Last weekend, I wrote a piece in which I essentially argued the Yankees will be a lot better in 2014 because they'll be a lot better at nearly every position on the field (only exceptions: left field and maybe first base). But as David Waldstein wrote Friday in the Times, they do still have some huge question marks in the infield. For one thing, they don't know if their world-famous shortstop will be able to play shortstop. And that's actually the least of it ...
There is expert defensive help behind Jeter in Brendan Ryan, but he does not hit much. If Jeter cannot consistently stay on the field anymore, the Yankees will probably have to find another option not currently on the roster.
All of this leaves General Manager Brian Cashman in a bind, complicated by the fact that Robinson Cano has left to join the Seattle Mariners, leaving Cashman unclear as to who his second baseman is. Should Cashman pursue front-line players who will play the bulk of the innings at third and short in anticipation that Rodriguez, Jeter or both will not be available to, or should he just get backups to fill in?
"I don’t know who’s playing second," Cashman acknowledged. "I still don’t know who’s playing third yet. There’s going to be a question mark at shortstop, even though we know who the player is."
"It’s a really tough situation," said Jim Bowden, another former general manager. "I’ve never seen anything like it, and I wouldn’t know where to even start to address it."
Well, the Yankees already started, by acquiring Brendan Ryan and Kelly Johnson.
But they've obviously not finished addressing it. To that end, I've got some advice for the Yankees. Hell, I know they're operating under some pretty Draconian financial restrictions, so I'll even make it free advice ...
Enough with the seven-man bullpen, already.
Seriously. One thing that's making Brian Cashman's life so difficult is the paucity of roster spots available for non-pitchers. At the moment, the Yankees have five players who will spend all of their time DH'ing or outfielding: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells, and Ichiro Suzuki. Now, it seems likely that Wells or Ichiro or both will be traded or just flat-out released. Because you don't need six outfielders. So let's say they've got five outfielders. Plus two catchers. That's seven. With a 12-man pitching staff, you've got six spots left. Jeter. Teixeira. Four left. Third baseman to Be Named Later. Second Baseman Who's Kelly Johnson right now. Two spots left. One is Brendan Ryan. Who can't hit.
There's been a lot of talk about Omar Infante for second base, which would probably push Johnson to third base or the minors. There's a rumor about Eric Chavez and Mark Reynolds and Michael Young, and all of these strapping fellows might be useful ... but there's no room for them! Chavez can't hit lefties or stay healthy. Reynolds can't hit righties or play third base. Young can't hit righties or play shortstop.
Well, none of them can play shortstop. Except maybe Infante in a pinch, but that's probably a stretch at this point in his career. Even if the Yankees do sign an every-day second baseman, they still don't know who's going to play third base and you don't want Brendan Ryan starting 100-some games at shortstop if Jeter can't go. Or maybe you do. His defense is that good. But the Yankees probably don't.
There's no magic bullet here. Thanks to the Yankees'
generosity profligacy, the whole left side of their infield is messed up, and will remain messed up. But if you carry six relief pitchers instead of seven, cobbling together a decent lineup become about 23 percent easier for Joe Girardi, assuming Cashman gives him enough useful players.
Can a manager get by with six relievers? I don't see why not, especially if a) five of them are pretty good, and b) the sixth can pitcher three or four innings in an emergency. You think the Red Sox would trade Steven Wright? It's been a long time since the Yankees had a knuckleballer.
Nah, probably not. Frankly, the Yankees and Red Sox are afraid to trade with each other. I know that sounds unfair, but they haven't made a deal since 1997; they've made only three in the last 45 years. So I don't know how else to explain it. Both teams are afraid of looking bad if the other club wins the trade.
So the only good-but-available knuckleballer's probably not available. It seems impossible that there's not another versatile reliever out there, who could actually pitch 100 innings with league-average performance. Add that guy, and you don't need seven relief pitchers. Which gives you the space to platoon at two infield spots. Or platoon at one, and have a defensive replacement available at the other.
And by "defensive replacement" I mean Ryan, and by "the other" I mean shortstop. Because even if Jeter is healthy enough (and good enough) to start 120 or 130 games at shortstop, he'll probably be worse afield than ever. And should be replaced after batting two or three times, especially if the Yankees are ahead. Jeter bats in the bottom of the seventh? Ryan takes over in the eighth. Pretty much every time.
Next season, perhaps more than ever in his career, will give Jeter a chance to prove that he's the leader everyone's always said. Because having an extra shortstop won't do the Yankees any good if the 40-year-old is waving at grounders up the middle while the Yankees are losing.