It was a surreal and unsettling sight on the Yankee Stadium infield Saturday afternoon when the Bombers came out for the top of the 9th. Their infield depth stripped to the bone with Eduardo Nunez again victim of a hit-by-pitch and backup infielder Jayson Nix already removed for a pinch hitter, the Yankees had to call up their contingency plan. That meant that Robinson Cano shifted to shortstop for the first time in his career, and catcher Francisco Cervelli slotted in at second. It was an uneasy reminder of how far away May 1st actually is.
“I knew exactly what I was going to do if we got in that situation,” Joe Girardi told the clubhouse media after the game. “I know what we have. I’ve seen Cervy take enough ground balls in the days that I’ve seen him that he’s actually pretty smooth. If you ever watch him do it, he’s pretty smooth at it.”
Maybe Cervelli really is the next Willie Randolph, but until Derek Jeter proves ready to play every day, that Grand Experiment will have to wait. Right now, the Yankees’ infield depth is razor-thin, and if Nunez’s wrist bone contusion lingers, it might stretch to its limit. With the way things are headed, Nix may come out for his next plate appearance wrapped head-to-toe in bubble wrap.
Unfortunately for the Yankees and their ailing shortstops, reinforcements aren’t going to be easy to come by. For one thing, they’re facing a serious roster crunch. Because neither Jeter nor Nunez is expected to be out long-term (or at least past mid-May, in Jeter’s case), the best short-term solution that doesn’t involve a catcher at second would be to pull from the 40-man.
But it won’t be that simple. Corban Joseph, currently with triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre, is the only eligible infielder who isn’t already in the Bronx or contributing to the problem (see: Jeter, Derek). And though Joseph has a respectable career .791 OPS, the 24-year-old’s defense looked shaky in spring training, when every ball hit his way seemed to turn into an adventure. He’s also never played a game at shortstop. Still, if the Yankees are truly desperate, bringing Joseph up would be the comparatively simplest maneuver. Outfielder Brennan Boesch does have options left, and a two-week switch of the two might give New York the most breathing room.
After Joseph, the search for middle-infield help gets a bit more complicated. The Yankees do have some vaguely big league insurance in 32-year-old Gil Velazquez, who has a total of 75 MLB PAs over four seasons. Velazquez can play three infield positions, including shortstop, but he is also not known for having either a stellar glove or an intimidating bat. With the roster tinkering that would accompany the purchase of his contract, Velazquez’s worth may not be high enough for a short-term fix.
And then there’s Addison Maruszak. Perhaps the most intriguing option of the immediate Scranton Wilkes-Barre infield, Maruszak had a breakout year with double-A Trenton in 2012, hitting .276/.330/.457 with 16 homers and 59 RBIs. He can also play all four infield positions, though he did make 15 errors in 70 games at short last season. The Yankees probably prefer to give him regular playing time, but at 26, Maruszak’s value may begin to lie in his versatility in short bursts at the big league level, rather than as a full-time infielder of the future. Still, like Velazquez, his promotion would require a roster move. With help needed on both sides of the ball as the Bombers wait out their injured superstars, New York can ill afford to lose a potentially important cog this early in the season.
Along those lines, the Yankees could seek help on the trade front, but with Jeter likely back before the middle of May and Nunez scheduled to see action next week, they would be unwise to give away a trade chip for a short-term solution, at least before May hits. If the Yankees are still contenders at the deadline, they may need every piece they have to bolster their roster in the dog days.
Ultimately, therein lies the immediate depth problem. Though teetering on emergency levels at the moment, the relatively short-term nature of the dilemma is keeping the Yankees’ hands tied. Patience and caution are virtues, but they’re also the only options available. If the Yankees panic, they leave themselves vulnerable to weakening another part of their game. It’s not comfortable and it’s not fun, but they really have no other choice. So, for the meantime, they’ll have to keep Nix away from sharp objects, and tell Francisco Knoblauch over there to stay loose.