearer terms: the Yankees used eight players with a combined five games of MLB experience at first base — including six of whom had never played first in the majors — in 64 games.

Oops?

As was the case at second base, it’s not as though the Yankees had a ton of options to sign as a backup first baseman. They’d also need a candidate who can play another position, since there is no room on the roster for a dedicated backup first baseman. Someone like Lyle Overbay just wouldn’t make sense (especially when he has a chance at more playing time in Milwaukee). Mark Reynolds might have, but apparently he saw an opportunity for more time in Milwaukee as well.

Carlos Pena? He wasn’t half bad with the Astros last year — though he ended up being toast this year. Postseason Hero Travis Ishikawa was free to sign when Teixeira went on the DL in April. He had, uh, three games of outfield experience before this year. Pulling Doug Mientkiewicz out of retirement?

If we were still doing season reviews in the what went right/what went wrong format, clearly first base would have gone wrong. But the issue is as much the lack of a backup as it is Teixeira himself.

Given his failing health, it was a huge stretch to imagine that Tex could have started 150 games. I don’t think the Yankees planned on that. Yet given Tex is guaranteed to be in the lineup when healthy, they might have found trouble attracting a backup first baseman.

In terms of the effects on 2015 and beyond, though, Teixeira presents the largest problem. The Yankees can create a more solid backup plan this off-season. What they can’t do is replace Teixeira. They simply have to hope that, like David Ortiz and Jose Bautista before him, Teixeira fully recovers now that he is a full year removed from wrist surgery.

A man can dream, though. A man can dream.

(Difficult challenge: In the comments, don’t talk about: releasing Teixeira, how Tex is “soft,” how he always blames something other than himself. Seriously. You’ve beat all those, and more, to death.)

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Teixeira “wasn’t strong enough” in 2014, begins early offseason workouts

Via Dan Barbarisi: Mark Teixeira has already started offseason workouts after admitting he wasn’t strong enough to get through this past season. “I just didn’t have the strength. The rotation wasn’t there. The explosiveness wasn’t there. I just wasn’t strong enough to get through the season,” he said. “I’m doing light workouts right now, and when I start hitting the weights heavy here in a couple weeks, I’ll be prepared. I’m not shutting it down for a month like I usually do.”

Teixeira, 34, hit .216/.313/.398 (100 wRC+) with 22 homers in 123 games this year, though after the All-Star break he could only muster a .179/.271/.302 (62 wRC+) line with five homers in 50 games. It’s worth noting both David Ortiz (2008) and Jose Bautista (2012) needed a full season to get back to where they were after suffering the same wrist tendon sheath injury as Teixeira. I don’t think the guy we saw in the second half is the real Teixeira but I’m also not convinced he’ll get back to being the ~120 wRC+ guy he was from 2010-12, before the injury. Either way, the Yankees are stuck with him for two more years and have to hope he will rebound going forward.

Injury Updates: Tanaka, Tex, Sabathia, Nova

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are dealing with a number of injuries as the season winds down, mostly on the position player side. Here are a few injury updates worth passing along, courtesy of Brendan Kuty, Dan Martin, and Chad Jennings.

  • Masahiro Tanaka (elbow) said he felt nothing more than “normal soreness” yesterday after making his return to the rotation on Sunday. He played catch as part of his usual between-starts routine and is scheduled to throw 80-85 pitches on Saturday. “Just the fact that I was able to throw yesterday and the fact I’m feeling good today (is encouraging),” said Tanaka yesterday. “Having the start coming up on Saturday, if I come out from that strong, then obviously that’s a positive. From where I am right now, I should be able to have a good offseason of training (and) I should be good to go for next season.”
  • Mark Teixeira (wrist) received his third cortisone shot of the season — it was administered in a different part of his wrist, which is why the doctors allowed it — and hopes to return to the lineup as soon as today. “This last week of the season, we’ll do whatever I can to stay out there and play every game. You never want to end the season hurt. You want to finish the season, so if I play the last five or six games, it’s worth it,” he said.
  • CC Sabathia (knee) played catch yesterday for the first time since having surgery in July. He plans to continue his throwing program and get back on a mound by Thanksgiving before shutting it down for the offseason and going into his usual winter routine. “I’ve been throwing a football a little bit. It feels good to come out here and not hide,” he joked.
  • Ivan Nova (elbow) is on a throwing program as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. “Nova’s rehab has went extremely well. He has had zero setbacks and has progressed very, very well,” said Joe Girardi.
  • There were no updates on Jacoby Ellsbury (hamstring) and Carlos Beltran (elbow) yesterday. Both remain day-to-day and are questionable to return before the end of the season.

Update: Mark Teixeira leaves game with sore wrist

6:16pm: Teixeira left the game with soreness in his right wrist, the Yankees announced. He is being evaluated by team doctor Dr. Ahmad.

5:41pm: Mark Teixeira left this afternoon’s game for an unknown reason in the fifth inning. I assume he’s hurt. Teixeira missed a game with soreness in his surgically repaired right wrist last week and someone told me he was flexing his wrist during one of his earlier at-bats this afternoon. I didn’t see it myself though. Stay tuned for any updates.

Teixeira blames injuries, down year on lack of a normal offseason

Prior to yesterday’s game, Mark Teixeira told reporters his nagging injuries and declining production this year are the result of having a restricted offseason following wrist surgery. “I’m really looking forward to getting stronger this offseason. That’s going to keep me healthier,” he said to Brendan Kuty. “Look, this year was not a year, health-wise, that I was happy about, so (a normal offseason) will keep me healthier and that’s going to improve performance, no doubt.”

Teixeira, 34, is down to .223/.322/.415 (106 wRC+) on the season, easily the worst full season of his career. I’m happy he thinks he can rebound with a normal offseason but I’m going to need to see it to believe it. Teixeira battled nagging injuries during the 2012 season — remember the cough? he also missed time with wrist and quad injuries that year — and he had a normal offseason before that. At this point I think he’s just an older player breaking down and seeing his production slip, which happens to most players in their mid-30s. I’d be thrilled if Teixeira rebounded in 2015. I just don’t see why I should think it will happen.

Tyler Austin, Greg Bird, and the future of first base

Austin. (New York Daily News)
Austin. (New York Daily News)

First base is a weird position. Teams expect huge offensive production from first base and it’s at the bottom of the defensive spectrum despite being involved in more total plays than any position other than pitcher and catcher. You can’t just stick anyone there either. We’ve seen enough of that firsthand this year. You need offense from first but defense isn’t a huge deal, except for all those times the first baseman handles the ball.

You also rarely hear people talk about a team’s “first baseman of the future” too. There’s plenty of “this guy will be our shortstop for the next ten years,” but first base? Nope. The history of first base prospects is pretty awful as well. Baseball America ranked 37 full-time first baseman among their top 100 prospects from 1995-2005 and only five became bonafide stars: Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Todd Helton, Paul Konerko, and David Ortiz, who made his name at DH.

More recent elite first base prospects like Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak have been disappointments. Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo are the best of the top first base prospect crop since Fielder while others like Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt were never top prospects. It has historically been a tough position to project and I think that’s because it’s so offense-focused. Hitting is generally considered to be tougher to scout and evaluate than pitching because there is no “textbook” swing. A fastball is a fastball and a slider is a slider. But a swing? Good luck cracking that code.

Anyway, the Yankees are at a point now where the future of first base in the Bronx is up in the air. Mark Teixeira is under contract for another two seasons but he is becoming more and more injury prone with each passing year. His playing time at first base will only go down through injuries and time spent at DH in an effort to keep him healthy. The Yankees have gotten by (barely) with fill-in first basemen during Teixeira’s injuries this season, though I hope that isn’t the plan going forward. To just wing it whenever Teixeira gets hurt.

The Yankees currently have two first base prospect at Double-A Trenton … well, one first base and one kinda sorta first base prospect. The true first base prospect is Greg Bird, who was just promoted and has gone 9-for-30 (.300) with three doubles and three homers during his first week with the Thunder. He had a monster 2013 season (170 wRC+) with Low-A Charleston and offers the kind of left-handed power and patience the Yankees crave. Bird is a recently converted catcher though, so his defense at first can be generously described as a work in progress.

The kinda sorta first base prospect is Tyler Austin, another ex-catcher who has bounced from third to first to right field over the years. He’s spent most of this year playing right in deference to Peter O’Brien and now to Bird. Austin had an outstanding 2012 campaign (~160 wRC+) before a wrist injury marred his 2013 season (103 wRC+). The wrist problem lingered into this season and caused him to miss the start of the year, and after a few slow weeks, he’s hit .319/.362/.518 with six homers since July 1st. It appears 2012 Austin is starting to return as he gets further away from the wrist injury.

Bird. (Newsday)
Bird. (Newsday)

Neither Bird nor Austin is a top first base prospect like Hosmer or Fielder — Austin did rank 77th on Baseball America’s top 100 in 2013 — though they are solid prospects expected to be average or better contributors at the MLB level, assuming things work out. League average is valuable, especially when the players are making close to the league minimum in their pre-arbitration years. Austin in particular fits the roster very well as a right-handed hitter with some power who can play both right and first. Bird, as a pure first baseman, is a less perfect fit.

It’s clear at this point the Yankees will need some kind of viable backup for Teixeira going forward just because he gets hurt all the time. It’s not necessarily the 15-day DL stuff either. He’s shown a knack for those 6-7 day injuries, the ones that are short enough to avoid the DL but long enough to force the team to play a man short. The problem is that “backup first baseman” really isn’t a position anymore. No team carries a player specifically for that. They tend to carry, well, someone like Austin, who can play first in addition to the corner outfield, third base, or even catch. Think Mike Carp or Steve Pearce or Scott Van Slyke.

The assumption has been that Brian McCann will eventually have to move to first base, though continues to rate very well defensively in terms of pitching framing, throwing out runners, and blocking balls in the dirt. His bat has been a huge disappointment this season but there is no reason to move him out from behind the plate yet. Since Austin is further along in his development thank Bird and figures to start next season at Triple-A Scranton, he’ll be in position to help the Yankees as soon as next season, perhaps getting his opportunity when Teixeira gets hurt. Bird is still a year or two away and his lack of flexibility hurts his chances. If Austin hits, the Yankees will have some different ways to get him into the lineup. They can’t really do that with Bird.

Until his contract is off the books, Teixeira will be New York’s primary first baseman and that’s just the way it’s going to be. There is no reason to think they’ll bench him or relegate him to DH duty on a regular basis. It would be a drastic change from the way they’ve done business for the last, I dunno, 15-20 years. Teixeira’s injuries will give Austin and later Bird a chance to get into the big league lineup — assuming they’re worth calling up, of course — though staying there is the hard part. The Yankees have had four primary first baseman over the last 30 years and they usually go for stars at the position. The opportunity will come for both Austin and Bird in the next two years, but being a good but not great prospect with the Yankees is a not ideal. They may only be stopgaps until the next big name comes along.

Update: Mark Teixeira gets three stitches in pinkie, x-rays negative

10:50: X- rays came back negative and Teixeira received three stitches in his pinkie. Not too bad.

10:29pm: Teixeira is getting stitches and will likely go for x-rays, Joe Girardi announced. He will definitely not play tomorrow and it’s unclear what will happen after that.

10:16pm: Mark Teixeira left tonight’s game after either having his left hand stepped on or his fingers bent back (or both) while sliding into home plate in the bottom of the eighth. YES showed him holding a towel over his fingers, so hopefully it’s nothing more than a cut. Either way, the Yankees can’t really afford to lose their best power hitter and only real first baseman. Stay tuned for updates.