With options dwindling, Yankees could turn to Young, Youkilis or Reynolds
On Wednesday afternoon, the White Sox agreed to terms with free agent Jeff Keppinger via a three-year deal worth around $12 million, while the Diamondbacks signed Eric Chavez to a one-year deal worth $3 million Both pieces of news are blows to the Yankees, for they take potential solutions to their temporary third base void off the board in the wake of Monday’s revelation that Alex Rodriguez could be out until June after undergoing surgery next month to repair a torn left hip labrum.
Keppinger’s ability to spot at multiple infield positions and to mash lefties made him a popular free agent even given a broken fibula that should heal in time for spring training, particularly after a strong year in which the 32-year-old hit .325/.367/.439 with nine homers in 418 plate appearances for the Rays. Chavez, who turns 35 on Friday, was healthy for the first time since 2006 and hit .281/.348/.496 with 16 homers in 313 plate appearances for the Yankees, helping them cope with Rodriguez’s late-summer absence due to a broken hand.
New York has other options, both via trade and on the free agent market, but many of them may terrify dyed-in-the-wool pinstripe fans given their career trajectories and their previous affiliations. Even so, they do fit the team’s need for a multi-position infielder with experience — if not fluency — at third base. For example, current Ranger Michael Young appears to be expendable in Texas, while former Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis is on the open market, as is former Oriole Mark Reynolds.
The 36-year-old Young is coming off a season in which he hit just .277/.312/.370, his worst showing since 2002, that on the heels of a .338/.380/.474 line with an AL-best 213 hits in 2011. Adjusted for Texas’ hitter-friendly environment, his 2012 performance washes out at a .239 True Average, and once you factor in his 72 games at DH and subpar defense at all four infield positions (41 at first base, 25 at third base, 16 at second base and four at shortstop), he was actually 1.5 wins below replacement level according to Baseball Prospectus’ WARP, or 2.4 below via Baseball-Reference.com’s WAR.
His work at third base has been said to resemble that of a matador waving at balls as they go by; via Defensive Runs Saved, he’s been about 13 runs below average per 1,200 innings, equivalent to a 135-game season. He’s in line to make $16 million in the final year of a five-year, $80 million deal, and with Adrian Beltre at third base, Mitch Moreland at first, Mike Olt waiting in the wings and Ian Kinsler also a candidate to shift to first base to accommodate Jurickson Profar at second, Young has probably overstayed his welcome, even if the team could use a DH in the wake of Mike Napoli’s departure.
The Rangers would have to eat most of Young’s $16 million salary in order to move him; the amount would dictate the quality of the return they receive. They would also need to gain his approval on the deal as a player with 10-and-5 rights, though he is known to prefer staying with Texas. The Rangers are said to be talking to the Phillies, and they have spoken with at least one other club, though that apparently wasn’t the Yankees, who have yet to indicate actual interest.
Youkilis has been much discussed in this space. The 33-year-old began the season with the Red Sox, but struggled at the plate and spent three weeks on the disabled list in April and May due to a lower back strain, the fourth straight year in which he missed time due to injury. During his absence, rookie Will Middlebrooks showed his readiness to contribute at the major league level, and so Youkilis was dealt to the White Sox in late June. He provided a much-needed upgrade for Chicago even if he didn’t produce at his established level. In all, he hit just .235/.336/.409 with 21 homers in 509 plate appearances, well off his previous career line of .289/.391/.492. Those career numbers are admittedly driven by the offense-friendly environment of Fenway Park (and briefly U.S. Cellular Field); he has hit .305/.403/.517 during his career at home, .261/.367/.448 on the road.
Youkilis could fill in at both infield corners, as Chavez did, but he’d represent a greater level of flexibility given his established productivity against pitchers of either hand, where Chavez, a lefty, struggled mightily against southpaws. He’s said to have multiple multi-year offers on the table, and while Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has confirmed that he’s spoken to agent Joe Bick, WEEI’s Alex Speier reports, “New York did not appear likely to pay prevailing market rate, even on a one-year deal.”
The 29-year-old Reynolds hit .221/.335/.429 with 23 homers — his lowest total since his 2007 rookie season — in 538 plate appearances for the Orioles. He began the year sharing third base duties with Wilson Betemit, but his struggles at the position (seven errors in 15 games) led to a shift to first base and a cutback in playing time. That caused him to miss leading the league in strikeouts for the fifth straight year; even so, his 29.6 percent whiff rate, while below his previous career mark of 33.2 percent, was still astronomical. The Orioles recently nontendered him rather than pick up his $11 million option or head to arbitration with him after he made $7.5 million in 2012. Though his tremendous power has some appeal, his contact woes and struggles at the hot corner make him yet another less than ideal fit for the Yankees given their current predicament. They were known to meet with Reynolds’ agent on Wednesday afternoon.
That none of those three players is a perfect match for the Yankees’ needs underscores the difficulty they face, particularly with a dwindling number of options. Other free agents such as Placido Polanco and Scott Rolen are even more brittle and unproductive at this point in their careers. Stephen Drew is another available free agent, but he’s never played so much as an inning at any defensive position other than shortstop. As with the team’s catcher and outfield situations, Cashman has his work cut out here.