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New York Yankees Infield: Depth Chart Discussion

My how times have changed. Four seasons ago the Yankees rode one of the best infields in baseball history — combined 23.5 WAR out of their starting catcher, first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, and third baseman — to the World Championship, but when 2013 opens they will have one bonafide superstar, one major question mark, and three guys either hurt or coming off injury on the infield. You have to see it to believe how ugly it is:

C 1B 2B SS 3B
Starter Chris Stewart Mark Teixeira Robinson Cano Derek Jeter Alex Rodriguez
Backup Francisco Cervelli Dan Johnson Jayson Nix Eduardo Nunez Kevin Youkilis
Depth Austin Romine Corban Joseph David Adams

The Yankees aren’t exactly known for letting players in their prime years leave free agency, but they let two walk this winter in Nick Swisher and Russell Martin. Martin was never going to get back to being the guy he was in 2007, but he hit 21 homers and drew enough walks (10.9%) to post a .311 OBP despite a .211 AVG. Add in reputedly strong defense and you’ve got yourself a very solid catcher.

Instead, the Yankees will roll the dice with Stewart and Cervelli, two career backups who standout for their defense and not their offense. Stewart, 31, is a career .217/.281/.302 (59 wRC+) hitter with four homers in 394 big league plate appearances, including .241/.292/.319 (65 wRC+) in 157 plate appearances for New York last year. There’s nothing in his track record that suggests more offense is coming, so his only hope for being fantasy relevant involves as massive BABIP spike. Stewart does put the ball in play (career 12.2 K%), so he does have that going for him.

Cervelli, 27, is a .271/.339/.353 (88 wRC+) career hitter with five homers in 562 big league plate appearances. Most of that stems from his strong showing in 2010 (92 wRC+ in 317 PA). The Yankees kept him in Triple-A pretty much all of last season in favor of Stewart because of defensive issues, defensive issues he’s reportedly corrected over the last few months. For what it’s worth, manager Joe Girardi told reporters Cervelli has all but made the team just yesterday. He has a better chance of being a useful fantasy piece that Stewart, but his value is still going to be very BABIP reliant. There just isn’t much else there.

First Base
The 32-year-old Teixeira will be out until mid-May with a wrist strain he suffered while taking batting practice with Team USA prior to the World Baseball Classic. As fantasy owners surely know, wrist injuries tend to linger and it could hamper his production all season. Teixeira has already declined to the point where he’s a .250-ish hitter with a .340-ish OBP, but he had fantasy value because he’s a lock for 30+ homers and 100+ RBI across a full season. Not only will he not play a full season in 2013, but the wrist raises questions about how effective he’ll be when on the field. There’s a lot of risk here but also quite a bit of upside if he shakes off the injury and produces like himself for the final four months of the season.

The Yankees have yet to decide who will replace Teixeira for the first six weeks of the year, but the 33-year-old Johnson seems like a safe bet to get the call against righties. Despite his numerous dramatic homers, he’s only had 291 plate appearances in the big leagues since 2008 — he did spent 2009 in Japan — and hasn’t really hit: .185/.309/.379 (93 wRC+) with 14 homers. Still, Johnson is a left-handed hitter with power who is moving into Yankee Stadium, so he could pop a few dingers and be useful for a few weeks before Teixeira returns. The Yankees have been working him out at third base this spring, so there’s a decent chance he picks up eligibility there as well.

Second Base
Cano, 30, is the only sure thing on New York’s infield. He hit .313/.379/.550 (150 wRC+) with a career-high 33 homers last year and has managed a .311/.370/.539 (142 wRC+) over the last three years while playing 480 of 486 possible games. He’s a star-caliber player and should be a first round pick in all non-NL-only draft formats. My only concern is that the depleted Yankees’ lineup will lead to fewer RBI and runs scored chances, plus some more IBBs.

Should Cano need to be replaced for whatever reason, the 30-year-old Nix is most likely to take over at second. He’s bounced around for a while and has never really hit anywhere, so there’s no fantasy value here. Joseph, a Carson Cistulli favorite, hit .266/.366/.474 (134 wRC+) with 13 homers and nearly as many walks (53) as strikeouts (57) in 386 Triple-A plate appearances last year. The 24-year-old has always hit while coming up through the minors and like Johnson, he’s a left-handed hitter who would presumably benefit from Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. He’s slated to open the year back in Triple-A, but I do believe the Yankees would let Joseph play second everyday over Nix should Cano get hurt.

Jeter defied age and critics last year, leading the league in hits (216) and producing a vintage .316/.362/.429 (117 wRC+) batting line in a league-best 740 plate appearances. Thirty-eight-year-old shortstops aren’t supposed to do that. Jeter’s season ended prematurely with a broke left ankle that required offseason surgery, which has slowed his usual Spring Training routine. The Cap’n played shortstop in a game for the first time last night after two Grapefruit League games at DH.

ZiPS is very pessimistic about Jeter, projecting him at .277/.337/.369 with six homers and 13 steals in 2013. The combination of age and injury is not a very good one. At the same time, Jeter looked done in 2010 (93 wRC+) but found his old form after a few mechanical changes while on the DL in mid-2011. There’s an awful lot of risk here but Jeter is a great player and great players tend to have different age curves, so he’s obviously still worth a fantasy roster spot. The shortstop position is pretty shallow and I think he should be one of the first seven or eight shortstops off the board, ahead of guys like Josh Rutledge and Alcides Escobar in non-keeper leagues.

The Yankees plan to DH Jeter regularly against left-handers just to get him off his feet following surgery, so the 25-year-old Nunez figures to see quite a bit of playing time early in the season. His defensive hilarity is of no concern to fantasy owners, who can sit back and enjoy a tolerable average (.260+) with legit 20+ steal potential. Nunez is no great shakes, but he has SS/3B eligibility and is a steals sleeper given his expected playing time. Not someone I would draft or pay more than $1-2 dollars for at auction, but someone to keep in mind for the bench.

Third Base
It’s been five years since A-Rod signed his mammoth ten-year, $275M contract, and he’s been on the DL in every one of those five years. Things will be no different in 2013 following offseason hip surgery, the most serious injury of his career. He’s due back around midseason and who knows what kind of production he’ll be able to muster. Rodriguez is no longer the player he once was, but he did hit .272/.353/.430 (114 wRC+) with 18 homers in 529 plate appearances last year, which is pretty darn good. Still a useful player both in real life and fantasy. Because of the injury though, he’s a total question mark and someone I wouldn’t consider for anything more than a DL stash this summer.

Youkilis, 33, was signed to replace A-Rod at third. Take a look at his graphs page and you’ll see that pretty much everything is in the middle of a multi-year decline, which is not exactly encouraging. He did manage to hit .235/.336/.409 (102 wRC+) with 19 homers in 509 plate appearances (fewer than A-Rod, by the way) for the Red Sox and White Sox last year, which is tolerable production. Youkilis is no beacon of health himself — four DL trips in the last three years — and is a candidate to either miss time or play hurt and see his production slide further. I don’t think the move out of Fenway Park and away from the Green Monster should be discounted either; he’s a dead pull hitter and Yankee Stadium isn’t very friendly to dead-pull right-handed hitters. Youkilis is a third or fourth tier third (and first) baseman more likely to disappoint than return to his previous levels of production.

The Yankees have 25-year-old Adams in Triple-A, who hit .306/.385/.450 (133 wRC+) with eight homers in 383 plate appearances at Double-A last year. He was coming back from a brutal ankle injury that some of you may remember helped derail the failed Cliff Lee trade in 2010. Adams is on the 40-man roster and could get a look if Youkilis gets hurt. Ronnier Mustelier, a 28-year-old Cuban defector who has hit .324/.378/.497 in 656 minor league plate appearances since signing, has worked out at third base this spring and could make the team as Teixeira’s replacement (with Youkilis playing first). Of the three minor leaguers I mentioned, I’d rate them 1) Mustelier, 2) Joseph, 3) Adams in terms of 2013 fantasy value. That said, they’re all waiver wire guys and not worth drafting or paying for at auction. No matter what, the infield in the Bronx is Cano and a bunch of fantasy has-beens.