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Why we can’t assume Miguel Andujar’s fielding will just get better

The Rookie of the Year finalist had a historically awful defensive season

MLB: ALDS-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Miguel Andujar was one of the best stories to come out of the 2018 New York Yankees’ season. In spring training, all eyes were on top prospect Gleyber Torres, who had himself a fine rookie campaign when it was all said and done. Andujar was even better.

Miggy will find himself one of the top two finishers in the AL Rookie of the Year vote. He posted a 128 wRC+, broke the Yankees’ franchise record for rookie doubles, and did perhaps more than anyone else on the team in lengthening the best lineup in baseball. As he spent a good chunk of the season batting in the bottom half of the lineup, he prevented pitchers from ever having an easy run once they got past players like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton.

And yet, despite such a great season, he finished with “only” a 2.7 fWAR. It’s hard to be displeased with a near three win season from a rookie, but it certainly feels like he should have been more valuable. And he would have been, if not for the fact that he was legitimately one of the worst defensive players we’ve ever tracked:

See if you can find Andujar on the above plot. UZR/150 and DRS data go back to 2002, and Miggy was one of the five or so worst defenders in that sample. You can quibble about the relative merits of a given defensive metric, but when all the evidence indicates that a player is terrible - historically so - he probably is.

Now, in fairness to Miguel, we shouldn’t compare him to all infielders in baseball. He’s not on the team to be Andrelton Simmons, so let’s just compare him to third basemen:

Oh, well. Now he’s perhaps the second worst third baseman since 2002, surpassed only by Ryan Braun’s legendary 2007 rookie season. In fact, those two have a lot in common, especially when it concerns their debut campaigns. Braun was an even better hitter than Andujar, but like Miggy, posted a sub-three win season purely because his defense was beyond a liability, and costing his team somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 runs.

Of course, Ryan Braun is no longer a third baseman. He has not played a single out at the hot corner since his debut, moving first to left field and more recently to first base. Most of the terrible third basemen in the above plot were moved quickly. The players in that lower left quadrant: Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Teahen and Miguel Cabrera are now first basemen. Jose Bautista was moved to right field. The Tigers are trying to keep Nick Castellanos at third but boy howdy, that is going so poorly for them.

The rapid relocation of the really terrible defenders at third poke a lot of holes in the idea that Andujar will be allowed to develop and improve at the hot corner, or even that he could improve at all. Teams just don’t leave runs on the table like that anymore. Derek Jeter was an exception at shortstop, true, but even at the end of his career he was about half as bad as Andujar is now.

It’s also true that players sometimes do improve. Robinson Cano had one of the worst seasons in baseball history his rookie year as a second baseman with -22 DRS and -21.8 UZR/150. The team stuck to their guns and Cano got better. He’s mostly average for his career, with a couple flashes of brilliance. Second base is a harder position than third, due to the need to cover the bag more often and the double plays, so there’s some hope Andujar could get better if the Yankees work on it.

The reason that Cano sticks out so visibly though, is that teams don’t generally let you work on it. When a player is costing the team double digit runs a season, it’s hard to justify keeping them in that spot. Similar to the way you never see a 75 wRC+ hitter batting in the top third of a lineup, teams will find a place to stick the players who are useful at one thing and not anything else in a spot where they do less damage. As the saying goes, you get more from not being stupid than you get from being smart.

The biggest problem with Andujar is that his weakness is harder to see game by game. He just has no range at third, and that makes it difficult to move him anywhere while also making it impossible for him to stay. Left field at Yankee Stadium is cavernous, and the worst spot to stick a guy with poor range. The DH spot in the Yankee lineup is probably going to be rotated through Judge, Stanton and Gary Sanchez for the foreseeable future, keeping them fresh and allowing days off. That leaves first base, where Andujar’s bat certainly plays:

The question then becomes another one of roster space. Luke Voit seems to be in the running for the starting first base job, and Brian Cashman outright stated on Friday that the organization believes that a lot of his performance is legitimate. The decision then comes down to how much faith the Yankees have in Andujar’s ability to improve - and the patience the org has therein - and whether they believe he’s a better hitter than Voit. Voit certainly isn’t a 180 wRC+ hitter over a full season, but if he’s a true talent 130 wRC+ or so, the difference between him and Miggy at first becomes pretty negligible.

Finally, the last option is using Andujar as the centerpiece of a trade, specifically for pitching. This gets kicked around a lot, but the problem with all trade proposals is that you need a partner buying what you’re selling. There’s no indication the Mets, for example, want to deal with the Yankees, and any team open to a trade would be taking on the responsibility of improving Andujar’s defense, or teaching him a new position.

There’s no easy solution for the Miguel Andujar dilemma. The Yankees’ roster is chock full of good players, so a move around the diamond is more complicated than it appears. Who knows how the trade market will develop over the offseason. At the very least, you have to think that Miguel Andujar isn’t long for third base, unless he hits at such a ludicrous level that his position becomes irrelevant. If next year Miggy posts something like a 190 wRC+, he can play center field for all I care. If you’re Andujar, hitting like that might be the best option of them all.