How good could the 2015 infield really be?

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The objections to signing Stephen Drew (and even to trading for the likes of Nick Franklin) are founded on a fear of precluding future opportunities. This is a legitimate concern. The structure of the CBA has long dictated that franchises spend according to the arbitrary makeup of each free agent class, rather than the makeup of the league as a whole. In recent years, those classes have included fewer elite players and thus teams frequently pay premiums on the most volatile veterans.

Drew now finds himself in a class more or less by himself, courted by a number of contenders which have pressing needs in the infield. It is a formula for inflation and Yankees fans are right to by wary. That said, the objection to Drew must be supported by a preference for reasonable alternatives. Derek Jeter will retire in October…November at the latest. On the current roster, his successor is either an unremarkable 27-year-old rookie or a 31-year-old defensive replacement whose career OPS ranks 1,257th out of the 1,302 players who have at least 2,600 PA during the integration era.

And Jeter’s is not the only vacancy the Yankees will need to fill in 2015.

The criticisms of Drew are applicable to most every infielder in the impending free agent class. Many have fixated upon J. J. Hardy, because Manny Machado is presumably Baltimore’s shortstop of the future. There are only three everyday shortstops in the majors who are older than Hardy: Jeter, Jimmy Rollins, and Alexei Ramirez. Since joining the AL in 2009, Hardy has an OBP of .302. His productivity is entirely tied to his ability to hit for power and his defensive acumen, skills that don’t age particularly well.

Like Hardy, Asdrubal Cabrera will likely cede his position to a blue chipper, Francisco Lindor, in 2015. Cabrera is a two-time All-Star who doesn’t turn 29 until November. He’s a switch-hitter who produces from both sides, capable of double-digit homers and steals. Sounds good, right? But there is a worrisome trend worth watching in 2014…

Cabrera Decline

Obviously, it’s premature to judge this year’s numbers. Maybe Cabrera can break the pattern. But if this proves to be his third consecutive season of noticeable decline, would you be confident giving him the 3-4 year deal he’ll likely demand? Is he a safer bet than Drew?

The best free agent infielder of 2015 is Hanley Ramirez. That is, if the free-wheeling Dodgers allow him to become a free agent. Given their recent track record, LA probably won’t hesitate to give HanRam a nine-figure deal, assuming he gives them anything near the 1.040 OPS he posted in 2013. If they let him walk, it will likely be because he’s 31 and missed extended time in three of four years, which should spell caution for the Yanks as well. They already have a stable of brittle thirty-somethings.

This is not a campaign for Stephen Drew. Depending on price, his liabilities may equal or exceed those of Hardy, Cabrera, Ramirez, etc. My point, rather, is that no magical solution to the Yankees apparent infield problems awaits them if they merely grin and bear it until the offseason.

Maybe, by December, the Blue Jays will be looking to unload Jose Reyes, who will be 32-years-old with a history of leg injuries. Maybe the Rangers will be fed up with Elvis Andrus, whose development seems to have stalled, and who is owed $108 Million through 2022. Maybe the Cubs will clear out Starlin Castro to make room for Javier Baez. Last year he was a replacement level player…signed through 2019. Maybe 31-year-old Jed Lowrie will be coming off two healthy, productive seasons, the first two of his career.

Unless the Yankees believe a more established, productive long-term solution like Andrus and Castro is guaranteed to be available this winter, they may be best served by trying to acquire a young, low-risk player like Franklin, Didi Gregorius, Charlie Culberson, or Tyler Pastornicky. Such a player could be useful in a utility role in 2014, benefit from being Jeter’s caddy, and might become a building block for the new era.

These are the kind of risks which are necessary to compete now that more teams have more money and more intelligent front offices. The best teams gamble on younger players, not only so they can benefit from the production of their prime seasons (which maybe fewer and earlier post-PEDs), but also merely to have the opportunity to sign them to fiscally sound contracts. Safer signings than Hardy, Drew, and Cabrera rarely reach the open market.

There was a time when contenders could be built largely, if not exclusively, through free agency. That time has passed. We’ve entered an era in which players, especially elite players, don’t enter free agency until they are declining. By objecting to Drew, Yankees fans (and the Yankees front office) are essentially acknowledging this. Few free agents are much better, relative to their positions, than Drew is. The problem is, Yankees fans are also always already promised a championship. Championships are not won with Dean Anna playing everyday. Eventually, we’re going to have to find some middle ground.

Matt teaches at The University of Alabama. Roll Tide. He specializes in American Literature and Rhetorical Economics. Fate chose for him the peculiar perdition of rooting for the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers.