January 30, 2004
The Bronx Corner
Who wants to be a Yankee third baseman?
OK, so maybe that doesn't have the same ring of a certain game show that gripped the nation a few years back, but it's a question on many people's minds right now. Incumbent starter Aaron Boone blew out his left ACL playing basketball and may be lost for the entire 2004 season. While Boone is basically a league-average third baseman, maybe a bit better due to his glove, he looks like Mike Schmidt compared to the available replacements.
My first reaction to the news was that it would mean a regular job for Jeff Cirillo. Cirillo, who already rejected one trade to an East Coast team (the Mets) this winter, has one of the more onerous contracts in baseball. He's scheduled to make $13.75 million for 2004 and 2005, and is coming off of .237 and .205 EqAs at ages 32 and 33. He's currently slated to be the sixth infielder for the Padres, backing up Sean Burroughs and Phil Nevin at the corners.
Picking up Cirillo seems to make some sense. He's not going to require much back in talent, which fits the state of the Yankees' farm system. If any team can assume a bad contract, it's the one that has industry-leading revenue and is already $50 million over the payroll cap...er, luxury-tax threshold. At least in Milwaukee and Colorado, Cirillo had a reputation as a scrappy gamer, making him a good fit for Joe Torre.
One problem is that Cirillo has already make it clear that he'd rather ride the bench in the Pacific time zone than play every day in the Eastern one, and might well exercise his no-trade clause if the Pads and Yankees tried to make this happen. The other, more pressing problem, is that he's not good; PECOTA has him at a VORP of 3.4. While he's been a good defensive player, even that aspect of his game has been in decline the past two years. You can project some bounceback for Cirillo, but unless you think the alien who resurrected Tim Wallach in 1994 is about to make a reappearance, it's hard to see acquiring him as much of a solution.
Other trade partners are few and far between, which reflects the third-base situation in the majors today. There are the superstars who you can't acquire, and then a whole lot of guys named "Ed." The Dodgers actually have two third basemen, but I'd be surprised to see them let Adrian Beltre go easily, and there's no obvious trade they can make with the Yankees that would bring value back to L.A. Robin Ventura's name has popped up, although he can't be dealt before June 15 without his permission. Ventura is probably the most likely player to be acquired in a trade; he and the Yankees are familiar with each other, the Dodgers don't have much use for him, and he would come pretty cheaply in terms of talent. It might just take cash, actually, given that the Dodgers are now in the hands of the most undercapitalized owner in modern sports history.
As with Cirillo, though, the first thought that comes to mind about Ventura is that he's part of a nutritious breakfast. Remember the old Bill James nugget about how a veteran player's walk spike could presage a collapse, because it indicated more that the player was taking pitches he couldn't hit, rather than changing his approach in a positive way? (I believe Toby Harrah was the canonical example.) Ventura's walk rate jumped in '01 and '02 as his average settled into the .240 range. Last year, he stayed in the .240s but lost walks and power, hitting .242/.340/.401 with a .264 EqA, and he looked old and slow. He's a better choice than Cirillo, if only for the money saved and the one-year commitment.
Forget the free-agent market. Tyler Houston, who the Yankees signed to a minor league deal this week, may have been the best guy left out there. He's not good. Jose Hernandez is still looking for a job, although the utility role at which he'd be an asset is filled poorly twice over on the Yankees roster.
In-house, the choices are fairly bleak. Enrique Wilson has the most experience at the position, but he's an everyday player like I'm a dancer. The same can be send for Miguel Cairo, picked up this winter to be a pinch-hitter and emergency everything. The two would combine to be the league's worst third baseman.
The Yankees had a guy at Double-A Norwich last year named Brian Myrow. Myrow isn't a prospect--he's 27 and was playing in an independent league two years ago--but he did hit .306/.447/.525 in '03 and has a career minor league OBP above .400. The Brewers gave Keith Ginter a job last year and that worked out all right; Myrow could be that kind of solution for the Yankees, with the very slight chance of a Mark Bellhorn '02 upside. Myrow is about the only name on this page with any chance to be an above-average third baseman in 2004.
I'm contractually obligated to mention Drew Henson, who has been playing third base at Columbus since 2001. He still can't hit, although if you squint you can see some improvement, and his defense at third base is that of a right fielder--"Hensley Meulens with a better backstory" still works for me. Henson might get a shot at the job this spring if only to help make it clear to everyone involved that he's not the solution, and perhaps move this saga to its inevitable conclusion.
Gary Sheffield's offer this week to go back to his old position is charming, but unrealistic. He hasn't taken a ground ball in nearly 10 years, and the risk that he'd injure himself in the attempt is real enough that risking $13 million isn't worth it. I'd almost be willing to endorse the idea for the sheer entertainment value of watching Kevin Brown pitch in front of Sheffield and Derek Jeter, if not for my fear that Brown would end up under indictment by August.
I've been more or less quoted as saying that moving Jeter to third base wouldn't work out. That's not entirely accurate; what I've advocated for Jeter is a move to center field, which is where I think he could best use his athleticism. Moving him to third base highlights his flaws (slow reaction time and poor footwork) and minimizes how much he can use his speed, and as such doesn't really apply his skills well. Moreover, Jeter's bat, so special at shortstop, would be relatively less so 50 feet to his right, while doing little for his defensive performance. He'd be much, much less valuable at third base, while I think he could actually be more valuable in center field, as I don't think he would cost the Yankees two to three wins a year with his glove in center, the way he does at short.
Moving Jeter to third base doesn't make sense unless you're going to replace him at shortstop with a superstar. I'll leave the more breathless elements of the media to speculate on how the Yankees could do something like that. Moving him so that Erick Almonte can play doesn't help the Yankees; they'd be better off with the worst of the above options, say Henson or Houston.
Here's how PECOTA stacks up each of the candidates (using equivalent batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average):
Player EqBA EqOBP EqSLG Bellhorn .243 .349 .429 Cairo .268 .323 .415 Cirillo .256 .326 .359 Henson .239 .301 .425 Hernandez .235 .304 .395 Houston .256 .307 .394 Myrow .246 .349 .425 Ventura .246 .356 .440 Wilson .243 .294 .364
The Yankees have been put in a bad spot by Aaron Boone's injury. Their options for replacing him range from the mundane to the inspired, and while I'd love to see them take a shot with Myrow, the most likely solution seems to be either Ventura or Wilson. Unless Ventura can stem his decline, that's going to hurt the Bombers in one of the toughest divisions since the 1994 realignment.