If the first weekend is any indication, Joe Girardi is going to be extremely pro-active when it comes to doling out rest to his aging veterans. Over the years, the Yankees’ manager has become fond of using the DH slot to give his players a “half day off”, but usually that practice has been reserved for later in the season. This year, however, Girardi has already put his plan into action.
In only the second game of the season, Derek Jeter was allowed to cool his heels in the DH slot before handing the baton to Nick Swisher in the series’ finale. Considering the Captain’s age and Swisher’s sore groin, that seems like a sensible precaution, but, there’s just one problem. The Yankees’ roster was not constructed to facilitate such an aggressive strategy of frequent rest.
When the Yankees were scouring the market for a lefty DH, Raul Ibanez name was at the forefront despite there being other options who figured to have a more potent bat. Ironically, defense was the reason he was the team’s favored choice. After announcing the signing, Yankees’ General Manager Brian Cashman touted Ibanez’ ability to play outfield as a deciding factor. Unfortunately, he doesn’t play it well. The Yankees got a first hand look at that reality on Sunday, when the first ball hit to Ibanez, who hadn’t played right field since 2005, bounced past him and rolled all the way to the wall. As a result, instead of an inning ending out, the Rays were gifted a first inning run.
Sunday’s game wasn’t the first time this weekend the Rays took advantage of a conspicuous member of the Yankees’ defense. On Saturday, Eduardo Nunez was filling in for Jeter at SS, and, sure enough, he too botched the first ball hit his way. This time, the error led to two unearned runs, which eventually proved to be the margin of defeat. Errors are a part of the game, but with Nunez, they happen much too frequently. In only 433 2/3 innings at short stop, the 25 year-old infielder now has 15 errors at the position. Pro-rated over an entire season, that would amount to about 50 errors, which isn’t what you’d expect from a team’s primary backup middle infielder. And, it’s not like Nunez has been the victim of small sample size jitters in the major leagues. As a short stop on the minor league level, his .938 fielding percentage over 2,706 chances doesn’t fit the profile of a sure-handed defensive player.
Eduardo Nunez’ Defensive Statistics in the Minor Leagues
|2006||19||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A-A+||SS||421||37||0.912|
|2007||20||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A-A+||SS||528||33||0.938|
If the Yankees figured on using the DH as a weigh station for their veteran fleet, it begs the question as to why two of the team’s chief backups are such liabilities in the field. Unfortunately, the most obvious answer is the Yankees’ brain trust doesn’t see it that way. If so, Ibanez and Nunez are likely to see more than their fair share of time on the field.
Joe Girardi doesn’t pick the roster, so you can’t blame him for Ibanez’ and Nunez’ defensive shortcomings. Also, considering the age of his best players, there’s no debating his desire to keep them fresh and healthy. However, that doesn’t mean the Yankees have to hold their nose and swallow every time they rely upon their bench for defense. At the very least, Girardi needs to use foresight when allocating rest. For example, the best time to sit one of his outfielders would be with a lefty on the mound. That would allow Andruw Jones, not Ibanez, to play the field without compromising the offense. Of course, such a conflict won’t always be avoidable. In those situations, Girardi will need to balance the defense liabilities of his bench players against their expected offensive contributions. In other words, it might be better to have Jones face a righty then let Ibanez bring his glove out to the field.
Unfortunately, there are currently no alternatives to Nunez, so when Jeter gets his half day off, the Yankees’ pitchers will be forced to hold their breath on balls hit to short stop. Barring the acquisition or promotion of a more suitable defensive player (or the development of Nunez’ offense to the point that it compensates for his poor glove work), Girardi could mitigate some of the risk by simply limiting Nunez’ playing time. However, in order to accomplish that, he would have to give Derek Jeter more full days off. If the plan is to DH Jeter about 40 times, and being the DH really is like getting a half day, then maybe 20 full days off would be a suitable alternative? Using that logic, the Yankees would be able to cut their exposure to Nunez in half. Although Jeter might balk at the proposition, the benefit to the team would be compelling, especially if Girardi only sits his Captain against right handed pitchers.
Whether it’s pro-active planning, utilizing full days off instead of quasi-rest as a DH, or changes to the roster, the Yankees’ can not rely on the likes of Ibanez and Nunez to play defense. It’s only three games into the season, but their shortcomings with the glove have already meaningfully contributed to two losses. Hopefully, Cashman and Girardi view the opening weekend as a wakeup call because too much rest without adequate alternatives on defense could wind up putting the Yankees to sleep.