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How could Jimmy Rollins fit into the Yankees' infield plans?

The Yankees have not signed a major league free agent all offseason. Should they make an exception for the former star shortstop?

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With just over two weeks until pitchers and catchers report (finally), the Yankees' roster seems pretty much set. The only questions left for the team to address are what pitchers fill out the back half of the bullpen, how the rotation is structured, and figuring out who the team puts on the bench.

As of this writing, behind the starting middle infielders of shortstop Didi Gregorius and second baseman Starlin Castro, the team does not have true backup options. Castro could theoretically spell Gregorius at shortstop every so often, and Dustin Ackley has experience at second to sub for Castro (though Ackley's defense is nothing to write home about). The team did sign light-hitting Pete Kozma to a minor league deal earlier in the offseason, and Rob Refsnyder is still lurking at Triple-A (though it's debatable as to how much the Yankees trust Refsnyder at second base in the majors, because why else would they have traded for Castro if they felt Refsnyder was ready?).

It has been well documented how the Yankees have not signed a single major league free agent this offseason. However, there is one free agent still left on the market who can provide the Yankees with a solid veteran presence off the bench at the middle infield positions: Jimmy Rollins.

Yes, Rollins is coming off one of the worst non-injury interrupted seasons of his career. In 563 plate appearances, he slashed just .224/.285.358 with a wRC+ of just 80 (with a score of 100 being league average). Though he did hit 13 home runs, other calling cards of his game seemingly took a big hit, as he stole a career low 12 bases (in 20 attempts) and his fielding ratings (-7 in Defensive Runs Saved) were some of the worst of his career.

However, despite all the bad aspects of his 2015 season, there are reasons to be optimistic about a Rollins revival. In regards to his fielding, Rollins played for a Dodgers team that did not rely so often on infield shifting. At the All-Star break last season, the Dodgers ranked just 26th in baseball in the amount of times they put on a shift. The Yankees, meanwhile, are one of the highest shifting teams in the majors.

All of Rollins' apparent fielding troubles won't be completely solved with more shifting, and the Yankees' shifts in 2015 still occasionally led to problems. However, while fielding stats such as DRS and UZR tend to be very volatile from year to year, as evidenced by Rollins' positive ratings for each of those stats in 2014, the shifts have been proven to help on defense. For example, take this blurb from the Travis Sawchik book Big Data Baseball, which documents the improvement and rise of the Pittsburgh Pirates over the past several years:

"According to BIS [Baseball Info Solutions], Pirates second baseman Neil Walker improved from -4 defensive runs saved in 2012 to +9 in 2013, a 13-run improvement equal to 1.3 wins. The dramatic improvement was tied to simply getting to more balls in play. Walker made 32 more plays in zones outside traditional areas played by second baseman in 2013 than in 2012...Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez improved from costing the Pirates 5 runs in 2012 to saving them 3 runs in 2013 and was involved in 71 more defensive plays despite the same amount of playing time."

Rollins obviously doesn't have the range he once had. However, through the use of shifts, Rollins could become a positive defender once again. Also, if he is willing to play some second base, that could further help him defensively since second is a tad less demanding than short, especially with frequent shifting.

Offensively, while the numbers mentioned earlier are not good, a deeper look at the switch-hitter's rates shows nothing that sets off any alarm bells. The following chart compares some of Rollins' 2015 rates with the average rates of his previous four seasons (stats from Fangraphs).

Except for a nearly two percent increase in his strikeout rate, his rates are pretty much in line with the previous four seasons. Even then, his 15.3% strikeout rate in 2015 was well below the league average rate, which was 20.4% last season. For Rollins' biggest statistical drop, we'd have to look at his BABIP (batting average of balls in play).

In the same four-year timeframe from 2011-15, Rollins' average BABIP was .274. In 2015, however, it fell all the way to .246. This could be a combination of a couple things: first, BABIP takes speed into account, and certainly at 37-years-old, Rollins is not the runner he once was. This means he had less of a chance at beating out potential infield hits, which would cause his BABIP to take a hit. Secondly, there is a bit of luck involved with BABIP, and that luck factor changes from year to year. So even taking his decline in speed into account, Rollins could still see an improvement in his BABIP, especially since the rates compared in the above chart are pretty similar.

One other thing to consider is playing time. Unless there was a long-term injury to Gregorius or Castro, Rollins would most definitely not receive the 563 plate appearances he did in 2015. Using Rollins off the bench would keep him fresh, and maybe a more productive Rollins who gets 300-400 at-bats would emerge.

In a very, very brief sample size (55 plate appearances) from last September/October after the Dodgers called up shortstop prospect Corey Seager, Rollins' wRC+ (104), OPS (.704), and OBP (.364) all went up. Again, it's only 55 plate appearances and it's nearly impossible to predict what may happen using such a small sample size. However, it could suggest that Rollins might respond well to not having to play almost every day.

At this stage of his career, Rollins likely won't cost a whole lot, so the risk they'd be taking on wouldn't be that great. If he is interested in taking on a reserve role ( reported earlier this month that teams were interest in Rollins as a part-time second baseman and shortstop), Rollins could be just the man for the job.