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Miguel Andujar wasn’t a star entering the season, and he isn’t a lost cause now

The Yankees’ young third baseman has long been polarizing, but in truth, he’s always fallen somewhere between the extremes.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Through no fault of his own, Miguel Andujar ended up as one of the Yankees’ most polarizing players this past offseason. Thanks to a confluence of his impressive but flawed skillset, the top-heavy free agent market, and the long-held presumption by some that the Yankees would act as major players in the winter of 2019, Andujar got caught in a crossfire of sorts.

Plenty of fans praised Andujar’s abundant abilities at the plate, and the contrast his free-swinging, contact-hitting ways brought to a lineup based on power and patience. Many others appreciated his talents while also acknowledging the unique opportunity the Yankees had to grab superstar players, one of them, Manny Machado, who played Andujar’s primary position, for nothing more than money.

Andujar has now slogged through six weeks of what is looking more and more like a lost season, having just hit the IL for a second time with a bothersome labrum. Andujar has also played terribly when actually on the field in 2019, hitting .128 with no home runs. Things have looked bad enough for some onlookers to write Andujar off entirely.

Now is as good a time as ever to look at Andujar and recognize a few things. For one, he was never the star that some viewed him as entering the season. On the other hand, an injury-riddled and ineffective start to 2019 doesn’t render Andujar a lost cause, either. Whatever nuance was lost during the discussion of Andujar last offseason needn’t be lost now. He is neither an MVP nor a bum. He is simply Miguel Andujar.

That said, the shape of Andujar’s performance did in some ways lend itself to polarization. His batting average hovered above .300 for most of 2018, which stood out like a sore thumb in an era where the league batting average sits close to .240. He shone in clutch situations and raked with men on base, and subsequently drove in 92 runs. For those who long for the days when star players actually dared hit .300, and for those who measure performance with stats like RBI, Andujar was a boon.

Of course, we know better in 2019 than to just look at a player’s triple crown numbers and break for lunch. As deftly as Andujar blended an aggressive approach with a solid contact tool and quality power, he fell short in other areas of the game. Most notably, he developed a reputation as a butcher at the hot corner:

Andujar has a good arm, but he often looked tentative using it, and was consistently inaccurate. His reads and positioning also left much to be desired. Combine that with a low OBP, borne of his aggressive tact at the plate, and Andujar didn’t have enough ancillary skills to elevate himself from promising starter to all-around stud.

The Yankees obviously would be thrilled if that talented and flawed version of Andujar showed up again this year. Andujar’s slash line of .128/.143/.128 translates to a -35 wRC+ (yes, that’s a negative), the worst mark among players with as many plate appearances. Small sample defensive statistics can’t be trusted, but it’s still jarring that DRS has viewed Andujar’s brief time in the field this season so poorly that Baseball Reference already rates him as a full win below replacement by their value calculations.

Yet those who would cast Andujar aside because of his hellish first couple months would do well to remember that much like prospect development isn’t linear, neither is major-league player development. Aaron Hicks had stops and starts on his way to All-Star level play. Didi Gregorius took years to unlock his full potential. Luis Severino went from potential ace to potential bust back to ace again in the span of 18 months.

Just as several other young Yankees have followed an uneven path, so too can Andujar. Moreover, it’s difficult to really knock Andujar for his performance this year given the situation regarding his injury. The Yankees sounded optimistic after he initially tore his labrum that he could return quickly, but the fact that Andujar returned to the IL so swiftly makes it seem possible that they acted too boldly. Sub-optimal handling of his injury would certainly not put Andujar in any position to succeed, making it almost impossible to draw hard conclusions from his play.

If there’s anything we can take away from Andujar’s 2019, it’s the small margin for error he possesses. The bottom fell out on his bat, and if he’s not hitting, he is basically unplayable. Think of when Aaron Judge hits a small slump, but still produces value by drawing walks, working pitchers, and playing tremendous right-field defense. Andujar cannot contribute in any of those secondary ways. If he doesn’t hit almost exactly as well as he did as a rookie, the Yankees will have every incentive to look elsewhere for production at third base.

Right now, we can see two extremes of Andujar: the view that he was a star-caliber hitter last year, and the view that he is a nightmare this year. Neither is satisfactory. Andujar’s true ability level, whatever it is, almost certainly falls somewhere in the gray middle. He was never a superstar, but he isn’t chopped liver now. He deserves time to recover and a chance to regain his rookie form, without unrealistic expectations from those who thought he was a rookie star last year, or undue pressure from those would who set him aside now.