Tuesday, March 11, 2014

2014 Storylines: Platoon City

(Kelly Johnson, king of the platoon possibilities.  Courtesy of Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News)

As baseball continues to evolve and become more specialized, platoons have become a common part of most team's lineups.  Rather than plug 1 player with a skill or 2 and a weakness or 2, or a substantial hitting split, into a full-time role, teams have learned that it's more valuable to split those roles up among 2 players to cover for their combined weaknesses and lessen the negative effect of that hitting split.  The Red Sox and the Rays are 2 teams that have utilized the platoon strategy to great success recently, and it's no coincidence that they've been 2 of the best teams in the American League.

The Yankees' strategy when it comes to platoons has been more reactionary over the past few seasons.  Rather than proactively attempt to build a lineup that includes 1 or 2 platoons, their attempts at utilizing them usually come as a response to injuries to their everyday starters.  That's a dangerous strategy to employ when the core of your lineup is as old as the Yankees' has been, and their failure to adequately prepare for the injury situations that have arisen in part led to the carousel of suck we saw at third base and shortstop in 2013.

The strategy has taken a small step forward with this season's roster construction, although it hasn't fully made the leap to completely proactive.  The Yankees enter the 2014 season with an array of platoon situations, some born out of injury-related necessity and some out of proactive strategy.  The effectiveness of these various platoons will be a season-long factor in determining how good this team can be.

The infield is ground zero for this 2-pronged platoon strategy.  While Joe has named Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson as the starters at second and third base, the general expectation is that those positions are going to be handled in a platoon format.  In addition to being the starter at third, Johnson is a prime candidate to back up Roberts at second, almost a "platoon within a platoon" situation.

/Inception noise

In order to free Johnson up to play some second base (his natural position), the Yanks are hoping for someone from the Scott Sizemore/Eduardo Nunez/Yangervis Solarte group to be Johnson's right-handed platoon partner at third.  The varying degrees to which they can all also play second creates contingency plans in case of injury and also provides the opportunity for the Yankees to essentially cover both positions in a 3-man rotating platoon setup.  To account for the combination of injury risk, platoon hitting splits, and defensive deficiencies, that may be the smartest way to get the most out of those 2 spots.

The platoon plan at shortstop is more traditional in the sense that it involves 2 players and not 3, but also off the traditional path in that it blurs the lines between reactionary and proactive approaches.  After seeing how things went down with Derek Jeter and his multiple injury setbacks last season, the Yankees were quick to re-sign Brendan Ryan to serve as his backup and potential defensive caddy.  Jeter is going to start, we know that, and he's going to play as much shortstop as his body will allow.  Knowing how his range has deteriorated though, it would make strategic sense to bring Ryan in late in games as a "defensive closer" of sorts, and in that respect I think the Jeter-Ryan tandem will operate as a modified platoon rather than the typical starter/backup positional format.

The outfield is where we'll find the most traditional platoon setup, and also the most proactive approach on the Yankees' part when it comes to implementing the platoon strategy.  Carlos Beltran is a 37-year-old outfielder with below-average defensive skills who does most of his offensive damage from the left side.  Alfonso Soriano is a 38-year-old outfielder with better defensive skills who does most of his damage from the right side.  Between the 2 of them they give the Yankees 2 great options to plug into right field depending on what hand the opposing pitcher is throwing with and the option to give 1 guy or the other a day of rest when needed.

Factor in regular rest days for Mark Teixeira at first base and Brian McCann behind the plate, and the possibility of Ichiro Suzuki serving as a late-game defensive replacement option and it's clear that there is going to be a high amount of lineup turnover day to day this season.  Part of it is to account for age and injury risks, part of it is to exploit matchups, and in theory all of it should serve to make the Yankees a healthier, more flexible, more productive team top to bottom in 2014.  The strategy in implementing these platoons this year is more forward-thinking than it's been in the past and it could return some very good dividends if there are enough healthy bodies to make it work.

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