The New York Yankees 2015 infield was at times a stunning success in the field and booming at the plate, but by and large, the group produced fine results at two positions and left a lot to be desired at the other two spots. What's in store for the 2016 edition of the Yankees infield?
First and foremost, and for the third-straight season, the Yankees will have to decide what to do at second base. Do they stay in-house with either Dustin Ackley or Rob Refsnyder? Do they create a strict platoon with the two players? Or do the Yankees venture into free agency or the trade market to fill the void?
The Yankees have shown a willingness to allow youth to blend into their roster over the last couple of seasons, so the first alternative is surely a potential outcome in some form. Ackley, 27, will have a spot on the roster (unless he is traded for some reason), as he can be useful at various positions for the Yankees. Refsnyder, who will be 25 next season, made a cameo at the end of the 2015 season and showed he can have success as an everyday player. But, the sample was so small that the coaches and front office might still question what he'd offer long-term.
The top options outside the organization - Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and Howie Kendrick - are all in their early 30s and will come with hefty price tags. Of the short-term coverage options, would the Yankees test Chase Utley for a season? It's doubtful, but not many expected them to stick with Stephen Drew for so long.
On the trade front the Yankees are continuously linked to Martin Prado, who played for the club in the latter half of the 2014 season, and everyone's favorite trade candidate (certainly not mine) Brandon Phillips is always bandied about by rumor mongers.
Whichever way the Yankees go, they would probably receive more stability on offense from the position than they received from Drew and Brendan Ryan. Ryan has a duel option for 2016, so he could still factor in as a backup infielder considering the Yankees covet his defensive abilities. Zobrist, a switch-hitter, represents the best balance of offense and defense from the group of outsiders, and if the Yankees choose the free-agent route, I would suspect he'd be their choice given his pedigree and versatility. I do not suspect another season of stop-gap plug-ins at the position.
Shifting to first base, the Yankees will have Mark Teixeira in the final season of his eight-year, $180 million contract. Teixeira had an impressive and resurgent 2015 season, which was unfortunately cut short by a broken bone in his shin which sidelined him for the final month and a half of the season. Teixeira stroked 31 home runs in just 462 plate appearances and led the Yankees with a .906 OPS (147 OPS+).
The question is how much of the same performance can the Yankees truly expect from Teixeira, given his age and the production they received from him the previous two seasons? Teixeira, who turns 36 on April 11, was the healthiest he's been up until the fluke injury, but that's no guarantee for 2016.
The Yankees will have to decide whether they leave Greg Bird in Triple-A, or figure out a way to get his bat in the lineup to rest Teixeira a bit more often. Bird established himself as a bonafide major league hitter in his stint as Teixeira's replacement, but the club might feel better with him getting reps each day, and only calling upon his services in the event Teixeira lands on the disabled list.
Teixeira's season was a surprise, but he has a lengthy history of those types of performances. At shortstop, the Yankees had little evidence to base their signing of Didi Gregorius on. They were hopeful that some of his offensive upside would turn up if given an entire season of reps, and that his defense would strengthen the club beyond what an aging Derek Jeter provided in 2014.
At the outset of the season, Gregorius made everyone nervous when he was hitting quite poorly, and there was little indication he was going to be the strong up-the-middle defensive presence they needed and expected. Worse, Gregorius was making mental blunders and simply looked out of sorts early on.
Give credit to the Yankees for sticking by Gregorius, who slowly began to reward them. Gregorius' glove work steadied and then he began to make dazzling plays, and dig himself out of the hitting doldrums. At one point in the summer, Gregorius was the Yankees top hitter. Gregorius finished with a .265 batting average, .318 on-base percentage and a .370 slugging percentage in 578 plate appearances, which was over 170 more than he ever had in a season.
There is reason to believe that at 26 years old next season, Gregorius can continue to improve as a hitter. Gregorius' offensive potential combined with the sure-fire defense, gives the Yankees at least one solid piece to the infield puzzle going forward.
At third base, Chase Headley was not nearly as productive as the Yankees hoped he would be as a whole. His bat was basically what they expected (.259/.324/.369, 11 HR, 62 RBI), maybe with a little less thump than they might have hoped for, but his defense, a main reason he was signed, was atrocious for the entire season.
Headley began the season not hitting and throwing away balls at a feverish pace. His swing improved during July and August, but he suffered the same fate as many other Yankees batters in September and October, falling into a major slump. Headley's defense never really came around. He had days where he looked comfortable and even spectacular, but on average Headley was a below-average fielder; making many wonder if he was suffering from a case of the yips.
In my view, the Yankees would be quite pleased with Headley's offense falling in and around the same level (of course they'd like a bump in the power numbers and his on-base percentage), but they would be ecstatic if he plays the defense expected of him and doesn't continue to provide extra outs to the opposition. Headley needs to get back to the days in which he commits half the number of errors over the entire season than the 23 he racked up in 2015, or else his contract will be deemed a complete disaster.
I mentioned Ryan as a potential utility player, and because of his inexpensive price tag, defensive prowess, and the club's fondness for him, it seems a no-brainer that he'll be on board again in 2016. Ackley can fill in at second, first and the outfield positions, making him a candidate for some at-bats even if the Yankees tab Refsnyder as the starting second baseman, or they go outside the organization to fill the slot.
While Ryan being on the roster makes sense as a defensive replacement, or a day off every so often, Ackley provides the opposite. Ackley can contribute some pop off the bench, or fill in for extended periods if he's not the everyday second baseman or the larger part of a platoon with Refsnyder.
The Yankees look to be ready to improve at second base no matter their course of action, steady at first base and shortstop and hopeful for bigger contributions from third base and the utility infielders. The group could play a big part in assisting the Yankees to advance further in the 2016 playoffs, or once again leave fans wanting more.
Much like the Yankees starting rotation and the outfield, there are plenty of questions about the next incarnation of the club's infield which cannot be fully answered until long into next season.