"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Denial Ain’t Just A River In Egypt

While I was trapped in a small room and chained to BP07, the Yankees made three moves which directly impact their 25-man roster for the coming season. Among the comments to my previous post were a few requests for me to weigh in on those three moves, which, having been so gently prodded, I intend to do. I need to shake off some rust and get back in fighting shape here, so I’ll start with the least significant of the three, the decision to re-sign infielder Miguel Cairo for $750,000 for the coming season.

One can infer my initial reaction from what I wrote about Cairo in my infield post mortem back in November:

The Yankees got something of a career year out of Cairo in 2004, then botched resigning him, leading to the eminently regrettable Tony Womack deal. Cairo fell back to replacement level as a Met in 2005, but Brian Cashman, perhaps overeager to right the previous offseasons’s supposed wrong, rather than considering Cairo a bullet dodged, gave him a million-dollar contract for 2006. Cairo rewarded Cashman’s good deed by repeating his Met performance almost exactly. Here’s hoping the Yankees have learned their lesson.

That lesson, of course, being: Cairo’s 2005 was a fluke, move on. Sadly, that lesson has gone unheeded.

Lamenting the state of the Yankee bench in recent years, I took a look at the Yankee reserves over the entire Joe Torre era, which now consists of eleven full seasons. Here are the Yankees’ primary middle infield reserves over that period:

Name Years G PA NYY Career 2B Rate2 SS Rate2
Andy Fox 1996-1997 135 259 .200/.290/.264 .239/.324/.338 86 92
Luis Sojo 1996-2001 271 787 .262/.296/.330 .261/.297/.352 102 99
Homer Bush 1997-1998 55 89 .378/.414/.451 .285/.324/.358 106 90
Wilson Delgado 2000 31 51 .244/.314/.333 .251/.314/.314 98 106
Clay Bellinger 2000 98 209 .207/.288/.370 .193/.257/.363 115 80
Jose Vizcaino 2000 73 191 .276/.319/.333 .270/.318/.346 101 104
Enrique Wilson 2001-2004 264 636 .216/.261/.332 .244/.288/.350 90 98
Erick Almonte 2003 31 111 .260/.321/.350 .269/.327/.365 n/a 73
Miguel Cairo 2004, 2006 203 652 .271/.313/.380 .268/.316/.361 102 100
Nick Green 2006 46 82 .240/.296/.387 .243/.312/.351 102 101

Rate2 is fielding Rate adjusted for league and normalized over time; Rate2 stats are career, G, PA, and NYY stats are for the given seasons with the Yankees only

What stands out here is that, outside of Homer Bush’s small sample success (exposed by his career averages), nothing here stands out. Quick find the .330 OBP and the .390 SLG outside of Bush’s small sample numbers. Found it yet? There are two ways to look at this. The first is to consider the selection of reserve infielders an organizational blind spot. The second is to consider that the Yankees have made the playoffs for eleven straight years, been to six World Series, and won four championships with a consistent level of production from their reserve infielders. In other words, maybe that level of production is enough.

Here’s a look at the middle infield reserves of the other seven 2006 playoff teams:

Name Team G PA 2006 Career 2B Rate2 SS Rate2
Omar Infante Tigers 78 245 .277/.325/.416 .251/.297/.389 100 107
Ramon Santiago Tigers 43 86 .225/.244/.262 .227/.292/.299 95 101
Neifi Perez Tigers 21 70 .200/.235/.215 .268/.298/.376 107 111
Luis Rodriguez Twins 59 132 .235/.315/.322 .255/.327/.359 104 122
Juan Castro Twins 50 164 .231/.258/.308 .233/.272/.340 104 106
Marco Scutaro A’s 117 423 .266/.350/.397 .258/.316/.390 100 95
Aaron Miles Cardinals 135 471 .263/.324/.347 .280/.322/.360 99 94
Hector Luna Cardinals 76 245 .291/.355/.417 .276/.330/.397 91 104
Geoff Blum Padres 109 299 .254/.293/.366 .251/.312/.389 94 106
Mark Bellhorn Padres 115 288 .190/.285/.344 .231/.342/.396 100 94
Todd Walker Padres 44 142 .282/.366/.419 .289/.349/.437 94 n/a
Ramon Martinez Dodgers 82 194 .278/.339/.364 .270/.330/.381 102 103
Julio Lugo Dodgers 49 164 .219/.278/.267 .277/.340/.402 96 102

G and PA columns are 2006 only

Largely more of the same. Todd Walker has played just four innings at shortstop in his career and is a brutal defensive second baseman. Mark Bellhorn is finished, as he was when he came to the Yankees in 2005. Julio Lugo is a starter who was unhappily moonlighting as a reserve in L.A. Hector Luna, Omar Infante, and Marco Scutaro are all still shy of free agency. Take those players off the board and Ramon Martinez looks like a winner in the remaining group. Here’s the 34-year-old Martinez and the 32-year-old Cairo up close:

Name Year G PA AVG/OBP/SLG Career 2B Rate2 SS Rate2
Ramon Martinez 2006 82 194 .278/.339/.364 .270/.330/.381 102 103
Miguel Cairo 2004, 2006 203 652 .271/.313/.380 .268/.316/.361 102 100

G, PA, and AVG/OBP/SLG columns are for the given seasons

Sure those extra 15-to-25 points of on-base percentage would be nice to have, but that’s about the extent of the gripe here. For the most part, middle infielders better than Cairo and Martinez are in demand as starters and thus once they become free agents will fill voids on teams with a replacement level starter. That means that the only real hope of fielding a superior replacement is to grow one yourself.

There were two exceptions in this winter’s free agent class. The following are the only meaningfully above replacement middle infielders that signed with teams were they weren’t guaranteed to start:

Name Team G PA 2006 Career 2B Rate2 SS Rate2
Mark Loretta Astros 155 703 .285/.345/.361 .299/.363/.402 104 98
Tony Graffanino Brewers 129 511 .274/.345/.406 .269/.338/.396 106 97

Either of these players would have been far preferable to Cairo because of both their ability at the plate and their greater experience at third base (Loretta: 171 games, 95 Rate2; Graffanino: 156 games, 97 Rate2; Cairo: 81 games, 90 Rate2). Graffanino, a Long Island native, would have seemed like a natural fit. But then both of these players are used to getting significant playing time. Cario and Nick Green made a combined 326 plate appearances last year. Loretta, who is backing up a 41-year-old second baseman and a shortstop who can’t hit, has come to the plate more often in every season since 1996. Graffanino, who is backing up a pair of injury-prone youngsters, has seen more action in each of the last two seasons.

Meanwhile, here’s one middle infielder who did land a starting job as free agent this winter:

Name Team G PA 2006 Career 2B Rate2 SS Rate2
Alex Gonzalez Reds 111 429 .255/.299/.397 .246/.292/.392 n/a 94

There’s just not that much out there.

On the farm, Andy Cannizaro is just more of the same and would be a 28-year-old rookie this season. Ditto non-roster invitee Chris Basak. Past roster-filler Flex Escalona and Russ Johnson remain free agents. Escalona slipped back down to Double-A last year and, while Johnson has done little other than hit in his two years in the Yankee system, the organization seems to have little use for him, which suggests that as he enters his mid-30s he’s limited to third base defensively. All of which makes the system seem pretty barren, though you must remember that it did produce Robinson Cano just two years ago.

Of course the big concern over the Cairo signing is, “what if Jeter or Cano get hurt and he has to start.” Well, Jeter missed almost a month and a half at the beginning of the 2003 season, the Yankees replaced him with Erick Almonte, who has since fallen all the way to the independent leagues at age 28, and went 26-11 in his absence, building up a three-game lead in the AL East. In 2000, Chuck Knoblauch missed more than a month and the Yankees went 25-15 with Luis Sojo and Jose Vizcaino filling in, doubling their three game lead in the East over that stretch. Last Year, Robinson Cano missed a similar amount of time and the Yankees went 23-11 with Cairo and Green at the keystone and turned a 2.5 game deficit in the division to a 2 game lead. That’s not to say that those players aren’t valuable, but that, as the above attempted to illustrate, it’s not a disaster to field a replacement level player in the middle infield for a while.

Besides which, the Yankees happen to have one of the best keystone combinations in baseball. Derek Jeter was a legitimate MVP candidate last year and is a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer and Robinson Cano is the best second baseman in the American League and likely second only to Chase Utley in all of baseball. The Yankees are not going to be able to properly replace either of those players regardless of the quality of their backup. The best they can do is hope to maintain some baseline level of ability in their absence. Miguel Cairo is the definition of that baseline.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver