Entering action on Tuesday afternoon, the Yankees employed one of the worst groups of third basemen in the American League and used a platoon of defensively challenged Kelly Johnson and career minor leaguer Zelous Wheeler there for the first few games after the All-Star Break. Seeking a boost, GM Brian Cashman pulled the trigger on a trade with the Padres for third baseman Chase Headley, a switch-hitter who will take over the everyday reins at the hot corner while providing more hope with the bat and, at the very least, superior defensive prowess. The immediate roster move was right in the trade itself, as the slumping Yangervis Solarte, now relegated to the bench, was one of the players who went to San Diego in exchange for Headley. However, will Headley have more of an impact on the roster than just that?
The acquisition of Headley calls Johnson and Wheeler's spots on the major league roster into question. As previously mentioned, Wheeler is merely a bench utilityman and can easily be optioned back to Triple-A Scranton if the Yankees choose to do so. Johnson, however, offers no such flexibility. Although not as high-profile as the team's other off-season signings, he has been a disappointment as well. A .235/.305/.410, 102 wRC+ hitter with 16 homers last year on the Rays, Johnson has slipped to a .223/.309/.381, 91 wRC+ line with only six homers in 76 games.
Naturally a slightly below average second baseman, the Yankees have used Johnson mostly at the corner positions since they signed Brian Roberts to play second. The problem there is that Johnson had only 16 career games at third and three at first to his name prior to 2014. His inexperience has been on display as he has looked poor at both positions. Headley solves the third base problem, but with Mark Teixeira battling injuries every now and then this year after missing almost all of 2013 with wrist problems, the Yankees should seriously explore a backup first base option beyond Johnson. Headley essentially relegates Johnson to the bench anyway with Teixeira in the lineup, and the Yankees' bench is overflowing with infielders.
In addition to serving as Teixeira's technical backup at first, Johnson is the de facto fourth outfielder, too. (Wheeler also has some minor league experience out there.) That doesn't seem like it should continue, either. With Carlos Beltran unable to play the field right now due to the bone spur in his elbow, former fourth outfielder Ichiro Suzuki has been exposed as an everyday player, just as he was in 2013. Remember when Ichiro was surprising people with an over-.300 average earlier in the season? That was the benefit of platooning him with the now-DFA'd Alfonso Soriano. With Soriano playing his way into a DFA, Ichiro was made an everyday player again in June, and since the beginning of that month, he has been abysmal (.256/.291/.286). His wRC+ on the season has plummeted to 79. That's not an everyday player.
Since Ichiro was fine in a reduced role earlier, it would be fine to platoon him with someone, but it's far from clear whether Johnson is a suitable candidate to be platooned in the outfield given his questionable defense and his own shaky bat. Johnson is playing first base for this series with Teixeira nursing a lat injury, but his role on the team is in doubt. It would be hard to argue with Yankees management if they decided to DFA him to get a more useful bench player on the team who could either share some outfield time with Ichiro or better back up Teixeira at first base. If it's not from someone within the organization (Rob Refsnyder? Jose Pirela? Hell, Kyle Roller?), then we can only hope Cashman is exploring alternatives.
Some might say that Roberts is the one whose plug should be pulled. Signed to a similar low-value, one-year contract as Johnson in the off-season, he has been a very streaky hitter and unimpressive on defense. He's had long at bats, posted 25.5% line drive percentage that ranks among the team's best, and had a high hard-hit rate, the results simply have not been there for the former Orioles All-Star. On the year, he's hit .242/.304/.369 with an 85 wRC+, numbers that aren't that different from Johnson. He doesn't even offer the option of being able to fake it at other positions like Johnson, so it's basically start-or-cut as far as his roster spot goes. If the Yankees wanted a better bench option, they could cut Roberts without enduring many tears from fans and make Johnson the starter at second, his natural position. I don't think that would change Johnson's production much, and he's not really a good defender either, so they could also just bring up Refsnyder to take Roberts's spot, as Refsnyder is hitting .290/.395/.486 with a 146 wRC+ in Scranton.
Regardless of the possible actions the Yankees might take, it is evident that acquiring Headley does more than simply fix the third base starter conundrum. It makes the reserve infielders more expendable, which isn't good for them since they really are not offering the Yankees much versatility off the bench. The team needs better options than starting Ichiro every day or hoping and praying that Johnson can survive at first when Teixeira rests due to injury. We can only hope that the Yankees take advantage of this opportunity and pursue superior options.