Yanks Infield Could Be Worst Ever

In 2013, for the first time in 11 seasons, the wins above replacement (WAR) posted by the New York Yankees’ infield starters was less than 10.0. In fact, it fell well short of that mark, as Lyle Overbay, Robinson Cano, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez combined for a more modest 5.3 WAR. This week, two pieces of news came out that might make 2014 even more bleak, at least on the field.

First, Alex Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season. Second, it was revealed that the team is unlikely to sign any other free agents to a major league deal before spring training. In other words, what you see is what you get. And that might be quite unsightly. In fact, it could end up being the worst infield in the Yankees’ soon-to-be 114-year history.

Digging back through the years, it is clear that the Yankees have had some pretty good infields. For our purposes here, we’re defining an infielder as the player who played the most games at first base, second base, third base and shortstop in each season. That obviously leaves utility players out of the equation, but for a quick-and-dirty estimate, it works pretty well. After all, generally speaking, if a player is good enough to start, he’ll start.

What we found is that in 63 of their 113 seasons, the Yankees’ infield has been worth at least 10 WAR. That’s a pretty good ratio, especially for a team with such a long history. The average is also north of 10.0, 10.9 to be precise. There is just one team in the red — the 1912 team. The unfearsome foursome of first baseman Hal Chase, second baseman Hack Simmons, third baseman Roy Hartzell and shortstop Jack Martin combined to post minus-0.3 WAR. This was actually the last season the team was known as the “Highlanders.”

Looking at the time since baseball integrated in 1947, the worst Yankees infield performance came in 1990. Don Mattingly, Steve Sax, Randy Velarde and Alvaro Espinosa combined for 2.1 WAR. Mattingly was the worst of the bunch, as his back problems limited him severely in the second half. He would tally minus-0.2 WAR for the season, the worst mark of his career. It was an unsightly blemish on his résumé and basically the start of his ending as a major leaguer.

Getting old

In some ways, Derek Jeter is a decent parallel for Mattingly, as many wonder if the end is near for the future Hall of Famer, who turns 40 in June. Injuries destroyed his season, and he hit just .190/.288/.254 in 73 plate appearances. Injuries also ruined Mark Teixeira’s 2013 season, and he has some work to do to show that 2013 also was not the beginning of the end for him as well.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, the two (falling) stars represent the best hope for New York avoiding an embarrassing infield turn in 2014. There is more hope for Teixeira — who turns 34 in April — as he is significantly younger and is also more of a power hitter. Then again, he is recovering from wrist surgery and, generally, hitters see reduced power in their return to action following surgery. What’s more, the last time Teixeira posted a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of higher than .400 was 2009. He was still very good in 2010 and 2011, but it’s been quite a while since Mark Teixeira has been Mark Teixeira.

While the prognosis for Jeter isn’t as great as it is for Teixeira — his ZiPS projection rounds down to a big, fat zero — he might be slightly more important. The team might have the luxury of mixing in Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Beltran at first base, but if Jeter falters again, the replacements will be the noodle bats of Brendan Ryan and Nunez.

Third base figures to be Kelly Johnson’s domain, but he is no longer a full-time player himself. Scott Sizemore, who should make the team, could figure in as a platoon partner, but considering the fact that Sizemore has tallied a miniscule six plate appearances across the past two seasons, that is far from a sure thing.

A sure thing is what Brian Roberts used to be. From 2005 to 2009, he was worth 22.6 WAR, a total that made him essentially the Orioles’ best second baseman since Bobby Grich. Unfortunately, injuries have also deep-sixed his career. In the four seasons since, he has tallied just 809 plate appearances and 1.0 WAR. He is nominally the starting second baseman for the Yankees this season.

No back-up plan
As we peruse the following table, which features the projected WAR (per ZiPS) for New York’s potential infielders, we see the situation is rather bleak:

Mark Teixeira 1.7
Kelly Johnson 1.5
Derek Jeter 0.4
Brian Roberts -0.1
Brendan Ryan 1.1
Eduardo Nunez 0.5
Scott Sizemore 0.7
Dean Anna 1.6
Corbin Joseph 0.7

The four likely starters are pegged by ZiPS to combine for 3.5 WAR, which is well below last season’s tally of 5.3, the 16th-worst mark in franchise history.

In other words, as bad as the infield was last season, it will be even worse in 2014. The three infielders on the team who compiled a 100 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) or better — Cano, Mark Reynolds and Rodriguez — won’t be suiting up for the Bronx Bombers this season, and the players that will be suiting up are a mixture of old, worn out and injury prone.

They might not end up being the worst Yankees infield ever, but the fact that it’s something that can be rationally discussed is far from encouraging for the team’s fans.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.
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Lets Play Two
Lets Play Two
2 years 5 months ago

You must be a young guy. The Yankees Years between 1965 and 1975 had some brutal infields. The Horace Clark years. Hard to believe they could have had a decent collective WAR. Some of those years they did not have very many regulars. Did you calculate these teams?

2 years 5 months ago

With Tanaka in the fold and aspirations of economy blown out of the water, it probably makes sense for the NYYs to pursue an upgrade at 2B/3B regardless of the associated contract. Not much left on the Free Agent market, so maybe they could find a non-contender with a productive but expensive infielder available for trade. I think it’s time to pay off Brandon Phillips to waive his no-trade…