Pinstripe Preview: The Infield

Over the past few seasons, the Yankees’ infield has undergone a significant transformation. The old guard of veterans is gone and has been replaced by confidant young guns, two of which were finalists for the 2018 Rookie of the Year award. While many of the same names from the end of last year are returning, there are some new faces in the fold that are looking to stake their claim for a role. The unfortunate injury that will force Didi Gregorius to miss a significant portion of the season will also play a role in how Aaron Boone deploys his infielders this season. Let’s look at them position by position.

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I’ll get the easy part of this out of the way first, Austin Romine will likely be back for another season as the primary backup catcher barring a huge surprise. Romine performed admirably last season when pressed into service as the starter for large portions of the season. In total, he posted a .244/.295/.417 slash line last season with 10 homers and 42 RBI. He came out of the gates hot, but he inevitably cooled off. Still it was probably better than expected production considering Romine had seven career homers coming into last season. Romine was expectedly solid defensively allowing just five passed balls and committing four errors in 76 games behind the plate. Overall, Romine is a good all-around backup catcher who costs the team just under $2 million. The only other notable name at this position right now is Kyle Higashioka and while he may offer more power and hitting potential than Romine, he struggled badly at the major league level last year and doesn’t appear to be a real challenger for a roster spot right now. If we see him in the bigs for a meaningful amount of time, it will likely be because of an injury.

Now for the big man. Gary Sanchez is a name we’ve been hearing about around Yankeeland for many years. In just a few short years in the majors, he has provided fans many reasons to be excited and many reasons to be frustrated. While his hitting has been mostly very good, his defense (minus his strong throwing arm) has been very difficult to watch at times. Last season however did not provide us with the usual mix since it was pretty much all bad and basically a lost year for the young backstop. Overall, he posted a .186/.291/.406 line with 18 homers and 53 RBI. Behind the plate he exhibited his usual strong arm but struggled blocking balls, leading the league with 18 in just 76 games. Couple that with repeated groin injuries and there wasn’t much to be excited about for El Gary last year.

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Still, there is reason to be optimistic. Gary Sanchez was once called the best hitter on the Yankees by one Alex Rodriguez and he still has tremendous power and all-around hitting talent. Aaron Boone has said that Gary’s physical condition is the best it’s been in years and that he has performed well in their conditioning tests. If he can maintain that health, he is poised to have a bounce back season in the batter’s box.

While defense is often where he draws the ire of the fans, it is not all bad with Gary. He is often graded well for his throwing arm and pitch framing. He has spent most of this offseason working on his defense in hopes of becoming a better all-around player. It seems like he’s been around forever, but its really only been a few short years and for Gary there is still a ton of potential left to be tapped.

1st Base
Perhaps the highest profile of all the Yankee position battles this spring, Greg Bird and Luke Voit are hard at work so far this spring trying to secure the starting job. While Bird and Voit are competing for the primary job, newcomer and utility infielder DJ LeMahieu could see some time at the position as well. 

Both Bird and Voit are off to good starts this spring and both bring a few different advantages to the table with Voit likely having the slight edge on the position at this point. He was sensational after coming over midseason, posting .333/.405./.689 with 14 homers and 33 RBI in 39 games with the Yankees. His injection of energy and production at first base down the stretch was hard not to notice. So far this spring he has four hits and two home runs. Boone has stated that Voit came into this spring with a “leg up” on the job. Voit has also said that he worked hard on his defense this offseason and that his goal is to win a gold glove. He seems motivated to prove those that believe last season was a fluke wrong but thus far this spring he hasn’t gone unchallenged. Bird has come out of the gate hot as well.

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Greg Bird has been a great “what if” for Yankee fans since he first came up in 2015. Since then he has often been injured or ineffective and one has to wonder how many chances he’ll have left. Last season was another lost one for Bird. With a line of .199/.286/.386 and another round of injury concerns, he often looked lost at the plate and lost his job to Voit in the process. Despite his previous struggles, Bird has come into this spring with a fresh dose of optimism. He has gotten off to hot start, going 6 for 15 with one home run. Bird has an uphill battle to climb this spring in terms of his recent performance, but there are some factors working in his favor. Boone has said that Bird is the better defender between him and Voit and I believe that his left handed bat is a big plus for him in this competition, especially on a roster that doesn’t have much lefty power. While only one of these two will win the primary first base job, the Yankees will be better off as long as they both continue to perform. I believe there is very little chance Voit isn’t on the roster in some capacity, and while Aaron Boone has said that they won't carry two true first basement out of spring training, if Bird continues to hit he will show up on the roster again at some point. 

2nd Base:
Second base is a position that has fewer question marks heading into the season. Gleyber Torres was the everyday second baseman for basically all of last season after his callup in late April. While Didi’s injury will likely require Gleyber to play some shortstop throughout the first half of the season, second base is where he should spend most of his time in 2019.
Overall it was a very successful first season for Gleyber. He posted a .271/.340/.480 line with 24 home runs and 77 RBI. He struggled in the second half but he gained valuable experience in the playoffs and is still just 22 years old heading into this season. 

Like his bat, his glove was mostly good but did provide some reasons for concern. A converted shortstop, Gleyber showed good hands and range in the field but made 17 errors in 130 total games, with 12 coming in 109 games at second base. Gleyber has all the tools to become a gold glove caliber fielder and these errors often seemed like lapses in concentration rather than inability to make the plays. Gleyber talked this offseason of the experience and maturity he hoped to gain from last season and hopefully those lessons he learned can help him become a more consistent fielder night in and night out.

Another factor at this position is DJ LeMahieu. Aaron Boone has said that they hope to play him almost every day, with their goal being around 145 games. The addition of Troy Tulowitzki will lessen the need for Gleyber to slide over to short, but his injury history hardly makes him a guarantee to play every day. LeMahieu will likely get at least a few opportunities a week at second base with the rest coming at other positions depending on matchups. DJ is a three-time gold glove fielder, with the majority of his playing time coming at second base, and the Yankees believe his fielding ability will translate all over the field.
While his defining trait might be his superior glove, he is no slouch with the bat. He was the 2016 National League batting champion with a .348 average and has a career average of .298. While some have concerns about hitters after they leave the thin air of Colorado, I am not that concerned about DJ as he more of a line drive hitter rather than a home run hitting slugger. How Boone deploys him on a nightly basis will be very interesting to watch. Also potentially in play for a bench/utility role with playing time in the infield could be Tyler Wade but he's not likely to see significant time as long as this group remains healthy. 

Shortstop is a position that will begin the season in flux. Didi Gregorius is one of the Yankees’ emotional leaders and one of the league’s best all around shortstops. They will surely miss his presence every day, but they have some options in house that could lessen his loss until he returns. While we have already mentioned Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu, who has some experience at the position, the biggest name of any addition is that of Troy Tulowitzki. Now 34 years old, Tulo is hardly the kid that wowed us all when he first came up seeking to be the next Derek Jeter. He is coming off a season lost to injuries in both of his heels and did not play well overall in his stint in Toronto. He is off to a 3 for 8 start with two home runs and seems motivated to prove the Blue Jays wrong after they paid him to go away this offseason. Getting off of the turf in Toronto will be a big help to him, as will playing for an organization that tries hard to keep its players well rested during the season. Now free of expectations, Tulo has come into camp in great shape and could be a huge reward at minimum risk and price. If Didi comes back healthy and free of complications, Tulo could still be a valuable bench and DH piece.

Credit: Charles Wenzelberg/NY Post
While it is easy to get excited about some of the new additions here, the key piece of this infield and glue that holds it all together is Didi Gregorius. Didi got off to a white-hot start last year, blasting home runs and drawing walks at a career best rate. His pace slowed in May and he fell into a slump but he still posted good all-around offensive numbers with a .268/.335/.494 line with 27 homers and 86 RBI and while making just six errors in 132 games at shortstop. Unfortunately, Didi suffered an injury to his right elbow in the playoffs that required Tommy John surgery. Brian Cashman has already admitted that he will not meet their most optimistic timeline of sometime in June, so we probably won’t see Didi during the first half of this season. The Yankees will be cautious to protect his health, with their eyes on a lengthy run in the postseason that they surely want him to be a part of. With this being his final season before free agency, there have been rumblings of extension talks. Sir Didi and the Yankees have been an awesome partnership as he has continued to grow as a player and we will all benefit if it continues.

3rd Base:
We round out the infield with the hot corner and with another of the Yankees prized young players. Miguel Andujar has hit at every level of the Yankees’ system and continued to do so after his callup last April. While his hitting talent was obvious, it still surprised the baseball world as he turned in one of the best performances of any young player in baseball last season offensively. In total, Andujar posted a .297/.328/.527 line with 27 homers, 97 RBI and 47 doubles, good for third best in the league. His hitting talents are undeniable and a huge reason for excitement going forward.

While his talent at the plate is a reason for optimism, his fielding is at this point a great cause for concern. While he possesses a strong throwing arm, he does not rate favorably in range and throwing accuracy, committing 15 errors in 136 games at third last season. Andujar has been hard at work on his defense this offseason, seeking inspiration from Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado and his hero Adrian Beltre. While it’s not going to improve in one offseason, we can only hope that his drive to improve his defense manifests itself on the field this season.

While Andujar seeks to improve, you will likely see DJ LeMahieu at third base regularly this season. As last season wore on, Neil Walker became CC Sabathia’s “personal third basemen”. CC yields a lot of ground balls to the left side of the infield and the Yankees felt more confident with Walker there in those circumstances. That will likely continue with a fielder of DJ’s caliber available and due to Andujar’s defensive shortcomings. With Giancarlo Stanton locked in at DH most days, Andujar will have to prove that he has improved to stop losing regular playing time. Still, if he maintains his offensive performance from last season then he won’t have to worry about losing too much of that playing time. After a rookie of the year caliber season, we should all be very excited about where Andujar can go from here.

Credit: Charles Wenzelberg/NY Post
I believe this Yankee infield is unique compared to some versions of recent years. While we have gotten used to seeing veterans like Mark Teixiera, Chase Headley and of course Didi man the same position every day, it doesn’t appear that that will be the case to start this season. There is a lot of upside in this group, but you have to be careful with the number of players you have to hope to get the best case scenario from. Tulo’s health, Andujar’s defense, Didi’s return from serious injury, consistency from Gleyber and what they’ll get from Gary Sanchez on a daily basis are just a few major question marks that will determine how good this group really is. They have the potential to be an explosive offensive group with good defensive versatility but healthy and consistency will determine what happens with this group.

Article by Matt Graziano 


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