There is no position in the Yankees system worth more discussion than third base. Catcher has sparked curiosity in the short term, second base is facing a turning point, and center field is stocked with young talent, but third base is the lightning rod of A-Rod. It’s the position committed to a long-term solution that might not be a solution at all. And it’s a position that, despite a long-term commitment, has been forced into a temporary place holder.
Signed through 2013
You expected someone else to be mentioned here? For this season, the Yankees everyday third baseman is not Alex Rodriguez, it’s the bald Red Sox veteran looking to revitalize his career in a most unlikely scenario. Kevin Youkilis hit just .235/.336/.409 last season, reaching career-lows in all three parts of the slash line. The Yankees are banking on his ability to rebound. They believe there’s more to him than what he showed last season, and they believe he was their best option after doctors discovered Rodriguez’s left hip injury. The Yankees need Youkilis to bring some right-handed power. They’re going to count on him to at least grind at-bats and play passable defense. This is not solution, it’s a band aid. Rodriguez’s anticipated return in the second half will determine whether the Yankees need something more permanent.
On the verge
If the Yankees had a third baseman clearly ready for the big leagues, Youkilis might not be here. Instead, what the Yankees have in the upper levels of their farm system are a handful of interesting players who have yet to fully establish themselves as reliable, ready-to-take-a-shot prospects. First and foremost is David Adams, who missed most of the past two seasons with an ankle injury that simply wouldn’t go away. He’s spent most of his career as a second baseman, but curiously moved to third base after Rodriguez broke his hand last season. Finally healthy, the former third-round pick hit .306/.385/.450 in Double-A and followed with an impressive turn in the Arizona Fall League. He’ll move up to Triple-A next season, where he’ll join Corban Joseph (a second baseman with some experience at third) and Ronnier Mustelier (an older prospect out of Cuba whose bat has kept him on the radar) as potential third base options in the near future. As for the most immediate future, recent waiver claim Russ Canzler also has third base experience and a powerful right-handed bat. He, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez could be options to backup at third base out of spring training.
Deeper in the system
At this time last year, Dante Bichette Jr. was generally considered a Top 10 talent in the Yankees system, but he’s now an example of the overwhelming unknown involving young, low-level players. He was 19 last season, coming off a standout .335/.440/.507 debut, but he hit just .248/.322/.331 in Charleston. Power is meant to be one of his strengths, but he hit just three home runs. Bust? Too early to say, just like it was too early to declare him a future big league star a year ago. Reviews of his defense have been better than many expected, and he’s still awfully young. Matt Duran and Miguel Andujar had uninspiring seasons in Staten Island and the Gulf Coast League respectively, and they’re generally seen as lesser prospects than Bichette, but they also fall into that category of being too young to know anything for certain. Duran was a fourth-rounder and Andujar signed for $700,000 out of the Dominican Republic.
For now the Yankees have no plans of making the switch, but right field prospect Tyler Austin does have third base experience, and the team has at least discussed the idea of moving him back. His defense is better in the outfield, and the Yankees don’t have a long-term answer in right, so there may be no compelling reason to put Austin back in the infield. But it’s at least an option if things get desperate. Rob Segedin is another third baseman turned right fielder, and although he’s not nearly the prospect that Austin is, he has shown flashes of a good bat and could also move to third base if necessary. There’s no indication that the Yankees are going to shift some of their other young infielders — Austin Aune and Angelo Gumbs in particular — to third base, but the final position of most young players remains fairly fluid until they reach the upper levels.
What to watch
He won’t open the season on any active roster, but all eyes — as always — are on Rodriguez. His 10 year contract is only half complete, which means he’s signed for another five years. His future is uncertain, and his upcoming hip surgery is only the latest cause for concern. Dr. Bryan Kelly seems hopeful that Rodriguez will rebound and experience some sort of resurgence, and the Yankees financial commitment leaves them no other option but to hope Dr. Kelly is right. If Rodriguez flops or becomes a full-time designated hitter, third base will become wide open with several candidates — but not standout solution — waiting in the wings.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Youkilis, Adams, Bichette and Austin