Because we haven’t talked about third base enough this winter, our State of the Organization series moves today to the hot corner. Barring a surprise win through the legal system, Alex Rodriguez has been suspended for all of 2014, leaving the position wide open for a veteran free agent and a series of platoon possibilities. Could be a lot of mixing and matching at third base this year, and chances are, the third baseman we’ll spend the most time talking about will be the one who’s not even with the team.
Top of the depth chart: Kelly Johnson
Backup options: Eduardo Nunez, Scott Sizemore, Yangervis Solarte, Russ Canzler
Also coming to camp: Dean Anna, Corban Joseph, Zelous Wheeler (Peter O’Brien, Tyler Austin, Adonis Garcia and Jose Pirela have some third base experience as well)
Deeper in the system: Ronnier Mustelier, Eric Jagielo, Miguel Andujar, Dante Bichette Jr.
At this point, it seems the Yankees are banking on Kelly Johnson to be their regular at third base. He’s a left-handed hitter, he has some power, and Yankee Stadium might fit his swing pretty well. He has only limited experience at the position, but the Yankees are in a beggers-can’t-be-choosers situation. As for a backup, they’re really looking for a platoon partner more than a true second stringer. They’re bringing several right-handed options into camp — the above list doesn’t include Brendan Ryan, who can play third but seems to be more of a defensive option up the middle — and the Yankees will sort through those to find a third baseman to play against lefties. If Johnson is hurt, the field could open to include left-handed hitters Dean Anna and Corban Joseph.
Lingering question: Who plays against lefties?
It wasn’t too long ago that the Yankees seemed to have completely soured on the idea of Eduardo Nunez playing any position except shortstop. He’d struggled in a utility role, and his bat didn’t seem quite bit enough for a move to the outfield, so the Yankees were working with Nunez as if he were a shortstop or bust. Now, he’s thoroughly in the mix at third base, having impressed the Yankees with the way he played down the stretch last season. Either he or Scott Sizemore is probably considered the favorite to win that right-handed platoon job at third base. Sizemore just turned 29 and has hit .272/.357/.422 against lefties in the big leagues. Minor league veterans Yangervis Solarte are also in the mix, but somewhat surprisingly, the Yankees chose not to invite Ronnier Mustelier, who made a strong impression last spring.
Worth watching this spring: Defensive work at third base
One interesting thing about the group of third base candidates coming to big league camp: very few are true third basemen. After years as an everyday second baseman, Johnson got his first big league time at third base just last season (only 12 starts). Nunez’s rocky attempts to learn the position are well documented. Most of Sizemore’s big league time has been at third base, but the vast majority of his career in the minors was spent at second (353 games at second, 20 at third). Solarte has played a quite a bit of third base in the minors, but the majority of his experience is also at second base. Canzler has never played third in the big leagues, and in the past two years he’s played just 22 games at third base in the minors. Anna is primarily second baseman, Ryan is primarily a shortstop, and Joseph is primarily a second baseman. The Yankees need to get offense at the position — something they sorely missed last year — but they need to make sure these guys can actually handle the defensive side of things as well.
Best-case scenario: The right pieces at the right times
If we’re going pie-in-the-sky here, the best-case scenario is built exclusively around Johnson. His career splits against lefties are actually pretty good, and back in 2010 he hit .284/.370/.496 with the Diamondbacks. If he can take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch, he could actually be a really productive player who doesn’t need a platoon partner. But that seems like a pretty extreme hope at this point. More likely the best-case scenario involves Joe Girardi pushing the right buttons at the right times (beginning with picking the right pieces out of spring training). There’s something to be said here for the outside possibility of Derek Jeter playing third base on a regular basis, but for now the Yankees say that’s not on the table. Hard to say whether that would be closer to a best-case or worst-case scenario.
Worst-case scenario: Déjà vu all over again
Let’s just go through the list… Each of these players started at least five games at third base last season: Jayson Nix, David Adams, Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez, Luis Cruz, Chris Nelson, Mark Reynolds, Brent Lillibridge, Alberto Gonzalez. Ten guys, and Rodriguez had the highest OPS and second-most RBI of the bunch. So what’s the worst-case scenario for 2014? Basically more of the same. The Yankees tried to give third base to Youkilis last season, but when he got hurt, they really didn’t have a standout third-string option, and they spent most of the year sorting through a bunch of uninspiring options. In a way, they seem deeper this year, but they’re certainly thinner at the top of the depth chart.
Keep an eye on this year: Eric Jagielo
I’d love to come up with some off-the-beaten-path selection here — and I will say, it’s certainly worth seeing whether O’Brien, Austin or Garcia sees significant time at third base this season — but really, the third base curiosity in the Yankees system is last year’s top draft pick. Breaking from their recent trend of high-risk first-round selections (a bunch of high school kids, an elite pitcher who wouldn’t sign, and a long list of complications that came with Andrew Brackman) the Yankees actually made a relatively safe choice with Jagielo, who was a proven college hitter at Notre Dame, and who plays a position of obvious need. He doesn’t seem to have the drool-worthy tools of fellow first-rounder Aaron Judge, but Jagielo could move relatively quickly, there seems to be a near universal agreement that his upside is that of an everyday third baseman. How aggressively will the Yankees advance a guy like this? We really don’t have a good comparison to use as a gauge, but there’s already talk of starting him in High-A Tampa for his first full season as a pro.
Associated Press photos