Yankees fans are lucky enough to be able to point to the team's past and lay claim to one of the best players in baseball history at almost every position. An all-time Yankees team would have little debate over most of the positions.
Catcher? Take your pick between Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey; the other could DH. First base? Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse (of course, of course). Shortstop? Numbah two, Derek Jeter. The outfield would have a star-studded trio of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. Whitey Ford would take the mound, and Mariano Rivera would be prepared to close it out. Third base is a bit more unclear, but there are only two legitimate possibilities. It's a simple matter of opinion: if you don't have problems with Alex Rodriguez, then he is the obvious fit for third, but if you do, then Graig Nettles is your substitute.
However, the second base position is the only one where there is no clear answer. Had Robinson Cano returned to the Yankees, then he almost certainly would have been the second baseman on the all-time team, but now that his Yankees' tenure has drawn to a sudden end at nine years, the debate is back on: who is the greatest second baseman in Yankees history? With all due respect to the team's leading World War II-era hitter, Snuffy Stirnweiss, super-utilityman Gil McDougald (who only spent 599 games at second), and the well-regarded but poor-hitting Bobby Richardson, it comes down to four second basemen: Cano, Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri and Joe Gordon, and the man who played more games at second than any other Yankee in history, Willie Randolph. The SparkNotes version of each All-Star's impressive resume:
Owner of one of the most fantastic nicknames to ever grace this planet, "Poosh ‘Em Up Tony," Lazzeri was the first star of an influx of West Coast Italian talent to dazzles Yankee fans. He first rose to notoriety in baseball circles as a 21-year-old on the Pacific Coast League's Salt Lake City Bees, with whom he hit an eye-popping 60 homers in 1925. Upper management around the game feared that epilepsy would affect him, but the Yankees and general manager Ed Barrow decided to purchase him anyway after the '25 season, for the then-staggering price of $50,000. He was a shortstop in Salt Lake City, but manager Miller Huggins shrewdly decided that he would make a better second baseman. Lazzeri went on to play 1,659 games for the Yankees at second, a record that stood for over 50 years and still ranks second all-time.
Lazzeri burst onto the major-league scene in '26 with a superb rookie campaign; he hit .275/.388/.462 with 28 doubles, 14 triples, 18 homers, a 107 wRC+, and a near-three-win season by WAR measures. The righty's 117 RBI were second only to the incomparable Ruth and earned him his fantastic moniker. Had the award existed, Lazzeri would have deserved significant consideration for the AL Rookie of the Year. His only disappointment in '26 occurred in Game 7 of the World Series, when hungover future Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander famously struck him out while the Cardinals clung to a one-run lead with the bases loaded and two outs. The Yankees lost the series, but an outstanding career was born.
Over the next 12 years, Lazzeri was the Yankees' starting second baseman for five World Series championship teams, including the devastating Murderers' Row squad in '27. He hit his peak early from '27-'29, a three-year stretch in which he hit .331/.404/.525 with 96 doubles, 46 homers, and posted a 143 OPS+. Combined with his solid glove at second, it helped him produce 18.7 rWAR in just 416 games. He took a slight step back to just "good" with a 111 OPS+ from 1930-31, but rebounded with back-to-back 135 OPS+ campaigns in '32 and '33. His strong campaign in '33 helped him earn a spot on the American League's team in the inaugural All-Star Game. Unfortunately, it was his only selection to the Midsummer Classic, as his last four years in pinstripes brought forth a slow decline.
By '37, Lazzeri had fallen to below league-average at the plate, even though he was still a decent defender. He had a last hurrah in the '37 Fall Classic, when he said farewell to Yankees fans with a .400/.526/.733 series in the five-game victory over the New York Giants. Just five days after the victory though, the Yankees released him. Tough break. He joined the Cubs as a backup and got to experience how the Yankees steamrolled their opponents those days first-hand when he faced his old teammates and they swept his Cubs in the '38 World Series. After one more season split between the Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, Lazzeri's 14-year career was over. A heart attack sadly cut his life short at age 42 in 1946, but he was inducted into the Hall of Fame via the Veteran's Committee in 1991.
Long before the reliever Tom Gordon went by "Flash," Joe Gordon was baseball's original "Flash" Gordon. Another California kid, Gordon was scouted by the same Yankees scout who recruited Lazzeri, Bill Essick. The Yankees signed the 21-year-old prior to the '36 season and assigned him to their PCL affiliate, the Oakland Oaks. As a shortstop, he hit .300 with a .411 slugging percentage and was invited to Spring Training in '37 to work on a conversion to second base, given that shortstop Frankie Crosetti was entrenched at the position and Lazzeri would soon need a replacement. The veteran graciously showed him the tricks of the trade, and thanks to Lazzeri's tips, Gordon became arguably the smoothest-fielding second baseman in Yankees history. The Yankees were lucky enough to have a future Hall of Fame second baseman immediately take over for another; Gordon debuted in '38 with an excellent 25-homer, 108 wRC+ season.
Again like Lazzeri, Gordon wasted no time reaching a high level of play. By his sophomore season, he was a six-win player, and he had an incredible five-year peak from 1939-43: .282/.368/.478 with 147 doubles, 117 homers, a 128 OPS+, and 32.3 rWAR. His '42 campaign was easily the greatest of his career, a near-nine-win season by fWAR standards (8.2 rWAR) in which he hit .322/.409/.491 with a .423 wOBA and 152 wRC+. The sportswriters jobbed Ted Williams out of the AL MVP, but it's not as though Gordon had a bad season. The Yankees went to the World Series five times during the six-time All-Star's seven years as a Yankee, winning four titles. When I assigned World Series MVPs to the Yankees' triumphant teams prior to '56, I determined that Gordon would have won the '41 Fall Classic honors, since he hit .500/.667/.929 against the Dodgers in that five-game victory.
Unfortunately, Gordon was one of many players whose primes were interrupted by World War II. He missed his Age 29 and Age 30 season serving abroad, and his 112-game Age 31 season upon his return in '46 was basically a wash since, like DiMaggio, his timing was all off. That subpar year was Gordon's last in pinstripes. GM George Weiss saw an opportunity to acquire pitcher Allie Reynolds from the Indians in the off-season in a straight-up exchange for Gordon, and he seized it. It was the rare trade to work beautifully for both clubs. Reynolds went on to a stellar eight-year career in pinstripes, and Gordon recharged with back-to-back nigh-seven-win campaigns in Cleveland, helping the franchise win its last World Series in '48. Although his playing career ended at age 35 after just 11 seasons and he passed away in ‘78, the Veteran's Committee inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
As previously mentioned, no one in Yankees history has ever played more games at second than Willie Randolph, and his career didn't even begin in pinstripes. Born in South Carolina, Randolph's family moved to Brooklyn, and after starring at Samuel J. Tilden High School, the Pirates drafted him in the seventh round of the 1972 MLB Draft. He was so impressive in the minors that he never spent more than a season at any level and made his debut with the Bucs in July of '75. His career in the Steel City would only last 30 games though; in perhaps the shrewdest of all the brilliant deals made by Yankees president Gabe Paul during his tenure, he convinced the Pirates to add Randolph in as a throw-in for an initially straight-up swap of Doc Medich for Ken Brett (the Yankees later agreed to take on Dock Ellis's contract to sweeten the pot).
The 21-year-old Randolph set up shop at second base, quickly impressed with a pair of back-to-back All-Star seasons in '76 and '77, and would not leave the Yankees until 1989. Although his batting average typically ranged between .265-.280, his greatest value at the plate came from his patience. In a time when on-base percentage was not nearly as well-appreciated as it is today, Randolph routinely ended the year with a walk rate around 13% that led to his OBP finishing about 100 points higher than his batting average. When he was on the bases, Randolph also brought an element of speed to the game, ending his Yankees career in second place on their steals leaderboard at 251, trailing only the incomparable Rickey Henderson (Derek Jeter has also since passed them). Randolph was a brilliant defensive second baseman who somehow never won a Gold Glove despite ending his Yankeeas career with 16.3 dWAR and a FanGraphs Defense toal of 143.9.
The Yankees' lineup was led by sluggers like Graig Nettles and Reggie Jackson, but Randolph carved a niche by simply being a steady and remarkably durable cog in the lineup on a team that won a pair of World Series titles, four AL pennants, and five AL East crowns from 1976-81. His superb plate discipline allowed him to regularly finish seasons with an OPS+ slightly above league average despite a middling batting average and not much power. He averaged about a four-win season per year mostly due to his patience at the plate and his excellent defense, peaking in 1980 with a 6.6 rWAR year. Randolph led the AL in walks that year with 119 and ended with a .294/.427/.407 triple slash, good for a 140 wRC+.
Six years later, he was granted a great honor when the Yankees appointed him and ace Ron Guidry co-captains in 1986. Although his co-captaincy got off to a good start with another steady season in '86 and an All-Star 127 wRC+ campaign in '87 (his fifth as a Yankee), he slipped to a career-worst .230/.322/.300 triple slash in '88. He was a free agent after the season, and the Yankees decided to let him walk at age 34. Randolph spent four more years in the game, reaching highlight with an All-Star season with the Dodgers in '89, an AL pennant with the Athletics in '90, a surprising four-win campaign with the Brewers in '91, and a final hurrah back in New York with the Mets in '92. Shortly after his retirement, he joined the Yankees' front office, then became the third-base and infield coach for four World Series champions from 1996-2000. Hats off to Willie Randolph, one of the most underrated players in Yankees history.
Cano was another quiet acquisition by the Yankees, who signed him as an 18-year-old in January 2001 for $100,000 a few months after he graduated high school in his Dominican Republic baseball factory hometown of San Pedro de Macoris. He only hit .230 with a .695 OPS in his first year at Rookie ball; no one saw anything big coming from Cano. Even as his hitting skills slowly improved while he rose through the ranks, he was never placed on a list of Top 100 prospects or anything like that. In 2004 though, he broke out with a .796 combined OPS between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Columbus, and he was off to a red-hot .333 start with Columbus in '05 when the Yankees called him up on May 3rd to shake up the roster following a sluggish beginning.
Although his defense was clearly a work in progress, Cano's abilities with the bat proved he belonged. He hit .297/.320/.458 with 34 doubles and 14 homers, good for a 105 wRC+ and a runner-up finish to Athletics closer Huston Street in AL Rookie of the Year voting. From the time the Yankees called Cano up to the end of the season, they went 84-52, ending the year with their seventh straight AL East division title. In '06, Cano made his first All-Star team, and his .342 average finished third in the AL behind teammate Derek Jeter and Twins catcher Joe Mauer as the Yankees won another division title. Cano also reached 40 doubles in a season for the first time, a milestone he would reach seven times with the Yankees, a franchise record. He missed 35 games with a hamstring sprain that year, but for the rest of his Yankees tenure, he was unbelievably healthy. From 2008-13, he played in 1,120 out of the Yankees' 1,134 games, a remarkable 98.7% of total games played.
Vast improvements to his defense boosted him to a 6.7 rWAR player in '07, so the Yankees decided to lock him up and buy out some of his potential free agency years by signing him to a four-year, $28 million extension with a $14 million option for 2012 and a $15 million option for 2013. People often cite Evan Longoria's initial six-year, $17.5 million extension with three club options in 2008 as one of the most valuable deals in baseball history, but Cano's extension has to be considered in this high echelon as well. For while he slumped miserably in '08, Cano's performance from 2009-13 was positively electric.
Cano hit .314/.369/.530 with a 137 OPS+, averaging 196 hits, 45 doubles, and 28 homers per season, an incredible peak for a second baseman. He started four All-Star Games in a row, won four Silver Sluggers in a row, took home a pair of Gold Gloves, and finished within the top six for AL MVP each year from 2010-13. Cano produced 34.2 rWAR, 29.4 fWAR, and $132.1 million of value by FanGraphs measures. Meanwhile, the Yankees won the World Series in '09, came up two games shy of the Fall Classic in 2010 despite a four-homer ALCS by Cano against the Rangesrs, and made the playoffs four years out of five with three ALCS berths. This era of incredible second base production is likely at its end with Cano about to sign a monster 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners, but it was an incredibly run while it lasted. The Yankees' lineup just won't be the same without their hard-hitting second baseman.
To sum up, here is a direct comparison of the Yankees' four great second basemen:
It really is a difficult choice to determine the best second baseman out of these four players. The best pure hitter is likely Cano since he easily had the most power and was very consistent about getting his hits, too. However, defense certainly counts, and despite his '07 improvements, it took Cano a few years to stop being atrocious on defense.
I will grant that 2010-13 Cano was probably the greatest second baseman in Yankees history, but overall, it's much tougher to decide. You really can't go wrong with anyone you pick. Lazzeri was a terrific hitter and fielder who played longer than anyone except the light-hitting Randolph. Gordon's career was shortened due to World War II, but his high caliber of play on offense and defense from 1939-43 comes surprisingly close to 2010-13 Cano. It's understandable to add caveats to those older players' numbers though: the '30s were an exceptional period for offense and neither Lazzeri or Gordon ever had to play integrated ball against non-white opponents or go through exhausting West Coast travel during their Yankee years. Gordon's last two huge years in '42 and '43 occurred while the MLB talent pool was quickly depleting due to the military enlistments. Then again, Randolph was not nearly as talented a hitter as the rest of the bunch, and as previously mentioned, Cano was inconsistent on defense until the latter half of his nine-year career.
In the end, I think Lazzeri had the best overall Yankee career. He was their starting second baseman for 12 years and while he did play in an era of high offense and non-integrated ball, his numbers just can't be ignored. He didn't have Gordon or Cano's home run power, but no one even approaches Lazzeri's 115 triples, either. He was simply a strong all-around player who did just about everything right. Had Gordon or Cano played another season or two, I think they would have passed Lazzeri, but alas. "Poosh 'Em Up Tony" gets my vote.
Who do you think was the greatest second baseman in Yankees history?
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