Yankees Hoping Youkilis Healthy, A-Rod Returns

Happy New Year to all my fellow fans. I recently posted a three-part series looking at the Yankees from their pitching, their bullpen and starting lineup. Now I intend to zero in on a look at them from a position-by-position standpoint. With spring training mere weeks away it seems an appropriate time to do this. Enjoy!

THIRD BASE – KEVIN YOUKILIS (19 HRs, 60 RBIs, .235 BA)

With Alex Rodriguez headed for surgery to his left hip this month the Yankees were forced to take a plunge into the free-agent market for a replacement and they chose 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis.

The former Red Sox nemesis has had his own issues with injuries throughout his career but the Yankees needed someone who could play the position and provide some offense until Rodriguez is ready to to return to action, which won’t come until at least June.

Youkilis enters 2013 free of the swirling rumors of his commitment to the game former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine thrust upon him last season. After he was traded to the Chicago White Sox he did pick up his production, hitting .236 with 15 home runs and 46 RBIs, largely batting second.

After undergoing sports hernia surgery that ended his 2011 season, Youkilis suffered through the early part of 2012 with a groin injury that landed him on the disabled list. When Will Middlebrooks produced good numbers in his absence, the Red Sox decided to send him packing to make room for the rookie.

Youkilis has never played in more than 147 games in any of his seven full major-league seasons, which was in first full season with the Red Sox in 2007. His best season with the Bosox was in 2008, when he hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 runs.

But Youkilis’ all-out style of play has also left him susceptible to nagging injuries, which have lessened his power and production numbers. In addition, Youkilis’ unusual batting style, which worked well for him when he was younger (He hit a career-high .312 in 2008), has left him less effective the last two seasons in which he has hit .258 and .235.

It will be the job of hitting coach Kevin Long to get Youkilis back on track at the plate with is timing and to get Youkilis driving the ball as he did so well at Fenway Park. As a right-hand hitter, the Yankees will not be looking for big-time power from Youkilis. But they would like him to get back to hitting closer to his lifetime .283 average and driving in runs.

There is a good possibility that Youkilis might slide into the No. 3 or No. 5 spots in the batting order to separate left-handers Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. That means the Yankees will be counting on Youkilis to provide solid production in the heart of the batting order.

A lot will depend if Youkilis is 100 percent healthy when he reports to camp in Tampa, FL, and he can remain healthy. He will have to because the Yankees’ options behind him are quite limited and much less productive.

As a fielder, Youkilis is considered an excellent first baseman. He won a Gold Glove for his work there in 2007. However, he is not as accomplished as a third baseman. Of course, he is actually still considered above average at the position.

There is no doubt that injuries have had an effect on his fielding at third the past two seasons. He made nine errors in 2011 and he committed the same total in 2012. So the slip in his fielding percentage at third had to be due in large part to the sports hernia and groin injuries.

His career fielding percentage at first is .997 but at third it is .966. But the Yankees feel if he is healthy, he can play the position more than adequately. Fielding, after all, was not a strength of A-Rod’s game either.

Of course, it is hard to know what the strength of Rodriguez’s game is really. Last season was another one of those seasons that he has failed to provide the production the Yankees needed and his season ended with a late injury which may or may not have contributed to his poor postseason.

After playing in just 99 games in 2011, largely due to a right knee injury, Rodriguez played in 122 games in 2012. He missed more than a month of the season and returned in early September after being struck in the left hand with a pitch from Seattle Mariners ace right-hander Felix Hernandez.

But when he was healthy, Rodriguez did not produce much in the way of power or runs batted in. He finished the season hitting .272 with 18 home runs and 57 RBIs. Batting in the middle of the most productive lineup in baseball in 2012, A-Rod  hit .200 with the bases loaded and .230 with runners in scoring position.

But the most telling statistic is this: Rodriguez hit a home run every 25.7 at-bats in 2012. In his career, he has hit a home run every 14.9 at-bats. To say the 37-year-old three-time Most Valuable Player is suffering through a serious erosion of his skills is putting it mildly. It even lead to his being pinch-hit for at a critical point in the 2012 American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

So even when Rodriguez returns the question is how much can the Yankees count on him? Rodriguez has not played more than 138 games since 2007.

What looked to a be a lock that he would eventually break Barry Bonds’ dubious all-time home run record of 762 looks to a longshot now. But the real problem is the Yankees are on the hook for paying Rodriguez, in sickness and unproductive health, through the 2017 season.

So unless A-Rod gets tired of being booed, looking like a fool striking out against mediocre pitchers and he decides to retire, the Yankees have a 6-foot-3, 225-pound albatross around their necks. General manager Brian Cashman has been ordered to reduce payroll to $189 million by 2014 and it will be hard to see how they can remain competitive as long as they are paying big bucks to an unproductive has-been.

But we will see how it all plays out when Rodriguez does make it back to the field in 2013.

Likely, he will not play much third base.

Though Rodriguez two Gold Gloves as a shortstop with the Texas Rangers in 2002 and 2003, he has never been considered a very good fielder at third base. His career fielding percentage at the position is .964 and it was .957 in 2012. He committed eight errors in 81 games at the position last year.

The previous injury to his right hip pretty much has robbed him of some of the lateral quickness and smoothness he needs to field at the hot corner.

So upon Rodriguez’s return it is more likely he will assume the designated hitter role for most of the rest of the season in order to keep his surgically repaired left hip from acting up again.

The Yankees do not have much in the way of options at third base behind Youkilis.

They were hoping that they could convince Eric Chavez, 35, to come back for a third season. But the free agent elected to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Though Chavez was unable to physically handle playing third base on a daily basis, he did contribute mightily to the Yankees at third and first base and as a DH and pinch-hitter. He hit .281 with 16 home runs and 37 RBIs in 2012. He also played 64 games at third base and flashed some of the form that led to him winning six consecutive Gold Gloves at the position from 2001 through 2006 with the Oakland Athletics.

He and his left-hand bat will be missed in 2013.

Instead the Yankees will have to look to Jayson Nix, 30, as the primary backup in 2013.

Nix entered the 2012 season as a minor-league player invited to spring training by the Yankees. After hitting over .300 in the spring Nix was assigned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but he was recalled on May 3 when the Yankees decided that Eduardo Nunez was ill-suited to be a utility infielder.

Nix hit .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 177 at-bats as largely a backup to Rodriguez at third base and Derek Jeter at shortstop.

Nix was designated for assignment by the Yankees on Nov. 30, 2011 to make room on the 40-man roster for All-Star reliever Mariano Rivera, who was signed to a one-year contract. But Nix agreed to accept an assignment to Triple A in order to remain with the team. He will be invited to spring training and he has an excellent chance of retaining his backup infielder role.

Though Nix will not knock down any fences, he will play solidly in the field and give a good effort at the plate. That is what the Yankees hope he can do.

Nunez, 25, started the season as the team’s infield backup but his careless errors in the field cost him the job. Manager Joe Girardi and the Yankees’ front office agreed to send Nunez back to Triple A to play shortstop exclusively.

However, Nunez spent most of his time in the minors sidelined with a right-hand injury. There are no questions about Nunez’s bat. He is a career .272 hitter with the capability of stealing 40 bases in a full season.

But Jeter, 38, is still the shortstop and Nunez is a butcher in the field, hence the nickname “Eduardo Scissorhands.” He was on a pace to commit 42 errors if he had played every day in 2012.

The Yankees look at Nunez as a potential right-hand DH in 2013 at this point. Nunez is not a home run hitter but he could possibly hit 10 home runs and drive in 60 runs if he got 425 or so at-bats. The Yankees also missed his speed last season.

Nunez stole 22 bases in 112 games in 2011 and he actually led the Yankees for most of the 2011 season with 11 until A-Rod and Ichiro Suzuki passed him in September. Nunez along with left-fielder Brett Gardner and Suzuki would give the Yankees a speed game they were lacking in 2012.

But the Yankees likely will not use Nunez at third base and there is a good possibility that Nunez could be traded to a team needing a shortstop before the season starts. They will listen to offers anyway.

Behind Nix the Yankees do not have a lot of major-league-ready options at the position.

David Adams, 25, and Corban Joseph, 24, are on the 40-man roster but both are primarily second basemen.

Adams hit .306 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs at Double-A Trenton in 2012 while Joseph hit a combined .276 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs between Trenton and Triple-A Scranton.

Adams, a third-round draft selection out of the University of Virginia in 2008, has been held back by a severe ankle injury. Joseph is a fourth round pick in 2008 out of Franklin High School in Franklin, TN.

Joseph would seem to have more upside because of his power and the fact that he bats left-handed. The Yankees could use a left-handed hitting infield backup. But Joseph is not considered as a shortstop. The same for Adams.

Both were elevated to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule V draft in 2013 and both will get opportunities to play in spring training. But Nix and Nunez have a huge upper hand on them because neither of the youngsters have played a significant amount of time at third base. In addition, neither player is among the Yankees’ Top 20 prospects.

The only third baseman among the Top 20 prospects is the Yankees’ first selection in the 2011 draft Dante Bichette Jr., son of the former Colorado Rockies slugger of the same name.

Bichette, 20, opened eyes last spring when he was placed on the traveling squad for an exhibition game against the Houston Astros and he hit a pair of solo home runs in his two at-bats in the only game in which he played. However, his 2012 season was a major disappointment because he hit only three home runs, drove in 46 runs and batted .248 at Class-A Charleston (SC).

But because he was the Most Valuable Player of the Gulf Coast League in 2011 and he has adapted better than expected at third base, the Yankees have high hopes for the Maitland, FL, native. However, he appears to be more than two years away from being ready for the major leagues.

Third base appears to be a big issue for the Yankees entering 2013.

Rodriguez is sidelined once again and his replacement Youkilis has had issues with injuries of his own. There appears to be an adequate backup in Nix but the Yankees have limited options behind him. The jury on Bichette is out for now but the Yankees remain optimistic he can follow in his father’s footsteps.

This is definitely not the Yankees’ strongest position entering the season and there will be a lot of people crossing their fingers Youkilis stays healthy and Rodriguez come back strong. It seems an awful lot to ask for at this point.

NEXT: SHORTSTOP

 

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