A-Rod: The Best Third Base Option

(AP Photo/David Goldman)  

All winter long the prevailing thought has been that the Yankees needed Alex Rodriguez to be suspended in order to build a contending team for 2014.

Pretty much the only way the Yankees could build a competitive team while staying under the $189 million luxury tax threshold was for Rodriguez to get suspended. Getting rid of his $27.5 million tax hit would have gone a long way towards helping them get there. However, things have quickly changed, and with the announcement of Rodriguez’s status approaching soon, the Yankees will probably be better off having him on the field for 2014.

The Yankees find themselves right up against the $189 million luxury tax threshold already with the signings of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran. Right now they have huge question marks at second base, shortstop, third base and with their pitching staff. They have not yet accomplished their goal of fielding a championship caliber team under the luxury tax.

However, the Yankees would move much closer to being a championship contender if they signed Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka. Tanaka is expected to sign a contract north of $100 million, so the Yankees will not be able to stay under the luxury tax if they sign him. The Yankees are better off being way over the luxury tax like they normally are if they’re going to be over it anyways.

If Tanaka joins the Yankees, he would join CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova and probably either Michael Pineda or David Phelps to form a pretty solid starting rotation. However, their infield would still be a big weakness. That is where Rodriguez can help, since his luxury tax number will not be as big a problem anymore if the Yankees are over the luxury tax anyways.

According to Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York, the Yankees plan to use a combination of Kelly Johnson and Eduardo Nunez at third base if Rodriguez is suspended. That means no signing Stephen Drew and no trading for guys like Chase Headley or Pablo Sandoval. Last year, with Rodriguez only playing 44 games due to injury, Yankees third basemen hit .221/.290/.330/.621 with a .279 wOBA and 69 wRC+. While Johnson and Nunez would be an upgrade from that disaster, they will excite nobody.

The big problem with Johnson and Nunez is that they both play horrible defense, and combined with Derek Jeter they would form probably the worst defensive left side of the infield in MLB. According to FanGraphs, Johnson was worth 3.8 runs below the MLB average at second base last year, and Nunez was worth a whopping 18 runs below average at shortstop and third base.

Johnson and Nunez both have some hitting ability, but it is nothing to go crazy about. Johnson has the ability to hit 20 home runs as a lefty at Yankee Stadium since he hit 16 last year for Tampa. Nunez put up a pretty solid slash line over the second half of last year, as he hit .284/.321/.426/.747. However, he has not been able to do that consistently and has no power.

Even at age 38, the Yankees would be better off having Rodriguez at third. They will need to use Johnson more at second base since there is no way Brian Roberts can be counted on. Rodriguez hit .244/.348/.423/.771 last year, and that would have been better if he did not play hurt in September. In August, Rodriguez hit .280/.359/.451/.810 when he was fully healthy. Obviously, his health is always a question mark, but Rodriguez clearly seems like the Yankees’ best third base option until he does get hurt.

The most likely scenario seems to be that Rodriguez’s suspension will be reduced, but not fully taken away. A lot of fans and even the Yankees themselves may not want to admit it, but that could be a positive thing for the Yankees in 2014.