Despite the half-billion dollars the New York Yankees slammed down this summer, they still seem to have a half-baked idea of an infield.
For having only four infield spots, they appear to face a far greater number of realistic questions. They also carry more catchers on the 40-man roster (five) than they do MLB-caliber infielders whom they can trust for 162 games.
With the five-year signing of Brian McCann, the Yankees took the best free-agent catcher off the market. And with Gary Sanchez slated to be the starter at Double-A Trenton in 2014, they also have a premier prospect already waiting in the wings.
The three others—Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine and J.R. Murphy—are all more or less MLB-ready, but the Yankees don't need all of them to bridge the longer-term McCann-Sanchez gap.
They definitely don't need as many as three to compete for McCann's 2014 backup job, and they'd be wiser to move one of them in order to bolster the infield in any way they can.
The Arizona Diamondbacks happen to have a surplus of infielders they'd conceivably want to reduce, and they appear willing to move one of their shortstops in return for an extra catcher.
"Our biggest needs in our system are catching," general manager Kevin Towers explained to AZCentral.com's Nick Piecoro when asked Thursday about the idea of trading a shortstop. "If it’s the right, top-notch catching prospect. Someone we could have right behind Miggy [Miguel Montero]. ... We have a lot of bullpen depth, infielders."
Arizona has two talented, young shortstops in 24-year-old Didi Gregorius and 22-year-old Chris Owings, who are competing this spring for the same Opening Day role that would send the loser to Triple-A Reno.
As of Friday, there's no official word on discussions between the Yankees and D-Backs, but the match is a viable one for both parties and could be the smartest move for both before breaking camp.
In terms of the long-term investment, neither team would necessarily want to give up an asset from its talent pool. But if they both have pressing needs for 2014, those same assets ultimately become roster dead weight and positional excess if they aren't starters, and thus represent ideal trade bait.
It was originally the New York team that plays in Queens, with concerns at shortstop, who were linked to the Diamondbacks' two bright prospects.
Source says Mets/Diamondbacks haven’t had any dialogue re: shortstops recently. Sides had checked in at winter meetings.— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) February 27, 2014
He later noted the implausibility of the two as trade partners because Mets backup catcher Kevin Plawecki was not a strong enough pull for a Gregorius or Owings.
He said that a move would necessitate someone more of Travis d'Arnaud's caliber—the projected 2014 starting catcher, making it a much tougher sell for the Mets.
Source says Plawecki wouldn’t be enough for the Diamondbacks. They’re looking more for a d’Arnaud type.— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) February 27, 2014
Diamondbacks want a young catcher in return for one of their young shortstops. But Mets don’t appear to be a fit.
— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) February 27, 2014
Back in early December, the New York Post's Joel Sherman noted that the Yankees had in fact had interest in Gregorius, and he brought up an interesting scenario to consider, which becomes all the more interesting given Jeter's retirement announcement:
Neither Gregorius nor Owings takes the current 2014 Yankees on paper and turns them into AL East favorites. But they could trade for short-term insurance by shifting either Gregorius or Owings to second (or third).
Perhaps what makes this low-risk idea especially attractive is the potential for long-term upside in the Bronx at shortstop—the natural position for both. And ahead of the infield free-agent market in 2015, they'd already have someone in place to fall back on.
Here's what Gregorius and Owings put up in the bigs in 2013:
For one outlook on their 2014 seasons, I've averaged the three sets of projections from Steamer, Oliver and ZiPS data found on FanGraphs:
It's not flashy, but it's premium insurance that could be had at a virtual minimum.
And, again, Arizona is willing to move someone: Besides these top two talents for Arizona, the D-Backs also have six-year veteran backup Cliff Pennington and 23-year-old Nick Ahmed, who made it to Double-A in 2013. As Piecoro points out, "The Diamondbacks are loaded with shortstops."
For the Yankees, Cervelli is the favorite to win McCann's backup job, so Arizona could be looking at Romine or Murphy. Neither has proven capable of handling major league pitching yet, but neither has come close to a full season and they're 25 and 22, respectively.
They've both had solid minor league numbers that could plug them into Arizona's 2014 backup duty—Romine is a career .280 hitter (.748 OPS) in seven minor league seasons, and Murphy is a .266 hitter (.738 OPS) in five years.
Murphy probably has greater upside, and you'd take a chance on him in the longer run given Romine's .207/.255/.296 line in 60 games (148 plate appearances) in 2013.
Though based on Romine's MLB experience, albeit limited, Arizona could also favor him for the immediate backup role and take a chance on developing his swing in a virtually pressure-free environment of Chase Field—we did begin to see flashes of improved ability to hit to all fields as he saw more pitches.
Yanks brass just spent $198 million on two new outfielders, $155 million on a new starting pitcher, $85 million on a new catcher, $9.5 million on two new relievers—but spent the least, just $5 million, on the new second and third basemen combined.
The issue with the offseason spending isn't the large sum of all the contracts. It's the imbalanced distribution of its parts, and how the cheapest fraction reveals the exact area where attention was lacking and where surefire answers are still not yet in place.
Johnson has played 14 games at third in his career, and new second baseman Brian Roberts has almost matched that number in injuries, totaling 192 games of a possible 648 across the past four seasons. And Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter played a combined 32 games in 2013.
There's the inherent doubt of whether Johnson, a 32-year-old career utility man, can adapt to an everyday role at a position he virtually hasn't played. There's the added fear that he'd be called upon to back up first base where he's played even fewer games (three).
Should the Yankees trade a catcher to bolster their infield before Opening Day?
There's the realistic question of whether Brian Roberts, a 36-year-old second baseman, can get through the majority of a full season for the first time since 2009. There's the added anxiety of immediately turning to Eduardo Nunez should either Johnson, Roberts or Teixeira need more than just a few days off. And they have to wonder whether Brendan Ryan could be trusted if he were to see significant time at short.
The Yankees certainly appeared to have spent enough for a championship, and winning or losing those championships, of course, is much more dependent upon the backbone of starting pitching, consistent offense and an effective, reliable pen.
They aren't won or lost on a the basis of a premier infield, and if they ultimately fall short, chances are we won't be lamenting the fact that the Yankees only spent $5 million on the second and third basemen for 2014.
But if and when any of the infield pieces—new or old—begin to fall, having an insurance plan in place can go a long way in six-plus months of everyday baseball.
The Yankees can make an extremely pragmatic move by trading for part of that plan this spring.
All Statistics, metrics and 2014 projection figures courtesy of data from FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
Peter F. Richman is a Featured Columnist for the New York Yankees. You can join him on Twitter: Follow @Peter_F_Richman