Who’s on First? Preview of the Yankees’ Infield
Spring training is in session and with that comes the usual roster and starting lineup battles. The Yankees are no different in this regard, with a few spots up for grabs. However, they might have one of the oddest groups around the horn in years. Their starting shortstop is out for half of the season and his replacement has not touched Major League grass since July of 2017. They considered trading their rookie of the year candidate third baseman, almost signed a perennial all-star at the same position, and then settled on signing a utility player for a cheaper value as a backup. And then there’s first base. Despite all of this insanity, the Bombers still have a ton of talent across the board. Here’s a preview of what to expect from each position.
This might be the hardest position to get a grasp on in New York. Last season was rough at first for the Bombers, with no one playing more than 74 games at the position. Also, two of the players that saw a bulk of the time at the position – Tyler Austin and Neil Walker – are on different teams.
Greg Bird played the most games at first for the Yankees, and that was the best part of his season. The impact power hitter the Yankees had in 2015 and at times in the 2017 postseason was nonexistent. He finished the season under the Mendoza line (.199) with a .286 on-base-percentage and a .386 slugging – while playing a good chunk of his games at the short porch of Yankees stadium that is. While Bird was able to play over 80 total games for the first time since 2015, he needs to prove that he can consistently hit to stay in the lineup. His defense is average at best (keep in mind, he entered the Yankees’ system as a catcher), so he needs to hit to stay in the lineup.
It was because of his bat that he has lost the job, momentarily, to Luke Voit. The powerful big man acquired in the Chasen Shreve trade with the Cardinals, Voit was giving Yankees fans, well, Déjà vu to Bird’s year in 2015. He hit .333 with a .405 OBP and a whopping .689 slugging down the stretch to fly over Bird and take over the starting roll. That being said, Voit was basically playing in an extended September callup, which are never reliable. He has power to all fields – with great opposite field pop that will play at Yankees Stadium – and a ton of confidence, but can he continue his pace for a full season? Major League pitchers are going to have more video on Voit and are going to look for holes in his swing (and the pitches that got him to strike out 26.4 percent of his plate appearances). Sooner or later, Voit will have to adjust to MLB pitchers or meet a similar fate as Bird.
Someone to look out for is Mike Ford. While he’s never played in the Majors, he has shown solid on-base skills from the left side of the plate in the minor leagues (.370 career OBP in six seasons in the minors), so look for him to get some at-bats in spring training.
SECOND BASE AND SHORTSTOP:
These two positions are getting pushed together because there is going to be a lot of crossover between the two.
First, let’s discuss Gleyber Torres, who will mostly start at second base but split some time at shortstop. While he certainly had his ups and downs (he had a slash line of .294/.350/.555 before the all-star break, while dropping down to .249/.329/.404 after), Torres still had a very solid rookie year at 21 years old. He increased his power numbers from the minors (career slugging percentage of .419 in six minor league seasons compared to a .480 slugging last year) and showed his potential defensively. To improve, he needs to stay focused on the field and limit the mental lapses that plagued him on defense, show a little more patience at the plate – his on base percentage of .340 is not terrible, but it can be improved – and cut down on the whiffs. Striking out 140 times in 484 plate appearances (28.9 percent of the time) is a bit much.
Moving to the keystone, Troy Tulowitzki is returning to Major League play on the field where his hero, Derek Jeter, once helmed the same position. After a strong run with the Rockies, Tulo just could not stay on the field enough to make an impact with the Blue Jays. Also, he clearly missed Coors Field, as his on-base-percentage dropped 58 points and his slugging percentage dropped 99 points. However, there are some reasons to buy into Tulo’s revival. He has always played fantastic defense at short (3.1 Defensive Wins Above Replacement with Toronto) and he has had a year to rest up his injured heel. While he may not be at his peak in Colorado, Tulowitzki has a chance to open some eyes at short.
Taking a utility role is one of Tulowitzki’s teammates from Colorado, DJ LeMahieu. Mostly playing second with the Rockies, LeMahieu thrived out West on both sides of the diamond. He won three Golden Gloves while hitting .299 with the Rockies. That being said, LeMahieu also benefitted from playing about half of his games at Coors Field, moreso than Tulowitzki. LeMahieu’s home-road splits (.329/.386/.447 at Coors Field compared to .267/.311/.367 during is Rockies career) are less than desirable. In addition, this is his first season taking on a utility role, and as seen with Neil Walker last season and Stephen Drew several years prior, switching from one position every day to several is never easy. However, LeMahieu is more athletic than Walker and his bat to ball skills – he has made contact of all pitches thrown at him 87.2 percent of the time when he swings in his career – add diversity to a strikeout heavy lineup. LeMahieu is a player that adds contact and athleticism across the infield.
After LeMahieu look out for Tyler Wade and Gio Urshela. Wade is an athletic speedster who excels at multiple positions. His bat has not played out in the Majors, but he has the potential to give a boost to the Bombers this season. Urshela is signed to a Minor League contract with a spring training invitation. He has stuck around with Terry Francona’s Indians for two years and saw some time with Toronto last season. He has hit .270 with low strikeout rates in the minor leagues, so he very possibly could crack the Yankee’s roster this spring.
As of this date, this position belongs to Miguel Andujar. And it should, especially after an impressive rookie season in which he finished tied for second on the team with 27 home runs and second alone with 92 Runs Batted in along with a team leading .527 slugging percentage (amongst those who qualified for the batting title that is). So, why would a player of this caliber be discussed in trade rumors and position swaps? Well, the most obvious reason is his defense. Any way you look at his season at the hot corner is not pretty, from his 15 errors (3rdmost among American League third basemen), to his -25 runs saved, to his -2.2 WAR. His biggest issue is the sloppy footwork that Cashman and company wanted to keep him in the minors to work on last season. In addition, his stats are very batting average heavy, as he only walked 4.1 percent of his plate appearances. That being said, Andujar deserves the starting job next season. His quick bat and great contact skills (striking out fewer than 100 times is a rare act in today’s game) alone are enough to give him back the starting job. He just needs to improve his defense, patience and hope that his batting average does not go towards the Mendoza line.
These are the players that Yankees are looking at around the horn this season.