New York Yankees 2014 Five Point Preview: Michael Kay on the infieldExpect business as usual from The Captain and Tex, says Kay
If the 2014 Yankees season ends up being notable for just one thing, it will be the fact that Derek Jeter will say his final goodbye from baseball once the curtains close.
Until then, though, The Captain will be one-quarter of a Yankees infield that is, despite having three All-Stars in its mix, a question mark all the way around. With Jeter and Mark Teixeira returning from seasons lost due to injury and Brian Roberts (who has health issues of his own) and Kelly Johnson (16 career games at third base and three at first) tabbed to replace the departed Robinson Cano and suspended Alex Rodriguez respectively, no one is exactly sure what to expect on any front.
"I think it's amazing that when you look at a team that underwent a half-a-billion dollar makeover, there's still so many questions in the infield," Michael Kay told YESNetwork.com earlier this month.
When it comes to Jeter, however, Kay isn't worried about questions or expectations.
"The guy played 17 games last year, so he's going to be a little rusty, and you saw that early in spring training. But, he'll get his stroke back, and he looks like he's moving well, which is the most important thing," Kay said. "Remember, he had one of his best seasons two years ago before he got hurt, so I don't think there's an erosion of skills. I think a fair number to look at is maybe 135 to 140 games played and a .275 average, but I think he can do better than that."
Like Mariano Rivera in 2013, Jeter will likely go all out in 2014 and leave it all on the field, knowing there is no proverbial tomorrow. Whether what happens outside the lines (read: goodbye ceremonies in every city) is the same as Mo's farewell tour, but if it is, don't expect any immediate hangover once the first pitch is thrown.
"I was surprised that he announced his retirement before the season just for that reason, but Derek has always been in control of Derek, and he's not going to let it get to where it bothers him," Kay said. "He's more equipped to handle this than most - Mo was the same way - and maybe he took some notes on how Mo handled it. I don't think he can do it the same way, because he has to play in the first inning and Mo had eight innings to recover, but I don't think it's as debilitating as people make it out to be, to go out and get a rocking chair."
Across the diamond, Mark Teixeira played just 15 games - two less than Jeter - last year, and his wrist injury is one that could linger for years, if not his entire career. Teixeira proclaims that he's healthy and ready to go, but as Kay notes, if the notoriously slow starter gets off to a sluggish April, questions will abound.
"That's a concern, because wrist injuries are really tough; everything is in the wrist for a hitter and there's a lot of torque," Kay said, "and he and the trainers are the only ones that will know if the wrist is okay. So, if he gets off to a slow start, people are going to get nervous."
If Teixeira is healthy, though, Kay says to expect pretty much the norm offensively.
"You can pencil him in for 30 homers and 100 RBI, but I don't think he's a high average guy anymore. I think that's eroded over the years, but if he hits .250 and goes 30 and 100 with Gold Glove defense, I think that's going to be key," Kay said. "I think he actually is the key to the entire team, as a switch hitter in the middle of the lineup."
Whatever Teixeira brings to the table with the lumber, though, it's what he brings with the leather that will be just as important - for himself, the infield, and the rest of the team, really.
"I think his offense is pretty important, but they need Gold Glove defense from Teixeira; even last year, Lyle Overbay is an outstanding defensive first baseman, but he's not in the class of Teixeira," Kay said. "I'm not sure if throwing will be an issue will Kelly Johnson over at third, but if it is, Teixeira can save him some errors over there, and if Brian Roberts is healthy, that right side of the infield will be covered well. And remember, if Mark can't go for some reason, the Yankees really have no backup first baseman of any note - Johnson has played three games there and that's it - so his health is paramount."
Because of Roberts' health, Johnson's versatility, and the other concerns, infield depth is more important this year than perhaps even last, when 10 players started more than five games at third base and seven did the same at shortstop.
Brendan Ryan, barring a recurrence of the oblique and back troubles that cost him most of spring training, is set to be Jeter's backup, and the final spot will go to someone - likely a right-handed hitter - who can play second and third base. Eduardo Nunez fits that profile best, and Kay agrees that all signs point to him having the inside track, even if he never sees a half-inning at his "natural" position.
"Nunez really hurt his long term chances of being the shortstop after Jeter when he couldn't stay healthy last year; that was his opportunity to show what he can do," Kay said. "But, I think he's become a little bit more sure-handed after working with Mick Kelleher, and he's obviously better with throwing the ball. I think his job this year is going to be a platoon at third base."
And if utility infielder ends up indeed being Nunez's best bet to stay a Yankee in 2014 and beyond, so be it - because according to Kay, that seems to be the Yankees' preference anyway.
"I think it behooves him to learn all of the positions, and this way, he'll get a lot of at-bats. I think his ticket to a full-time big-league job is that he's a very good hitter with a live bat, so he'll see time against lefties," Kay said. "There are other candidates, like Scott Sizemore and Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte, who have all impressed, but I think their first choice is to have Nunez."