The Yankee infield isn’t a jigsaw puzzle; that would be too convenient. Rather, it’s the missing piece from each of several jigsaw puzzles swept out from under the couch that someone tried scrunching together. The original intention was to be beautiful and artistic, but at this point in the project, it’s become an ill-fitting mess.
To start with, few of them have hit much at all in 2021. Gio Urshela is the only player who has lived up to the back of his baseball card, slashing .287/.342/.455. His 125 wRC+ is on par with his 132 wRC+ from 2019-2020. D.J. LeMahieu’s .282/.373/.395 line is a big step down from his MVP-finalist 2020, but given the short season last year and the decreased offense throughout MLB this year, it’s probably a more accurate reflection of his true talent level.
Gleyber Torres is the other full-time infield starter. Two years ago, he blasted 38 home runs, but he finally smacked his first dinger yesterday. His 12.8 percent walk rate is quite good, but power is an essential part of his offensive game. Without it, he’s an incomplete hitter. Here are his Statcast percentile rankings this season:
That’s an awful lot of blue for someone who is supposed to be one of the better hitters in baseball. His hard hit rate is the most concerning here, having dropped from 38 percent last year to 32.6 percent. Opposing pitchers are throwing him more fastballs and fewer breaking pitches, indicating the league has found a weakness in his swing.
Even if the Bruce/Ford/Odor triumvirate were all still available for duty, a changing of the guard would still be in order. Luke Voit was their best power hitter by far in 2021, leading MLB with 22 home runs. His absence from the batting order to this point in the season drastically reduced their run production. He’s currently wrapping up a rehab assignment in the minors and should be back in the everyday lineup shortly.
Miguel Andújar returned to the big league club on Friday as something of a wildcard. It’s been three years since his breakout 2018 campaign in which he finished runner up to Shohei Ohtani in the Rookie of the Year voting. 2019 and 2020 have been a combination of injuries, ineffectiveness, and disappointment. His 2021 season could fall anywhere on the spectrum between “All-Star caliber slugger” and “minor leaguer,” and nothing would be surprising.
There are only two other infielders on the 40-man roster. Tyler Wade is a slick defender and probably the team’s fastest player, but he simply can’t hit major league pitching. 20-year-old Oswald Peraza recently reported to high-A Hudson Valley and won’t factor into the Yankees’ big-league plans anytime soon.
A Messy Fit
Clearly, not enough players are hitting the way they should. Defensively, this is even more chaotic. It seems like everyone plays third base and no one plays shortstop capably. Here are their defensive options around the horn:
3B: Urshela (starter), Andújar, LeMahieu, Odor (allegedly, when healthy), Wade
At first glance, they appear to be well covered. This is certainly true at the corners now that Andújar is back and Voit will soon return. Up the middle is a different story. LeMahieu is their best defensive player at three positions, but not all at the same time. Ideally, he should be the full-time second baseman, and Voit’s presence will help ensure that happens.
Shortstop is the real problem area. Even if Torres’ offense comes around, and it probably will at some point, his defense is substandard at short. His skill set better suits second base. The success of LeMahieu’s new long-term contract is somewhat predicated on Torres’ success at the six, which now appears in doubt. However, there are no other viable alternatives. Wade can’t hit nearly enough, and Urshela really belongs a third.
There are two possible scenarios in which Torres cedes playing time. 1) His struggles continue while Andújar excels, forcing Aaron Boone to start both Andújar and Urshela on the left side of the infield— defense be damned. 2) The Yankees trade for a big-time shortstop, the most obvious of which would be Rockies star Trevor Story. It’s early in the year for trade rumors, but the fit makes too much sense to ignore. Articles connecting the two sides have already started popping up, and their volume will continue to crescendo as June and July approach.
In the meantime, the Yankees have to find ways to give the most possible playing time to the guys who are hitting without making a hash of their defense. The best solution would be if a few key players pick up their game. Otherwise, they will need to lift up a few other teams’ couches for better-fitting puzzle pieces.