When veteran second baseman Brian Roberts agreed to a one-year deal with the Yankees, the first reaction from the team's fan base seemed to be a collective groan. By attempting to replace Robinson Cano with a 36-year-old with a medical sheet that reads like a Tolstoy novel, Brian Cashman and company seemed to be almost begging for a repeat of the nightmares of 2013.
But hey - it's Christmastime. Perhaps a glimmer of hope can be found in even the Scroogiest of Yankee decisions.
It wasn't that long ago that Brian Roberts was one of the better - and more durable middle infielders in baseball. Between 2004 and 2009 he managed fWARs of 3.1 or better in five straight seasons, and he played 138 or more games played in six straight. Back then only a dislocated elbow from a collision with then-Yankee Bubba Crosby in September, 2005 marred his record of otherwise stellar health.
Things began to change in the spring of 2010 when Roberts was sidelined with a herniated disk in his back. Over the next four years, he would spend more time disabled than not, missing major time with injuries to his head, groin, hip and knee. Roberts has succeeded in hurting just about everything a professional athlete can hurt - including, I'm sure, his pride. Between 2010 and 2013, he appeared in just 192 games. His body became a leaky dam of sorts - plug one hole and another bursts open just as fast. For a more in-depth account of what's ailed Roberts, check out Jason's article from last week.
Can Roberts stay healthy for the 2014 Yankees? Four years of concussions, pulls and tears say probably not, but the better question might be if the Yankees should even want him to. When he has played of late, Roberts has done pretty poorly. In those 192 games he took the field for, worth just under a season and a fifth, he accumulated an fWAR of only 1.0. He hasn't matched his career averages in OBP or slugging since 2009 or in wRC+ or walk rate since 2010. His speed and defense have tailed off, too. After averaging 39 steals a year from 2006 through 2009, Roberts has swiped just 22 bags the past four years. He also has a negative cumulative UZR since 2007.
So where are those festive positives I promised? Well, at least in context, 2013 was a sort of uptick for Roberts. The 77 games he played were his highest total in the made-of-glass portion of his career and his 90 wRC+ and .143 ISO were non-horrible. After missing most of the first half with a ruptured tendon behind his right knee, Roberts managed to play often from early July onward without getting hurt again. His play improved consistently as he readjusted to facing major league pitching on a daily basis. After a putrid .602 OPS July, he batted .254/.353/.352 in August and .250/.306/.450 in September.
The Yankees saw a similar thing happen with the oft-injured Eric Chavez in 2011. After failing to play more than 33 games for three straight seasons, Chavez got himself in the lineup fairly consistently in August and September that year. While his performance wasn't great, he was able to re-acclimate himself to the rigors of regular baseball. In 2012, even with his playing time limited, Chavez came back with his best campaign in half a decade.
I'm not suggesting with any confidence that Brian Roberts can actually contribute to the Yankees next season. I'm certainly not advocating that the second base dilemma is solved or that the club should stop looking for something better. Still, Roberts playing a league average second for 100 or 120 games wouldn't be the strangest thing we've seen happen in the Bronx. To make a run in 2014, the Yankees will surely need to see some older players defy their years. Maybe Roberts can be one of them.
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