For a team that has no clue who its Opening Day third baseman will be, the Yankees sure do deal with a lot of third baseman drama. It’s not about searching for a new one, it’s about handling all of the extra stuff that comes with the (potentially) current one.
Signed through 2017
The man signed to be the Yankees third baseman for next year and beyond is currently appealing a 211-game suspension, suing the league and its commissioner, and claiming malpractice by the team physician. Things have become, let’s say, interesting, since Rodriguez opted out and quickly signed a new 10-year deal back in 2007. This year’s return from offseason hip surgery — despite all of the distractions along the way — was actually a bit of encouragement as Rodriguez was driving the ball and providing a productive bat before his legs started to presumably feel the effects of an unusual offseason. Rodriguez was actually good for about a month and a half. He dreadful at the end — literally three hits in his final 12 games — but there was at least some indication that he could be productive if he could stay healthy. That might be a big if, but it was certainly more encouraging than what the Yankees saw in 2012. That said, health and production are not the immediate unknowns with Rodriguez. He’s appealing baseball’s Biogenesis suspension, and the Yankees aren’t expected to know until possibly December whether they’ll have Rodriguez (and his salary) next season. And so, the team is in a bit of a forced holding pattern, able to focus on many other holes while waiting to find out whether they have their Opening Day third baseman or have an extra $27 million or so to spend.
Similar to second base, the Yankees have a handful of upper-level infielders who can play third base and have shown at least some level of offensive promise — Ronnier Mustelier, David Adams, Corban Joseph — but none has significant big league experience, and Adams — who has the most Major League at-bats of the bunch — didn’t do enough in 2013 to think the Yankees can absolutely count on him for 2014 and beyond. Eduardo Nunez could fill the hole, but he brings the usual questions about his glove and the true potency of his bat. Assuming Tyler Austin can learn the position again, and Rob Segedin can come back from hip surgery, those are two more Double-A prospects who can play third base, but they’re not ready just yet. What’s more: The free agent market isn’t great with Mark Reynolds, Michael Young, Juan Uribe and Kevin Youkilis (if the Yankees would be willing to try that again) looking like the best of the bunch. One possibility — based strictly on hunch and guesswork — for dealing with a Rodriguez suspension would be moving Derek Jeter to third, where presumably his lower body would have an easier time because of the diminished range required. Jeter’s always had great hands, which might play well at third, and it would open the possibility of signing a free agent shortstop like Stephen Drew or Jhonny Peralta. All depends on Rodriguez and that arbitration hearing, though.
One interesting thing about third base in the Yankees system is that this year’s breakout prospect (Peter O’Brien) and top draft pick (Eric Jagielo) each play the position, and that’s probably not a coincidence. O’Brien is a big hitter, but there were questions about his ability to stay at catcher — and the Yankees still have quite a bit of young catching depth — and so the Yankees shifted him to third base this season, clearly moving a promising bat into a position of need. They also broke from their strategy of drafting high-risk high schoolers to take the relatively polished Jagielo, giving the team another new but fairly advanced third base prospect. Despite being drafted out of college, neither O’Brien nor Jagielo seems likely to move quickly enough to be in New York next season, and even the season after that would require aggressive promotion and overwhelming success along the way. There’s talent in each of them, but it’s going to take some time to make sure they’re legitimately ready and have what it takes to succeed in the big leagues.
STATE OF THE ORGANIZATION
For different reasons — possible suspension vs. high-profile free agency — both third base and second base are in similar states at the moment. Both have a significant issue to be resolved at the big league level, some intriguing talent in the low levels, and not a lot of reliable options in between that top and bottom uncertainty. There’s still the chance the Dante Bichette Jr. will rediscover whatever made him so good for that half season in 2011. There’s also a chance a rookie-ball kid named Miguel Andujar could really, really emerge after a strong Gulf Coast League performance this year. There’s a chance Mustelier can hit enough already, or that Austin could move back to the infield and take off again, or that either O’Brien or Jagielo could really soar through the system and establish himself as top prospect. But the current state of the Yankees organization at third base is absolute uncertainty, a situation so bizarre that the team would almost certainly be better off having its highest-paid player suspended rather than in the lineup.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Rodriguez, Mustelier, Jagielo and O’Brien