With pitchers and catchers in camp, it’s actually Rob Refsnyder and the corner infield and outfield who can make the biggest adjustments. Refsnyder has reportedly been willing to try third base, or essentially any position which might gain him a roster spot, and the move makes a lot of sense. Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro are constants in the middle infield for the 2016 season and beyond, and Brian McCann is locked in behind the plate for multiple years as well.
While there will be a backup catcher competition this spring, the focus for improvement is still on the corners, not up the middle. Even Jacoby Ellsbury is locked into a long-term contract in center field. The rotation, at this point, is what it is, six major league caliber starters, all of whom have question marks, all of whom have upside and no help coming likely at any point this season.
The bullpen is set. It’s strong, it’s deep and it’s deadly and will be the biggest trump card the Yankees can show on any given night. The same can be said about the bench, where Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks and Dustin Ackley are all favored to win bench spots and all better than your average bench player, whether in upside or performance.
So that leaves the starting corners of the team. Here is a review of the current players occupying each spot and what could happen before or during the season:
First Base: Mark Teixeira
There’s nothing specifically wrong with Teixeira playing at first base. He could very well challenge 30 home runs, be a top two contributor in the lineup and at this stage of his career, play a solid if not above average first base. The problem is he hasn’t played a complete season since 2011 and his very capable backup depth in Greg Bird is out for the season. The Yankees have nobody else viable but could turn to Dustin Ackley to play first base full-time if Tex missed time, and then use a different player in a utility role.
Pedro Alvarez and Juan Uribe are still available in free agency but neither are likely seeking minor league deals. New York could work a trade for a bench player like Nick Swisher, but that seems like a waste of money for a backup solution. The Yankees will likely let it fly or find a minor league veteran for insurance purposes.
Third Base: Chase Headley
Truth be told, Headley is probably the biggest problem out of any of the corner positions. He had a terrific second half of 2014 and flashes of brilliance in San Diego, but he’s also disappeared for years at a time and was terrible offensively and defensively for almost all of the 2015 season. He’s not old enough to completely fall off the map but he is inconsistent enough to cause a lot of problems for the Yankees’ infield and lineup.
This is luckily the move where the Yankees have the most obvious solution in light of Refsnyder’s comments. Refsnyder’s issue has been his range and defensive work at second, so moving him to third is probably a career upgrade anyway and will let him utilize a strong arm. His bat could very well hold its own weight, he can help balance the lineup and he can probably outperform Headley, who still has three years left on his four year deal. The Yankees would be wise to carry Refsnyder as a less equipped, but more offensively threatening Ackley, allowing him to play backup to second and third with the possibility of taking playing time from Headley should he have a repeat season.
Left Field: Brett Gardner
Will he stay healthy? Will he have a strong second half? Will he be traded? All three of these are legitimate questions for Gardner in left field. When he’s healthy, he is generally an above average defender with above average speed and an above average ability to get on base signed to an above average (in value) contract. He’s a solid, homegrown, player who helps set the table for the Yankees’ dangerous but aging bats. But out of any player on the major league roster, Gardner is the easiest to part with who would still net value.
The question isn’t so much if the Yankees have an issue in left field, it’s more if they have a long-term solution. It’s well known speedy players don’t age well and the Yankees have an influx of outfield depth in the minor leagues. Trading a healthy Gardner could mean getting the starting pitching depth the team may need to get over the hump and to potentially replace Ivan Nova, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda, all of whom can potentially become free agents before the end of 2017.
Right Field: Carlos Beltran
As an impending Free Agent, the Yankees, at a minimum, can’t say with certainty who the starting right fielder will be in 2017. Since Beltran is 38-years-old, injury prone but coming off of a renaissance year of sorts, the Yankees can’t say for certainty which right fielder will show up in 2016, either. What is certain is Beltran will start in right field in April and will be relied upon to hit in an important spot in the lineup. Whether his body holds up, whether Aaron Hicks plays his way into more playing time or whether Aaron Judge forces his presence onto the major league roster, all remains to be seen.
The Yankees have plenty of right field options now and in the future, but they all have question marks to a degree. One other wrinkle? If Alex Rodriguez, at 40-years-old, breaks down as a DH, Beltran would be the next logical solution to come off of the field and hit full-time, which means New York would need to fill a void in right field even if Beltran is healthy and productive anyway.