For a 13-year period between 1976 and 1988, the Yankees were lucky enough to trot out one of the greatest players in franchise history to man second base everyday. Even though Willie Randolph's patience at the plate, solid base running and superb fielding prowess weren't as appreciated as they should have been in his playing days, hindsight says that he was worth an average of about four wins above replacement per year. Most players dream of being able to contribute at an All-Star level for 13 consecutive years, but few ever achieve it. At 33 years old, Randolph had done that and still had some gas left in the tank.
However, in his quest to overpay every big name that was willing to come to The Bronx, George Steinbrenner decided to let Randolph walk after the 1988 season and instead signed former Rookie of the Year Steve Sax to play second base. For three years Sax was slightly above average but never quite lived up to Randolph's standard and certainly wasn't good enough to keep the Yankees out of the basement of the American League East. By the end of the 1991 season the team was still a wreck but they were finally making sound baseball decisions thanks to Commissioner Fay Vincent's second most famous ban that prohibited Steinbrenner from being involved with day-to-day operations of the club. With The Boss out of his hair, new general manager Gene Michael was able to rebuild the roster and Sax was one of his first casualties, sending him to the White Sox for a trio of pitchers.
For the next four seasons, the regular gig at second base was assigned to a young prospect named Pat Kelly. As a weak hitter with a decent enough glove, Kelly was born about two or three decades too late. He would have fit right in with a Major League environment that expected its second basemen to simply not make mistakes and advance runners with ground balls and bunts, but by the 90's the bar was raised quite a bit. Before the 1996 season, new Yankees manager Joe Torre wanted a better option so the team signed former National League All-Star and World Series champion Mariano Duncan.
Throughout an improbable season that required many things to bounce the right way for the Yankees, Duncan was a virtual rabbit's foot. Thanks in large part to an astonishingly high .400 batting average on balls in play (about 100 points higher than normal), he hit .340 for the year, by far a career high. However, even with all that luck on his side, he struggled to maintain an average performance level because of his legendary lack of plate discipline (he drew nine walks all year) and less than desirable glovework. The following year, Duncan surprised nobody by plummeting back down to earth and second base was handled by committee. The leader of that committee was Luis Sojo, a career utility infielder that won the hearts of fans with his goofy smile and everyman qualities. On the field, though, he performed at about replacement level, so heading into 1998 the quest for a consistently productive second baseman continued.
The Yankees thought they had their man when they pulled off a major coup by trading four top prospects plus $3 million to the lowly Minnesota Twins for Chuck Knoblauch, a 29-year-old disgruntled player with a superstar resume. Knoblauch was a perennial All-Star and a prototypical leadoff hitter, adept at getting on base and threatening to score when he did. He had also just won his first Gold Glove award and probably deserved several more before that. He came to New York a complete player with seemingly many more years ahead of him but his skills vanished quicker than anybody could have imagined. In his first Yankee season he found a bit of a power stroke, setting a career high in home runs, but his performance declined sharply in every other offensive category. In the playoffs that year he also had a memorable brain fart which cost the Yankees a potentially pivotal Game 2 of the ALCS.
His mental woes continued the following year when he began having trouble reaching first base on routine ground ball plays. It went from bad to worse in 2000 when his inability to make throws inspired Joe Torre to either make him the designated hitter or replace him in late innings with mid-season acquisition Jose Vizcaino. Knoblauch even lost his second base job outright for the playoffs when he became the full-time DH. By 2001, he wasn't allowed anywhere near the position as he was shifted permanently to left field. While he was battling his professional demons the Yankees won three consecutive World Series titles and four consecutive American League pennants so most fans look back at this time and think no harm, no foul. It's still amazing to see how far he fell so quickly.
With Knoblauch banished to the outfield, the Yanks filled his old position by promoting from within again. This time, a young, raw Alfonso Soriano took over. He quickly acclimated to major league pitching, and by 2002 he established himself as a power and speed threat at the top of the lineup, leading the league in hits, runs and stolen bases to go along with his 39 home runs. After a similar season in 2003, it seemed that the Yankees finally solved their second base problem with a player entering his prime and already producing at an All-Star level. Enter the Texas Rangers with an offer that Brian Cashman couldn't refuse. Soriano was sent to Texas in the blockbuster trade that put Alex Rodriguez in pinstripes, a move that filled a vacancy at third base but re-created the old familiar one at second.
To begin the 2004 season, journeyman infielder Enrique Wilson was the everyday second baseman and to put it lightly, he was a disaster. In fact, according to Fangraphs, Wilson is tied for having the worst WAR among position players in Yankees history. Eventually, Joe Torre had the good sense to give the majority of the playing time at second to Miguel Cairo, another journeyman who was merely below average without being disastrous. And that's as many words about the 2004 season as Yankee fans can tolerate so let's move right along. A bad situation got worse in 2005 when the team signed 35-year-old Tony Womack. In his one season in New York, Womack was so bad that he is the man tied with Enrique Wilson for worst all-time WAR among Yankee position players, and in about 150 fewer games, mind you. Thankfully, only about a month of that time was spent playing second base before a promising young prospect named Robinson Cano was called up to fill the position.
So up to this point, with the exception of two great years from Alfonso Soriano, the Yankees covered second base with a patchwork of former stars that quickly declined, young players that never panned out, and aging career backups that didn't deserve an everyday job. Even the most optimistic fans understandably couldn't have expected much from Cano. However, 16 years after Willie Randolph's run of success, they finally found their man. On the surface, Randolph's speed and grace stands in stark contrast to Cano's power and pure hitting ability, but the result is just the same. For the last nine years Cano has steadily improved his glove and plate discipline to the point that he has been worth an average of more than four wins above replacement per year. That put's him in a class that few players ever reach and based on that body of work he'll now earn a quarter billion dollars to play second base for the Seattle Mariners, leaving the Yankees with a problem they're accustomed to at the keystone heading into 2014.
Will newly signed second baseman Brian Roberts find the fountain of youth at age 36 and regain his All-Star form? With a slew of injuries limiting his performance and playing time since 2009, not likely. Will newly christened Top 20 prospect Gosuke Katoh be ready take the job long-term in a few years? After a promising 2013 campaign for the 19-year-old, maybe, but it's still entirely too early to tell. More likely, the Yankees are about to embark on a long and difficult journey to find a second baseman as special as Willie Randolph and Robinson Cano.