(That's almost 80 years of middle infielder right there. Courtesy of the AP)
While March 17th holds a special place in most of our hearts as a day of calling out of work and engaging in drunken merriment, the feelings and associations in most MLB camps today are not as jovial. The start of this week signals the beginning of the end of Spring Training, the final 2 weeks until the start of the regular season and crunch time for those fighting for a roster spot. The days of soft toss, base covering drills, and outfield jogs are over. We're well into the meat of the ST game schedule and now everything matters. Early cuts have already taken and are continuing to take place as teams whittle their rosters down to the real contenders for the Opening Day 25-man, and with the Opening Day rosters starting to take shape the questions start to shift from "who's going to make it?" to "what are they going to do?"
It is with that shift in mind that we move into Week 2 of the 2014 AB4AR Season Preview with the start of the "What We Know & What We Don't Know" series. As always, we start with the infield.
What We Know- Things Aren't What They Used To Be
It wasn't that long ago that the infield was the Yankees' greatest strength. They had great hitters at every position, a ton of power, and confidence that this group, more than any other, would stay healthy and productive. The 2009 Yankee infield was one of the greatest infields of all time. Fast forward 5 years and things look a lot different. Gone are mainstays like Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano, long retired is Jorge Posada. In their places are Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, and Brian McCann, a trio of newbies who are being looked to for very different types of production in 2014. Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira are still around, but they're not the players they were 5 years ago. They're older, more brittle, less productive, and far less likely to stay on the field for the 150+ games that we're used to getting from them.
What We Don't Know- How Many Games Each Guy Will Play
The change from wondering how many home runs each infielder would hit to how many games each one will play says everything you need to know about this group. Roberts and Jeter make up the oldest double play combo in baseball and there's a very real chance neither of them plays 100 games this season. Teix could also fall into that category if his repaired wrist starts acting up again, and McCann is going to need and get regular rest to avoid getting lumped in with these other 3 as an official "injury concern". The only player with a clean bill of health is Johnson, and while he should spend the bulk of his time as the starting third baseman, that plan could change if and when Roberts goes from second to the DL.
What We Know- Teix's Contributions Are Still Critical
He was on the decline before last year's wrist injury, but Teix hasn't become any less important to the success of the lineup after his lost 2013 season. The loss of A-Rod and Cano has shortened the middle of the batting order and made it potentially less potent. Teix staying on the field and continuing to be a powerful presence in the lineup should go a long way in making up for that loss. He's no longer the ideal type to hit 3rd or 4th in the order, but 25ish HR and a respectable BB rate from the 5th or 6th spot would be huge. Teix is also the only sure thing when it comes to consistent above-average defensive value from the infield. Jeter and Roberts have limited range and weak arms and Johnson's adjustment to full-time third base duty will be a season-long task. Teix can help mask some of those weaknesses by being the reliable gloveman he's always been at first.
What We Don't Know- What Kind of Power He Still Has
Even with Gold Glove-caliber defense, it's that HR count that will determine how valuable Teix is this season. The injury to his wrist tendon is known to sap power from those who experience it, and at age 34 there's a fair chance it saps more from Teix than it would from a player still in his physical prime. Teix has been on a slow progression back to a normal swing/hitting routine this spring, and so far there hasn't been much of note in his on-field results. In 14 at-bats over 6 ST games, Teix has a mere 2 hits, only 1 of which went for extra bases. I believe that came as a right-handed hitter, so he still has a lot to prove in terms of being a reliable source of left-handed power. McCann should pick up a lot of the slack in Teix's old batting order spot, and YS3 is made for Carlos Beltran's lefty swing. But neither of them are going to crack 45-50 to make up for a lack of power from Teix.
What We Know- Kelly Johnson Has To Contribute
When they first signed him, Johnson looked like the perfect type of all-around utility guy for the Yankee bench, the type of player who could play a lot of different positions and almost serve as a 10th starter without being an everyday starter. Now that he's the starting third baseman, he's gone from being a nice piece to have on the bench to a critical part of the infield and lineup this season. The Yankees need him to help cover for some of Jeter's range issues to his right and they may need him to help provide a power boost from the bottom third of the batting order if it turns out Teix can't do it and Alfonso Soriano doesn't repeat his torrid 2013 half-season pace. He's been an above-average offensive producer in part-time roles for most of his career. Now the Yanks need him to resurrect the full-time production he showed in 2010.
What We Don't Know- How Much Derek Jeter Will
The Captain's final season was already going to be an emotional one for every Yankee fan. Sadness and pity are not 2 of the emotions on the list, but they could end up being felt by many if it turns out that 2014 is the year Father Time finally catches up to Jeter. The good news right now is that Jeter is fully healthy and looking good running the bases and fielding his position. There doesn't appear to be any visual signs that he's not fully recovered from last year's leg injuries. The bad news is that his swing and pop are well behind his running, and 4-30 with 8 Ks and a shit ton of GB outs in 11 ST games is not something that gives you warm and fuzzy feelings about your 40-year-old #2 hitter. ST stats aren't supposed to matter, but in Jeter's case I think they have to matter a little bit. There's a certain standard of expected production that comes with Jeter's reputation. If he isn't capable of meeting it, that could put a slight damper on his farewell tour.
** Coming up tomorrow- The Outfield. **