In case you missed it, the Yankees now have a second baseman playing third base, a third baseman playing shortstop, and a subpar second baseman manning the keystone. It certainly isn’t, as former manager Joe Girardi would say, “what you want.”
Current Yankees skipper Aaron Boone explained that Gleyber Torres would be moved back to second base, primarily due to his defensive struggles at shortstop. Meanwhile, DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela would be the regular third baseman and shortstop respectively, “for the remainder of the season.” Boone also implied that Torres’ struggles have taken an emotional toll on the shortstop as well, saying, “I feel like it’s been a weight on him … I feel like this is something that hopefully can take a little weight off as we move forward.”
In other words, the 24-year-old two-time All-Star who was supposed to be one of the franchise’s cornerstones for a long time may have a confidence problem as the result of his team putting him in a position to fail (more on that in a second). But what can we expect from the team’s new infield alignment?
Urshela is a third baseman with very good hands but with below-average lateral movement. According to Statcast, he has -16 Outs Above (below?) Average moving to his left or right as a third baseman over his career, and FanGraphs rates his Range Runs Above Average at -2.4 as a Yankee. Asking him to now play a position that requires more lateral movement lands me in the department of “I hope I’m wrong,” but I don’t see this going well. (Yes, he made a nice play last night that Torres probably doesn’t make, but it didn’t involve much range.)
Ironically, Gio has been good at coming in and going back on balls in his career, so we’re left with a shortstop who comes in well and goes back well but has the lateral movement capabilities of a monument. In other words, we’re likely to see Derek Jeter without the Hall of Fame bat.
LeMahieu has played a solid third base for the Yankees when called upon, with five OAA in 90 games as a Yankee third baseman. Yet he was unable to play there as recently as August due to a triceps injury, and most would agree that his value to the Yankees is at second base, despite having an off-year with the glove during the shortened 2020 season.
Torres’ glove will be less damaging to the team at second base than at shortstop, to be sure. As Ken Singleton pointed out during Tuesday night’s YES broadcast, small misplays are more likely to be harmless to second basemen than shortstops. If you bobble a ground ball as a second baseman, you usually have time to recover. If you bobble a ball as a shortstop, the batter typically ends up safe due to the fact that a shortstop can’t just flick a quick toss 40 feet as a second baseman can. Despite that, we need to be clear on this point: Gleyber has never been a particularly good second baseman either.
A less-than-stellar second baseman, a third baseman, and a shortstop all playing out of position may be passable if we’re talking about players who do damage in the batter’s box. Alas, the three players in question currently have a combined .372 SLG (league average is .415) and they’re all between the 32nd and 43rd percentile in expected SLG in MLB as well. The trio simply needs to hit the ball harder and do more damage in the box over the last three weeks of the season to justify the defensive alignment.
It’s not a stretch to say that LeMahieu is a better second baseman than Torres, Urshela is a better third baseman than LeMahieu, and Urshela is likely only a slight upgrade at shortstop. Which begs the question, if we’re not even 100-percent sure the overall infield defense is better with the new alignment, then why do it?
My guess (as mentioned above) is solely to prevent Gleyber from having a serious confidence problem if he doesn’t have one already. To state the obvious, I’m not a psychiatrist and I have no idea if Gleyber is struggling from a mental perspective, and it certainly isn’t a judgment of him if he is. Yet, I do think it’s safe to say that putting your 24-year-old star in a position to fail is never a good move, regardless.
And to me, it’s evident that the Yankees did put him in a position to fail. Gleyber had played 138 games as a shortstop in his career coming into this season, and it was clearly a challenge for him (-7 OAA as a shortstop in those 138 games). It should have come as a surprise to no one that at the very least, there needed to be a parachute or a Plan B in the event of him being the full-time shortstop didn’t work out.
The Yankees’ organization didn’t feel that way apparently. They inked the three-time All-Star second baseman LeMahieu to a long-term deal, meaning he’d have to play out of position if Gleyber had problems at shortstop and needed to return to second base (creating the sub-optimal situation the team is in now). Additionally, on April 1st of this season, Tyler Wade was the only other shortstop on the roster and he had only played 35 games there in his big league career at that point. Later, when Torres was out in August, the Yankees elected to start minor league veteran Andrew Velazquez at shortstop more than Wade, which should say something about their confidence in him at the position.
One might think that the only way this could have been avoided is if the team let LeMahieu walk in free agency over the winter. Actually, some of us at the time said that letting LeMahieu walk would be a very unpopular decision but might be the best one for the team under Hal Steinbrenner’s self-restricted limitations. Had the Yankees made Gleyber the full-time second baseman over the winter and acquired a shortstop, the team might be in a better position both right now and long-term. Furthermore, if your position is that the Yankees “had” to sign DJ or incur wrath from the fan base, I would argue that a front office more concerned with fan negativity than with putting the best roster on the field is a bigger problem than the one currently under discussion.
Regardless of the ways in which the Yankees shortstop position could have been handled this past offseason, it wasn’t handled well. That’s not 20/20 hindsight — no one can argue that entering a season without a single MLB-caliber shortstop is a good plan. The Yankees organization went with yet another roll of the dice in a very key aspect of roster construction, and the problems that arose were completely foreseeable. Let’s hope that all players involved can overperform in the small sample size of 17 games so that this one doesn’t really come back to bite the team.