The Yankees infield is getting younger, but is it getting better?

Oh, To Be Young and in The Bronx!
by Jim Silva

    The words “rebuild” and “Yankees” don’t go together because for the Yankees to give up millions in revenue by tanking it for a few seasons is not realistic. They have an enormous television contract and a brand that means they can’t tear down to the studs and rebuild. That said, the Yankees have parted ways with some of their older players in the last few years and become a younger team with potential. Weird, right? What happened to the days of Yankee GMs raiding rosters like pirates (not from Pittsburgh) with a boatload of money stealing your hometown stars? Don’t worry, that is still going to happen. The Yankees are always in the position of spending money to maintain some level of competitiveness even when they are waiting for young players to develop – like right now. The Yankees have some excellent young players either just beginning their major league careers or still developing in the minors. They also have older players with big contracts who are holding positions for the youngsters. The Yankees, unlike most teams, can afford to sign expensive players even when the team probably can’t make a strong push for the post-season. The biggest reason they are not ready to go deep into the post-season and probably not even make the playoffs is that their rotation is neither strong nor deep. But the Yankees are mid-stream on their own version of a rebuild and it is on their infield where this is most evident, so let’s take a look at rebuilding, Yankee style.
    Gone are the anchors of the Yankee infields of the 2000’s, Jorge Posada, Mark Texeira, Alex Rodriguez,  Derek Jeter, and Robinson Cano – likely two Hall of Famers and possibly four. Tex and A-Rod were the last two to hang it up (after the 2016 season) and the Yankees infield, which had been old for several years will now be a lot younger. With an average age of 27, the old man of the crew, assuming everything breaks the way the Yankees hope it will, should be Chase Headley who will play as a 32 year old. First, let’s start with what Headley is not. He is not the guy who hit 31 home runs in 2012. He hadn’t come close to that mark before 2012 and hasn’t approached it since. His second best home run tally is 20, and third best is 14, which he accomplished last season. So what is Chase Headley? Sorry Headley family, but he is an average third baseman who is being paid to be a lot more than that. For $13 million a year you want more than a 1.5 to 3 WAR guy, but unfortunately that is what Headley has become averaging 1.85 WAR in 2015 and 2016. It is highly unlikely, given Headley’s age and recent performance, that the Colorado native will return to his 6.3 WAR peak of 2012. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful player, but these are the Yankees and it is unclear as to whether or not Headley will be the starter all the way to the end of his contract in 2018. The Yankees can and will eat contracts if there is a reason to do so. If Headley has another sub-two WAR season or the Yankees find themselves in a position to grab a star to play third, Headley’s future will become a lot more murky, if no less lucrative. Right now he is a good defensive third baseman who just barely gets on base enough, doesn’t hit for much power and is just boring as hell – and we know how much Yankee fans hate boring players. Fortunately, Headley is the only “boring” option in the Yankees infield – at least for the starters. Let’s move on to the guy on the opposite corner, Greg Bird.
    Bird wowed Yankee fans and the rest of baseball in 2015 when he came up as a 22 year old and popped 11 home runs in fewer than 200 plate appearances. But a shoulder injury followed by surgery ate his 2016 season. Now, apparently fully healthy and with no Texeira in his way, Bird is likely to be the primary first baseman and will get the chance to show whether or not that home run pace in 2015 was a fluke. The reality is probably different from the expectation as Bird is less of a one dimensional masher than he is an all-around hitter. He is more likely to get on base at a .350 clip than he is to hit 25 home runs although he might very well slug .450 because he tends to hit a bunch of doubles. That said he is coming off a spring training where he hit seven homers and batted over .400.
    When Bird first started playing professionally he had a tendency to whiff on a lot of pitches. His strikeout rate was never lower than 20% until his second attempt at double-A which was in 2015. He did it again at his next stop – triple-A Scranton. It seems that Bird, who has always hit for a decent average and drawn his share of walks has also learned to lay off bad pitches, although I don’t have minor league swing data to back up that assertion. His glove work has been solid in the minors and his small sample size numbers from the majors were bullish on his ability to pick ‘em at first. In short, he won’t be a disaster at first and the Yankees are paying him to create runs. Whether Bird hits a bunch of bombs or just hits .280 with a  bunch of doubles, he should be a positive force in the Yankees lineup where they have had mixed success from the first base position of late. Bird might very well develop into the kind of hitter Yankee fans want him to be as long as he is given the chance to succeed being the type of hitter he actually is right now. There are other corner options on the bench, but no stars lurking on the big league roster, so let’s move on to the middle of the infield.
    Didi Gregorius was one of many young shortstops playing for the Diamondbacks who the Yankees could have traded for, but they picked Didi and his glove. In his first season with the Yanks – 2015 – Didi brought his good glove saving the Yankees between 5 and 7.4 runs (depending on which defensive metric you prefer) above league average for a shortstop. When he switched to his batting gloves, Didi didn’t. While he showed some improvement as measured by wRC+ from 75 in 2014 to 89 in 2015, he was still costing the Yankees runs with his mediocre ability to get on base (.318) and his lack of power – an ISO of .105 (think batting average but for power) and only 35 extra-base hits in 578 plate appearances. Yes, he improved, but he went from horrific to merely bad. But something positive happened last year to Didi that will likely extend his career while at the same time possibly shortening his stay with the Yankees. 2016 saw Gregorius change his profile somewhat dramatically. He drove 20 balls over the fence adding to his total of 54 extra-base hits in 597 plate appearances. That is quite a difference in the number of extra-base hits in just 19 more plate appearances and it showed in his ISO which jumped to .171. The added power pushed his wRC+ up to 98 which is essentially league average. His decreased plate discipline kept him from reaching the 100 mark as he walked only 19 times all season while reaching base at a .304 clip. By comparison, Brandon Guyer got hit by pitches 31 times last season – much more painful than taking a walk! But Didi’s offensive improvement, while mixed should have been enough to turn the 27 year old shortstop into a very valuable asset what with his nifty glove and all. Unfortunately for Didi and the Yankees, Gregorious slumped in the field costing the club between 2.9 and 9 runs depending on the metric.
    So what is Gregorius and what the heck happened last season? Well, for one thing he started swinging at a lot more pitches including pitches outside the strike zone. He also traded 2% of the softly hit balls he put in play for hard hit balls. The biggest difference in the profile of his batted balls was the number of home runs he hit as a percentage of the fly balls he hit going from somewhere in the 6% range up to 10.4% last season. Is that real? Well, Gregorius is pretty big – 6’3” and weirdly somewhere between 160 and 205 pounds, depending on what site you you look at. That is a huge gap, and it might account somewhat for the changes Gregorius underwent last season. I am guessing that one site uses his weight from when he first came up and the other site might be up to date. If he indeed got bigger in the off-season then that might account for the increased power as well as the decreased range. In a NY Post article about Gregorius the writer noted that the shortstop looked bigger, and when Gregorious stated that he was about the same weight – 210-215 – the writer, Ken Davidoff, attributed it to a different distribution of his weight, the implication being that Gregarious is more muscular now. Whether Didi is bigger and stronger, he hit for more power and his stats show diminished range. We will see what version of Didi we get once he returns from the DL after he injured his shoulder playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. Gregorius pitched in his youth and is known for having a canon of an arm, so if the injury is serious it could hurt his defensive numbers this season too and if that happens the Yankees, not necessarily known for their patience, might move on. They are, after all, the Yankees and they have a deep farm system with prospects pushing up from the minors, but again we will get to that later.
    Second base was once the Yankee’s greatest strength, but that’s when they had Robinson Cano back in 2013. Since then, the Bronx Bombers have trotted out the likes of Brian Roberts (the age 36 version), Stephen Drew (the .652 OPS version), and Rob Refsnyder (the -0.1 WAR version) to name just a few. That was until they made a deal with the Cubs for Starlin Castro. Castro is only 26 even though he just completed his 7th season as a major league starter. It’s crazy to think that he might have growth left in his game, but last season was certainly at least different if not better for the Yankees second baseman. 2015 saw Castro’s star burn up in the atmosphere as he not only lost his starting job by season’s end, but also struggled to produce enough with the glove or the bat to remain in the lineup. Last year, at least on the surface, was a comeback season for Castro as he pounded a career high 21 home runs while hitting a respectable .270. Delving a little deeper, it is clear that Castro’s season wasn’t a disaster, but was really just a placeholder season for the Yankees. Castro isn’t bad, but he certainly isn’t the star he looked like he might become in 2012 and even as recently as 2014 when he was playing well at shortstop and creating runs at an average to above average rate. Now at 6’3 230, he is bigger and likely stronger, but no longer a shortstop having moved to second, and isn’t really a good defensive second baseman after just costing the Yankees about 8 runs according to both DRS and UZR/150 – two major defensive metrics. If he had produced a wRC+ above 100 after the move to second then you could argue for his value as a starter. If he had stayed at short and played better defense then you could argue for his value with the glove. But while chicks dig the long ball, if that’s pretty much all you do then your days are probably numbered as a starter, unless you do it at an elite level, which he didn’t.
    And it isn’t likely to get better for Starlin, although it is possible that his defense at second will improve as he gets more experience there. Castro’s offense should be the biggest concern because he creates a lot of outs and it doesn’t appear that he is maturing in the ways one would hope for a hitter who already has 4101 major league at bats. 2016 saw Castro’s walk rate stay close to 2015’s career low and his strikeout rate increase to a career high showing that he is getting worse at controlling the strike zone. That could be intentional – selling out to hit more home runs by swinging at more pitches – but again, as he isn’t an elite power hitter so that approach will ultimately hurt his value. Castro has also stopped stealing bases nabbing only four bags last season (his high is 25) and even though he hit more home runs in 2016, his slugging percentage didn’t jump that much – .433 is only 25 points over his career average and isn’t his highest number or out of line with 2011, 2012, or 2014 where he slugged in the .430s. So how long will Castro remain the starting second baseman for the Yankees? Basically until his contract runs out in 2019 or the Yankees find someone who is above average – a pretty low bar for the best baseball franchise in history – or will Castro “break out” in his age 27 season? His declining plate discipline which was already poor at best says no.
    Since this article is about the Yanks youth movement and their catcher is young, I am including Gary Sanchez in this article even though I usually write about catchers separately since they are unusual creatures and deserve a space of their own. Sanchez was signed as a 17 year old free agent and has one of the coolest nicknames in all of sports, “The Kraken”, as in “Release the Kraken!”. If I were to play major league baseball I would want to be named after a sea monster capable of dragging ships under the waves, fating many a seaman to a watery grave. I would also want to be a catcher who threw out 42% of would-be base thieves and hit 20 home runs in my first 201 major league at bats, because that is exactly what the Yanks young catcher did in 2016. Catchers who hit home runs like that, play defense like that, and also end their debut third of a season with an OPS of 1.032 and a wRC+ of 171 are rare as hell, as are any hitters who can do that for any stretch. But don’t get ahead of yourselves Yankees fans. Sanchez had one hell of a breakout party in pinstripes but it is unlikely that he is that guy. He has power, but probably not Babe Ruth kind of power that he showed in his 201 at bats last season. He averaged about 25 homers a season in the minors so if you expect him to hit 60 like his pace last year indicated then you will be horribly disappointed. As for the OPS over 1.000 – yeah, not so much. His career OPS in the minors is .799, which for a catcher who can throw is pretty great. Nobody doesn’t want a youngster like Sanchez in their organization, but his debut could seriously cost him in New York. Yes, some players show huge growth at some point in their career when something clicks for them, but it doesn’t often happen in their major league debut, and it doesn’t happen to the extent that Sanchez jumped. I really hope for his sake that the Yankees, and to a lesser extent their fans, don’t hold that bar up against his first full season in the majors or the rest of his career, because he will likely be quite good, but very few people are that good and I predict that to include Gary Sanchez. He has power, he can hit (although he strikes out a lot – even last season), and he can throw, so take that, be happy, and don’t punish him for not being Jimmie Foxx.
    As with any good youth movement, it doesn’t end with the guys who are up already, like Sanchez and Bird. The Yankees have some serious dudes pushing up from down under. Gleyber Torres, who at 20, finished last season in High-A and will likely start this season at double-A, is the Yanks top prospect and a top 10 prospect in all of baseball. Torres is a shortstop with obscene bat speed leading to solid power numbers for a youngster playing at such a high level, as well as a truckload of hyperbole from people who analyze minor league talent. He projects to be an average shortstop defensively and an offensive beast if you believe the analysts who project more based on his tools. He has succeeded at minor league levels consistently high for his youth, but reading between the lines of what analysts are saying he might not stick at shortstop as he gets bigger and less agile. If he continues to progress the way he has so far, his bat will play at third and if he manages to stick at short he could be one of the better offensive shortstops in baseball. But the distance from high-A to the majors is measured in pitfalls survived and there is a lot that could still go wrong.
    If Torres’ bat and power continue to develop, the Yankees might be happy to move him one spot to the left on the infield as they have two other shortstops in their top 10 (and a third baseman) plus a couple more shortstops in their top 15. Being flush with shortstops is a glorious thing because if they can hit, guys who can play shortstop can be moved to other positions like third base, second base, or the outfield and succeed. Jorge Mateo and Tyler Wade are very different players both moving through the minors at the shortstop position. So far, Mateo is one of the fastest players in the minors but still learning to tap into whatever power he will end up with (probably not much) and trying to get on base enough to make his speed matter. Defensively, he might end up a notch above Torres at shortstop but because of Torres, Mateo has also been tried at second base. That says more about Torres than Mateo, who should be able to stick at shortstop but needs to be flexible because of Torres’s considerable potential.
    Tyler Wade is being groomed as a multi-position guy. He lacks the tools of either Torres or Mateo, but has good speed, gets on base at a decent clip, and spent all of last season at double-A making him the guy most likely to see the majors first if the Yankees are being patient with Torres and the start of his service clock. He had a great spring training and was sent to the minors late. An injury to Didi Gregorius in spring training caused a lot of talk about Gleyber Torres starting the year in the Yankees lineup, but management squashed that nonsense and utility man Ronald Torreyes will play short until Gregorius is back, which shouldn’t take too long. That third baseman I mentioned is Miguel Andujar and he is another prospect with great tools. Andujar finished 2016 at double-A and just turned 22 so the fact that he succeeded in his first attempt at that level speaks to his talent. However, as Andujar didn’t dominate at double-A the Yankees sent him back to take another shot at the level. He looks like he could be a good defender with a canon arm at third and some thunder in his bat. The offense is based on his tools and some serious projection, but he could turn into an exciting player. He is a guy to keep an eye on in double-A this year.
    Yes, of course the Yankees have a lot of options as they should – I mean, they are the Yankees. Their options are starting to get young and exciting now and will get even younger and more exciting in the next year or two. Fear not Yankee fans – all that cheap young talent will allow the Yankees to throw bucketloads of money at a Bryce Harper or a Mike Trout before you know it.