Around the Horn: Corner infielders
Teixeira returns from wrist surgery at first; Johnson at center of third-base plans
With the start of Spring Training just a few weeks away, anticipation is building for the 2014 season. MLB.com will go around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, continuing with this look at the corner-infield spots.
NEW YORK -- Those familiar with the classic Abbott and Costello bit about a confusing baseball lineup will remember that the team's third baseman was named "I Don't Know." That should strike a chord with the Yankees, considering their current uncertainty at the hot corner.
As we examine the corner-infield spots of the club's roster, first base is an easy area to break down: Mark Teixeira is returning from right wrist surgery and, after he missed all but 15 games last year, the Yankees are hopeful that Teixeira can return as a switch-hitting force in the heart of the order.
"I don't have any doubts," Teixeira said recently. "I have to prove to myself that I'm 100 percent, and I hope I'll be 100 percent next month. You won't really know until you go out and play that first game in Spring Training. When someone throws a 95 mph fastball in on your hands, if I can turn on that pitch and have no tightness or no pain, then I know I'm OK."
Teixeira said that he still feels some stiffness in his wrist, but his doctors have told him that is not unexpected so soon after surgery. Teixeira has been hitting off a tee and will begin facing full-speed pitching in February. He does not expect to play in exhibition games until March, putting him slightly behind the rest of the position players.
"Once I'm healthy and I know that I don't have to worry about my wrist anymore, then I'll worry about my swing," Teixeira told the YES Network. "If I'm healthy, then I need to be a 30-home run, 100-RBI Gold Glove [first baseman]. That's what I need to be for my team."
The Yanks have a very thin "Plan B" behind Teixeira, suggesting that they would adjust on the fly if necessary, as they did last year in scooping Lyle Overbay off baseball's scrap heap late in camp.
Kelly Johnson has played a smattering of first base (three games last year), but as we'll examine, he's the centerpiece of their current plan at third base. Minor Leaguer Russ Canzler offers a depth option, and the Yankees thought about having Alfonso Soriano take ground balls at first base last summer; perhaps that's something they'd revisit.
Third base, in the wake of Alex Rodriguez's 162-game suspension, carries a broader cast of characters. At the moment, Yankees people say that they are done with their big spending -- in other words, don't hold your breath for a run at Stephen Drew -- and that they are comfortable going forward pinning their hopes on a platoon that centers around Johnson and Eduardo Nunez.
When the Yanks signed Johnson to a one-year, $3 million contract in December, general manager Brian Cashman described the left-handed-hitting utilityman as "more of a bat than a defender" and said that he could use Johnson every day "if I need to," which sounded like less than a ringing endorsement.
But the Yankees seem to be warming to the idea of giving Johnson a fair crack at third base. His natural position is second base, and he has also played some first base and left field, but Johnson said that he worked hard on improving his skills at third base last year. Rays manager Joe Maddon said that Johnson exceeded his expectations at third.
"I enjoyed it," Johnson said. "It definitely got my heart going and kept me on my toes a little bit, but at the same time, I thought my skills transitioned over there fairly well. In the infield, you've got to catch the ball first and make a good throw.
"It's all the same fundamentals. I definitely need a lot of work and have to come in this spring and find the infield coaches and drag them out there to have them hit me ground balls. I'm far from perfect anywhere, but obviously I don't have the experience at third."
Johnson turns 32 in February, and he batted .235 with 16 home runs and 52 RBIs in 118 games for the Rays last year, compiling a .715 OPS. After knocking on a few doors (Mark Reynolds and Michael Young, to name a pair) in hopes of finding a right-handed platoon bat, the Yanks say they will consider Nunez, who had just a .307 on-base percentage last year and also has a Minor League option remaining.
Barring another transaction, manager Joe Girardi will have flexibility in mixing and matching to fill third base. The Yankees are also bringing Scott Sizemore into camp, and the 29-year-old is scheduled to report early to continue his rehab from a second reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
They also plan to give a solid look to a pair of Minor Leaguers: Dean Anna, a left-handed hitter who batted .331 with 38 doubles and a .410 on-base percentage last year at Triple-A Tucson in the Padres' chain, and Yangervis Solarte, a switch-hitter who hit 23 homers over the last two years at Triple-A Round Rock with the Rangers' top affiliate.