The Yankees Search For An Infielder

Though the research put forth by Jeff Sullivan today on teams following the loss of a six-win player wasn’t extremely damning — teams letting stars go didn’t even lose two wins more than teams that chose to retain their stars — it’s hard to see the Yankees as having done much more than tread water this offseason. For all the good that signing Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann did, going from Robinson Cano to Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson shot a hole in their infield. And now, with unclear remaining resources and a third baseman fighting to play in 2014, it looks like the Yankees are still an infielder short of a full deck. What available infielder could help the team the most?

It is possible that they don’t need *much* more, and that’s why teams losing stars don’t usually fall off the face of the earth. You can spread that money around elsewhere. For about the same as Cano cost, the Yankees got Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann. By pushing Brett Gardner to left and Vernon Wells into a bench role, Ellsbury probably represents a two-win upgrade in center. McCann replaces Chris Stewart and therefore probably adds two-plus wins over the 23rd-ranked production the Yankees got out of their catchers last year. With Cano projected for over five wins and Roberts and Johnson combining for maybe two wins, you could argue that the Yankees have actually improved already.

But that ignores the rest of the roster. The starting rotation now features David Phelps and Michael Pineda on the depth chart at four and five, and last year they got almost four wins from those slots. The projection systems are split on Phelps — particularly his ability to suppress the long ball — but with Pineda’s injury history, it’s hard to bank on four wins from those two pitchers. So remaining resources may head to the starting pitching market, and maybe even Masahiro Tanaka.

What resources remain for the Yankees to spend used to be a rare question, but it’s more common these days. At one point, it was a stated goal that the team would cut down to $189 million to avoid luxury tax ramifications. But that was before the team missed the playoffs for the second time in 19 years. Right now their luxury tax eligible payroll stands at $218 million according to excellent work by Mike Axisa. A season-long suspension for Alex Rodriguez would knock that down to $184.5, giving them four million or so to play with — but Hal Steinbrenner may be softening his stance against adding more.

So let’s impose two situations. One in which the next infielder added needs to have no impact on the luxury tax. With a trade of Ichiro Suzuki — rumored to be on the block currently — that infielder could cost as much as ten million dollars next year, provided Rodriguez is suspended. But that’s only if the team buying Ichiro pays his entire salary or has that sort of infielder lying around.

The other situation has no restrictions on the luxury tax. News from the Rodriguez fiasco or the lack of a trade market for Ichiro may paint the Yankees into this corner anyway.

First, which infielders could help if the team skimps? Ideally, they could play third base, but Kelly Johnson does give them some flexibility. It’s tempting to look Michael Young‘s way, since he was above-average with the stick last year, but his eroding defense has become such an issue that it’s robbed him of most of his value. He’s never once been a positive with the glove at third, but it’s been since 2011 since he was even passable. But there is rumored interest there, and at least one projection system is more upbeat about his defense in 2014, and his capacity to be above replacement.

If defense is more a priority, an Eric Chavez reunion might make sense. The Diamondbacks are supposedly concentrating on re-signing him, but he made three million dollars in a season that saw his defense slip further than it ever had before. A slight regression to his career mean, even at 36, could make him a bargain at anything under four million… which they could do without an Ichiro trade.

Closer to the bottom of the barrel, you have your Wilson Betemit and Mark Reynolds types, but neither is really passable at third for any long stretch of time at this point. The Yanks kicked the tires on Kevin Youkilis and were lucky that didn’t send him to the DL — but Youkilis told them he wants to play on the west coast.

The non-tender market is a tough place to shop, but there might be a name the Yankees should consider. Justin Turner isn’t a great defender, but he might be a better defender than anyone else on this list. He should be cheap. He fits the profile of past successful non-tender pickups in that he was above replacement level last year and is capable of playing many different positions. At the plate, he’s nothing special, but he makes contact and has shown a modicum of power in the past. He’s right-handed, in case the Bombers are more worried about Kelly Johnson‘s left-handedness than they should be. And he’d be cheap.

But those names aren’t really the stuff Yankee fan dreams are made of. If the team decides to blow right on past that $189 number, some options open up. They could sign Stephen Drew and ask Derek Jeter very politely if he would consider playing third base. That, with a Tanaka signing, would be the best solution money can buy at this point.

If they are willing to take on other team’s bad contracts, the name that jumps to mind is Brandon Phillips. Since the Yankees are on his no-trade clause, Phillips is asking for more money if the Reds trade him into pinstripes. If the Yankees give the player what he’s asking for, and take on all of the contract, it might not take Brett Gardner to get a deal done.

At four years and $50 million, plus whatever Phillips wants added, that’s a steep price tag in terms of years if not dollars, plus the added loss of future tax dollars as they head past $189 million this year. The Braves are trying to unload the $26.4 million left on Dan Uggla‘s contract over the next two years. Even though his season last year was… not pretty, Uggla showed his customary power and came within a hair of the league average for on-base percentage at second base. His contact rate on pitches outside the zone dropped — and that’s to be expected of a 33-year-old — but so did his contact rate inside the zone. Much was made of his corrective eye surgery during the season, and his playing time suffered on his return. Maybe a little more recovery time after that surgery will allow Uggla to at least hit balls in the zone better.

If Uggla is truly less than a two-win player next year, the Braves might have to throw in $10 million to make the deal work. If they put that ten million against the first year, Uggla could cost as little as four million dollars in 2014 and actually fit a $189 million plan for this season. With today’s signing of Matt Thornton, they would still need to jettison Ichiro, but they’d only need to save two or three million to make it work.

The nice thing about the Dan Uggla Plan is that the Yankees can do it now and stay below the $189 million number, assuming an A-Rod suspension lasts the year. Adding Uggla and inviting Justin Turner to camp could give the Yankees two wins at third base (by pushing some of the talent around the infield) in 2014, and that was a position at which New York failed to produce a win last season. If the Yankees want to stick to their budget, you may see this sort of solution in the Bronx next year, and it’s not necessarily a terrible thing.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

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