The Utility Infielder Competition

Nunez is probably the frontrunner, despite past struggles.
Nunez is probably the frontrunner, despite past struggles.

We’ve already profiled some of the non-roster invitees at Spring training, and also broken down the starting catcher battle. Today, let’s evaluate the suitors for the utility infield position. The candidates aren’t all that great, but then again, this is a backup role. It will be a vital position for the Yankees, however, since Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis, and even Alex Rodriguez will need some time at DH or on the bench.

There are four players likely to be considered for the position. Two of them, Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix, are very familiar given past experience with the Yankees. The other two, Gil Velazquez and Addison Maruszak, are on the outside looking in, but will still probably get a look nonetheless.

Nunez has been a polarizing figure for the Yankees in recent years. It’s pretty evident that management is a big fan of him, despite his poor playing drawing ire from objective observers. Although the club declared him as a full-time shortstop after a demotion mid-2012, thinking it would help resolve some of his defensive woes, he’s back to being considered a utility man.

The biggest flaw in Nunez’ game, strong emphasis on biggest, is his defense. He is well below average per UZR at second base, third base, and shortstop. It doesn’t take advanced metrics to show this, though, as he accumulates errors like kids piling up candy on Halloween. Moreover, he’s already up to his old tricks early in Spring Training. Offensively, Nunez doesn’t offer much. A career 88 wRC+ in 491 career plate appearances is nothing to write home about, and his only above average wRC+ season in the minors came in 2009. The two positives in his offensive game are his speed and contact. He’s 38/46 in stolen bases at the major league level, and only strikes out 10.4% of the time. ZiPS projects Nunez to post a paltry .292 wOBA.

Nix is more reliable defensively than Nunez, but isn’t much of a hitter himself. He’s primarily played second and third in his career, but has a decent chunk of time at shortstop. Depending at what metrics you look at, he’s essentially your middle of the road defensive infielder. He’s a plus at second base, where DRS and UZR rate him well. At third, DRS has Nix above average, while UZR has him right at the midpoint. Short is his worst position, by far. I would say this could be his candidacy’s downfall, considering Jeter will need time off, but look who he’s competing against in terms of fielding. Offensively, ZiPS likes Nix to post a .291 wOBA in 2013, virtually identical to Nunez.

On the outside looking in are non-roster invitees Velazquez and Maruszak. Let’s take a look at what Chris had to say about the two of them in his previous article. First, Velazquez:

Velazquez is a 33-year-old journeyman infielder who’s only seen minimal time in the majors. He has hit well in AAA the last couple of years and can play second, third, and short. Velazquez might be useful in a pinch, but has literally no upside. He’ll probably spend most of the year in AAA but may see some time in the Bronx if the Yankees need short-term infield depth.

Maruszak:

Maruszak is already 26 and has yet to make it out of AA. The clock is ticking on his career.  He can play all over the infield though and did have a minor breakout last season (117 wRC+) so there’s reason to be optimistic. He’ll probably head to AAA and may get a cameo if there’s an injury or two in the infield. He’s in the same boat as Gil Velazquez.

ZiPS projects Velazquez to hit .273 in terms of wOBA, and overall be replacement level. There’s no ZiPS projection for Maruszak, but Oliver foresees a .303 wOBA which is probably a bit optimistic.

The safe choice for the job would be Nix. He can’t hit, but we also know that he’s not going to have a defensive meltdown, potentially costing a game. Even if Nunez is a slightly better hitter, his defensive play negates any contributions at the dish. Nix isn’t currently on the 40-man roster, but could be easily added with the transition of Manny Banuelos or Michael Pineda to the 60-day disabled list.

While I prefer Nix, I expect Nunez to be given nod knowing the organization’s affinity for him. There’ll be plenty of time for him to get at bats considering the need to rest the vets on the left side of the infield, plus he may get some run as the DH vs. lefties. He hasn’t done anything to warrant yet another opportunity, but the Yankees clearly aren’t ready to give up.

Photo by Keith Allison [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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