What’s On Second, I Don’t Know At Third For Yanks

Abbott: Nicknames, nicknames. Now, on the . . . team we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third –

Costello: That’s what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the . . . team.

Abbott: I’m telling you. Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third –

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The classic Lou Costello and Bud Abbott comedy sketch is a perfect metaphor for the 2014 Yankees. Because it is beginning to look like What’s on second and I Don’t Know is on third.

The angry free-agent departure of Robinson Cano and the looming suspension hovering over the head of Alex Rodriguez have those two spots in a bit of limbo now.

The Yankees pretty much were prepared for the suspension of A-Rod but they were not really expecting Cano to get in a tizzy over the contract offered to outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and leave like a spoiled child. But general manager Brian Cashman has had to deal with these situations since he became general manager in 1998.

He does not panic. He moves on.

When second baseman Omar Infante elected to sign with the Kansas City Royals for four years and $30 million on Dec. 17, Cashman turned to two-time All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts to fill the void for the Yankees.

At the moment, news reports indicate, the Yankees are close to signing Roberts, 36, to a one-year deal worth about $2 million plus incentives. If Roberts does indeed sign he likely would become the Yankees’ primary starting second baseman for the 2014 season.

When Cano left for the Seattle Mariners, Cashman said that all players are replaceable. But he added that some were harder to replace than others. Cano certainly falls into that latter category.

It is not easy to replace a player who hit .314 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs and played Gold Glove-quality defense. Putting it succinctly, how do replace the team’s best second baseman in history? The answer, of course, is that you don’t.

Even if the Yankees had signed Infante, it would not have been the same. Infante, 32, hit .318 with 10 home runs and 51 RBIs for the Detroit Tigers last season but he is not even close to Cano in ability. So with Infante off the board, Roberts becomes the Yankees No. 1 target.

The question with Roberts is at his age does he have anything left? Another question is can he remain healthy?

After the Yankees disastrous 2013 campaign when even Cashman himself broke his leg skydiving at a charity event, making sure their players can answer the bell to start the 2014 season and have confidence they can finish it would have to be a top priority.

Roberts does not instill a lot of that confidence.

From 2007 through 2009, Roberts was among the top second basemen in baseball, averaging .290 with 120 stolen bases and playing in 157 games a season. But much like A-Rod, staying on the field since 2010 has been a challenge for the former Baltimore Orioles star.

He has played in only 192 games since the 2010 season due to a variety of injuries with the most serious being a concussion that shelved him for portions of two seasons.

Roberts played in 77 games for the O’s last season, batting .249 with eight home runs and 39 RBIs.

Because Roberts is a switch-hitter, the Yankees would likely use him as their primary second baseman because free agent infielder Kelly Johnson has the ability to play third base and he could be used there should Rodriguez have to face a suspension covering all of the 2014 season.

Johnson, 31, bats left-handed and he figures in as more as a potential platoon third baseman with the Yankees also looking to possibly re-sign free-agent Mark Reynolds. Johnson also could back up Roberts at second, as could shortstops Brendan Ryan and Eduardo Nunez.

The disarray at second and third is odd for a Yankee team that has boasted an infield of Mark Teixeira at first, Cano at second, Derek Jeter at short and Rodriguez at third since the 2009 season. But injuries and off-field troubles for Rodriguez and the recent departure of Cano have thrown this once powerful part of the team for a loop.

Teixeira and Jeter are both coming off serious injuries and they hope to be ready to play sometime during spring training in order to begin the season. Rodriguez missed all but 44 games last season recovering from hip surgery last January and has played in 138 games or less since the 2007 season.

Adding the injury-prone Roberts does not seem to make much sense. But he might be healthiest among the other three at this point.

In addition to Roberts, the Yankees are also talking with former All-Star infielder Michael Young, 37, who is capable of playing all four infield positions.

Young hit a combined .279 with eight home runs and 46 RBIs for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. He is a right-handed hitter who primarily is considered a third baseman. The Yankees would not sign Reynolds if Young decides to sign.

But the signing of Roberts would not preclude the team from also signing Young, who would platoon with Johnson at third base in the absence of Rodriguez.

So Roberts looks to be more a Plan A signing while Young and Reynolds are more of a Plan B after the Yankees get a ruling from the arbitrator who is deciding Rodriguez’s appeal of his 211-game suspension for his alleged role in the Biogenesis performance-enhancing drug scandal.

The hearing was concluded in mid-November with the players’ association seeking to overturn or reduce Rodriguez’s suspension handed down by Major League Baseball and Commissioner Bud Selig last summer. Rodriguez actually stormed out of the hearing in a huff on Nov. 20 when arbitrator Frederic Horowicz ruled that Selig did not have to testify in front of Rodriguez’s attorneys.

Rodriguez said, at that time, that the issue of his suspension likely would end up in a federal court.

Horowicz is expected to issue his ruling some time in January.

In the meantime, the Yankees have kept a public posture of saying that they expect Rodriguez, 38, to be their starting third baseman on Opening Day. But privately they have to be ready to fill the position should Rodriguez be suspended for the entire 2014 season.

That is why they signed Johnson and why they remain interested in Young and Reynolds.

One thing is certain, however: The Yankees would be better off with Rodriguez’s diminished bat in the lineup than without it.

Rodriguez hit .244 with seven home runs and 19 RBIs in 44 games last season and was hampered the final month of the season with tightness in his left hamstring. But it was a far cry better than the production they got from Jayson Nix, Nunez, Corban Joseph, David Adams, Chris Nelson and Luis Cruz.

Reynolds, 30, did hit .236 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 36 games but he was also needed at first base in a platoon with Lyle Overbay and he is not considered to be as adept fielding at third base as he is at first.

So when the Yankees say “I Don’t Know” is playing third they really mean it.

To be sure, the Yankees have shored up the team’s offense by signing catcher Brian McCann, outfielders Carlos Beltran and Ellsbury and trading last season for outfielder Alfonso Soriano. They also are shoring up the rotation by re-signing Hiroki Kuroda and looking to sign 25-year-old Japanese pitching star Masahiro Tanaka, who has been posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

But around the horn of the infield there are question marks everywhere.

Those question marks all have answers. But none of them appear to be answerable in the short term. What was once a Yankee strength appears to be a possible weakness.

Of course, should Teixeira show up in spring training hitting home runs and Jeter starts running the bases and fielding his position without any pronounced limp, the rest of the infield troubles can be overcome with some hard work.

Roberts could be the answer at second and there are worse things than having a platoon at third until Rodriguez is able to return.

Yankee fans are not accustomed to it. But they might just have to get used to it. Things just look like they will be in a state of flux for a good while.

 

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