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Finding positives in the already-maligned Brian Roberts

Like it or not, Roberts is the Yankees' second baseman for the foreseeable future. Before fans decide to bury Roberts entirely prior to his first official game, what benefits could he bring to the team?

Scott Iskowitz

Since the very moment that news of Brian Roberts's signing with the Yankees hit Twitter, the reaction to him stepping into the comparatively-Shaq-sized shoes of Robinson Cano at second base has been, shall we say, less than positive. It's difficult to blame fans for being skeptical about Roberts. His laundry list of faults is not short:

  • Following an outstanding 159-games, 56-double campaign for the Orioles in 2009, Roberts has missed 456 out of 648 possible games due to an injury history that just about runs the gamut of the human body: concussion, hip surgery, abdomen strain, hamstring surgery... Roberts has seen it all and is liable to break for good at any moment, a la Kevin Youkilis.
  • In 2013, when he actually did appear in his most games since '09 (77), he was not remarkable at age 35: .249/.312/.392, 90 wRC+, and 0.9 fWAR. Yay.
  • Despite his record, the Yankees gave him a $2 million major league deal for 2014, making it less likely that they would cut ties with him if it goes south in a hurry. You thought it took the Yankees too long to cut Ben Francisco last year? Roberts would probably get an even longer leash.
  • Roberts is almost certainly going to get hurt at some point, and the Yankees don't have much in the way of legitimate backup for him at second with Kelly Johnson set to start at third base.

All of these points have been hammered by pretty much every media source from national columnists to bloggers. They're simply the facts and cannot be ignored in any proper analysis of the embattled former All-Star at this point in his career. So is there any faint glimmer of hope for Roberts, or should Yankees fans just continue to rip into him with no regard for anything he could bring to the table?

It would not be surprising to see the Yankees run into problems with lefthanded pitching in 2014 since so many of their crucial lineup cogs are lefthanded themselves (Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Kelly Johnson). Roberts could help there--he's a switch-hitter and last year hit .284/.327/.441 with a 109 wRC+ against southpaws last year, commendable numbers for an infielder. Unfortunately, he wasn't nearly as good against righties, hitting a meager .227/.303/.362 with a 79 wRC+. Obviously that's not very good, but Roberts's splits get more interesting when spread out over the course of his entire 13-year career.  The tables are turned: .288/.357/.433 with a 109 wRC+ against righties compared to a .262/.342/.378 with a 92 wRC+ against lefties. Whether you put more stock in career numbers than the most recent season or vice versa, Roberts offers at least some hope. For the optimists, the evidence that there is a record of success against both sides of the platoon is certainly encouraging.

Roberts also does not stand to hurt much on defense or on the bases. He's a plus-defender and baserunner for his career, though currently, he is more of an average defender and baserunner than anything else since he's in his mid-30s. By FanGraphs measures, he had a 5.1 UZR/150 and 0.4 BsR year, both figures that equate to roughly league average. He's not going to be a better defender than the Gold Glove-caliber Cano, but he's arguably a better baserunner. Stolen bases aren't the only factor of baserunning ability; his injury history has slowed his basestealing skills to only four attempts last year, but Roberts is still capable of taking the extra base, going first to third, and avoiding outs on the bases. These are all crucial "little things" that will snatch an extra run here or there and are undoubtedly valuable.

As for Roberts's injury history, I offer a story of recent Yankees history that many people seem to have suddenly forgotten:

During the 2010-11 off-season, the Yankees brought in a veteran infielder with an ugly injury history who had spent his entire stellar career to date with one team. He had missed 494 of his team's 648 games over the previous four seasons due to a myriad of injuries, from his back to his shoulder and elbow. Regrettably, his 2011 was not much different--he spent time on the 60-day DL due to a broken foot and only posted an 80 wRC+. The Yankees liked him enough as a reserve infielder anyway to bring him back for a second try in 2012. He had not played in only 212 of his teams' previous 810 games. There was little reason for hope that he could stay healthy, but damn it if he didn't notch a surprising turnaround in 2012. He appeared in 113 games, his most in six years, and posted a superb .281/.348/.496 triple slash with a 126 wRC+. He ended up starting more games than expected and it turned out fine anyway. In fact, when another time signed him away from the Yankees during the 2012-13 off-season, there was an outcry from a fair amount of fans that the Yankees were fools to let him go with their starting third baseman scheduled to begin 2013 on the DL. They thought he could still get the job done as a starter.

By now, you've probably realized that the man is Eric Chavez. I definitely remember grumblings that they should have convinced Chavez to not move closer to his family with the Diamondbacks and instead bring him back for another campaign in 2013. If some people felt Chavez was a legitimate option to start at third despite his long injury history, why are they so bearish on Roberts? Yes, the Yankees are asking more of Roberts than they did of Chavez and injury is probable, but Chavez proved it is possible for the old, injury-prone infielder to somehow stay healthy enough to appear in at least 110 games (and he could very well have appeared in more, but he didn't need to since Alex Rodriguez was the starter).

Can't we have at least some hope that Roberts stays healthy enough to appear in that games? Sure, there were probably better options the Yankees should have signed from the free agent market instead of Roberts (looking at you, Jeff Baker), but it's all hindsight at this point. It's better to look forward. If Roberts only matches his 2013 offensive production in roughly as many plate appearances as Chavez had in 2012 for the Yankees, it would be roughly league average compared to the other 37 qualifying second basemen from 2013. Given his fine playing career and experience, it's more likely that Roberts could be league average as a starter than other second basemen in camp like career minor leaguers Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte, neither of whom are exactly piping hot prospects anyway. It's a cynical, self-fulfilling prophecy to just dislike Roberts before he gets injured or even plays a single official game for the Yankees. Let's at least see what he does at the plate and if he can stay healthy before piling on the guy.