Yankees’ depth takes another hit with loss of Mark Teixeira
By Jay Jaffe
The hits just keep coming for the Yankees, and not the good kind. Already without Alex Rodriguez for at least the first half of the season due to January hip surgery and Curtis Granderson for the first month of the season due to a broken forearm, they’ll now be missing Mark Teixeira for all of April and potentially the first half of May as well. The first baseman, who was supposed to join Team USA for the World Baseball Classic later this week, strained his right wrist while taking warmup swings on Tuesday. He will miss eight to 10 weeks, a timespan that includes four weeks of rest and at least four more of rehabilitation, all of which will take place in New York instead of Tampa, since he can’t participate in games.
The 32-year-old Teixiera (33 on April 11) was already coming off his fourth straight year of declining production, at least in terms of OPS or OPS+; in terms of True Average (an expression of runs produced per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring environments), his last few years have been fairly stable even as his raw rate stats have eroded:
After averaging 37 homers and 157 games a year during his first three seasons in pinstripes, Teixeira sank to 24 homers in 123 games last year, both career lows; he played in just four regular-season games after Aug. 27 due to a recurrent calf strain. He may be hard-pressed to match even that production given his wrist injury; soft tissue injuries heal less predictably than fractures and can sap a hitter’s power even after he returns to action. Teixeira strained his ECU (extensor carpi ulnaris) tendon, the same tendon that the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista injured last year while swinging a bat on July 16. Bautista missed five weeks and lasted just five plate appearances before returning to the disabled list and undergoing season-ending surgery — a scenario New York obviously hopes to avoid.
Given the free agency departures of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones, the Yankees will spend at least all of April without eight of the 10 players who hit at least 10 home runs for them last year — a group that produced 179 of the team’s MLB-high 245 homers. Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter may be the only members of the double-digit club in the Opening Day lineup, and even the latter is iffy as he works his way back from a season-ending ankle fracture that required surgery. He has yet to play a Grapefruit League game thus far but is hoping to do so this weekend.
The loss of Swisher, who started 27 games at first base last year, leaves the Yankees without an obvious replacement for Teixeira. Here’s a quick look at their in-house options, roughly in order of the likelihood that they start the season at first base.
Juan Rivera: Coming off a meager .244/.286/.375 showing in 339 plate appearances for the Dodgers last year, the 34-year-old Rivera was signed to a minor league deal, and until Granderson’s injury, at best appeared to have a shot at winning a roster spot as Ichiro Suzuki’s platoon partner in rightfield on the basis of a ho-hum .270/.329/.434 line against lefties over the past three seasons.
Now, the argument can be made that he belongs in the lineup either in rightfield or at first base for the first four or five weeks of the season due to the pair of injuries. He has 83 starts at first during his major league career, including 39 last year, though Cashman says he prefers him as an outfielder. If Rivera does see more time at first, it could buy the team time to take a longer look at a young outfielder such as Melky Mesa or Zoilo Almonte.
Dan Johnson: “The Great Pumpkin” gained notoriety by hitting five home runs in a 15-day span against the Yankees and Red Sox in 2010 as the Rays eked out a division title. After flopping as the team’s everyday first baseman the following spring, he hit a game-tying ninth-inning homer against the Yankees on the crazy final day of the 2011 regular season, helping Tampa Bay squeeze into the playoffs yet again. He made just 31 Major-League plate appearances last year for the White Sox, highlighted by a three-homer game on the final day of the season.
The 33-year-old lefty owns a career .237/.338/.412 line in the Majors, with most of the good stuff coming with the A’s from 2005-2007; his Major-League line since then is just .185/.309/.379 with 14 homers in 291 PA, with his power and plate discipline negated by a .175 BABIP. With the Yankees awash with potential options against lefties, the fact that Johnson has the platoon advantage against righties — and almost no platoon split at the Major League level — and can play third base as well as first will likely work in his favor well enough to net him a roster spot.
Kevin Youkilis: The Yankees signed Youkilis to serve as their top fill-in at third base after Rodriguez’s injury came to light, and while the soon-to-be-34-year-old has spent most of the past two seasons at the hot corner, he has actually put in more time at first than third during his Major League career. He’s coming off an injury-plagued season in which he hit just .235/.336/.409 with 21 homers in 509 plate appearances, well off his previous career line of .289/.391/.492.
If the Yankees do decide to use him at first, they could use either Jayson Nix or Eduardo Nunez at third base, though both are much stronger against lefties than righties, and the latter is already an insurance policy in case Jeter comes back slowly. In fact, the Yankees have said time and again they’d prefer he focus on playing shortstop instead of bouncing from position to position, which is doing his defense no favors. Unless the Yankees scare up another third baseman from outside the organization, this is a longshot.
Travis Hafner: Fuhgeddaboutit. Hafner hasn’t played the field since 2007, and hasn’t made more than 10 starts in a season at first base since 2003; it’s questionable as to whether he even owns a glove.
Luke Murton: With the players who filled in at first base for the Yankees’ Triple-A Empire State affiliate last year — Steven Pearce, Brandon Laird, Russell Branyan and Kosuke Fukudome — all gone from the organization, Murton is the team’s ranking minor leaguer at the position. A 19th-round 2009 draft pick out of the Georgia Institute of Technology, he spent last year at Double-A Trenton, hitting .249/.327/.464 with 25 homers in 526 PA, but at 26 years old (27 on May 21), he’s no kind of prospect. In fact, he’s basically organizational filler. While he may get a look in spring training, that’s mostly to determine his readiness as a fill-in for the fill-ins.
Given that array of unappealing options, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman — who himself was bitten by the injury bug this week, having broken his fibula and dislocated his ankle while skydiving to raise awareness for the Wounded Warriors charity — will make calls to determine what else is available outside the organization. Suffice it to say that there’s a reason free agents such as Aubrey Huff and Carlos Lee have gone unsigned, as they’re worse ideas (and in worse shape) than the players not just in the Yankees’ camp, but in those of the other 29 teams as well.
The pickings from other organizations are likely to be slim until teams pare down to 25-man rosters at the end of spring training, with a few players who are out of options potentially shaking loose. Given the Yankees’ budgetary constraints, it’s tough to imagine them taking on a more expensive contract to fill a short-term need, though if Teixeira suffers a setback and needs surgery, you can bet owner Hal Steinbrenner will dig deeper to find the dollars to do so.