It was a strange and disappointing season. Disappointing in that the Yankees once again failed to make the postseason, this time after spending big to revamp the roster from the previously miserable 2013 season. Strange in that it felt like the team never changed from game 1 to game 162. There were plenty of player changes, sure, but all year long it felt like the big talking points were the same. Rotation injury concerns, questions about the batting order, failure to hit in the clutch, and problems with bullpen workload. It was like watching a baseball team play out McConaughey's "time is a flat circle" speech from "True Detective" over 1 season.
Rather than go back and recap all those boring talking points in depth again, I thought I'd break the season that was down in the good old "Best & Worst" format. It'll give the posts a more balanced tone, touch on the high and low points of the year while still considering those general talking points, and hopefully make the exercise a little less painful to write and read. I always preview and review by roster group, so we'll start off this week's 2014 season review with the infield.
Best- The First 2 Months of Yangervis Solarte
There was no way the Yankees knew what they had in Solarte. They gave the career MiLer a non-roster invite to spring camp with visions of him competing for a bench job and probably nothing more. He won that spot, forced his way into the starting lineup quickly, and was arguably the best hitter on the team through the first 2 months. Solarte hit .303/.404/.461 with 9 2B, 13 RBI, 12 BB, and 12 K in April and .296/.339/.469 with 5 HR, 14 R, 13 RBI, 8 BB, and 10 K in May. As the team's regular third baseman, he provided some unexpected pop in the lower half of the lineup and some youthful energy on a relatively stale veteran team. He was leading the AL in batting average on May 14th. The eventual regression did come and it was a shame to see Solarte moved at the deadline, but while he was here he was the brightest bright spot on a Yankee infield devoid of them.
Worst- No Second Baseman
While Solarte was stylin' and profilin' over at third base, the Yanks were drowning in the crater left by Robbie Cano's departure at second. They brought in Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts to compete for and hopefully hold down the position and a combination of factors prevented that from happening. Chief among them was Roberts' crappiness as a baseball player. He hit .237/.300/.360 in 91 games (348 PA) and played well below-average defense, failing to make some very routine plays. Johnson wasn't much better at .219/.304/.373 in 227 PA and spent the bulk of his time playing out of position at first base. They were both goners by the trade deadline.
Solarte didn't spend enough time there to make a difference earlier in the year, nor did Jose Pirela at the end, and Brendan Ryan just plan stinks. It wasn't until the Yankees picked up Prado and Drew at the deadline that they had somebody capable of handling the position every day, and even then they got screwed when Prado went down for the year with an emergency appendectomy last month. That left the job in Drew's hands and he did little at the plate or in the field to make everybody forget about Roberts and Johnson. As a group these guys didn't come close to making up for Cano's exit, and the position is still in flux heading into 2015.
Best- The Trade Deadline Acquisitions
Stephen Drew was garbage. Hot, steaming, nostril-clogging garbage. Hit .150/.219/.271 in 155 PA and managed to rack up -1.3 fWAR in less than a third of a season. He was like Eduardo Nunez, only worse. Even with that big negative, the positive contributions of the other 2 deadline pickups were enough to make the deadline a plus for the Yanks. Martin Prado MASHED in 37 games (.383 wOBA) and was the team's best offensive player for almost a month before his surgery. Chase Headley quietly accumulated 2.8 fWAR in 58 games with Gold Glove-caliber defense at the hot corner and a pretty productive bat (.262/.371/.398, 6 HR, 28 R, 12.9% BB rate in 224 PA). These guys were major upgrades over what the Yanks were getting from second and third at the time and they gave Cash good options to consider when constructing next year's team.
Worst- The Defense
Ugh, the defense. Where do we start? There's Roberts not getting to easy pop-ups, Jeter short-hopping routine throws, Solarte not handling hotshots at third that a better third baseman probably does, multiple pitchers flubbing grounders, throwing balls away, or failing to cover first base. Even Teix was no longer the reliable defensive force he used to be as recently as 2012. He missed his share of groundballs, made a few bad throws, and generally looked like an old, stiff player who didn't have the lateral movement or reaction time he used to in his heyday. The Yankees lost 2 games in a less-than-2-week span on walk-off infield errors. That's insane.
Best- Teix's Early Power
2014 wasn't a good year for Mark Teixeira. He battled injuries from the get go and it became very clear very quickly that he was a player in permanent decline. The one thing he did do consistently well early in the year, however, was hit for power. He hit 3 HR and had an .862 OPS in limited April playing time, then smacked 6 homers each in May and June while posting .840 and .774 OPS values in those 2 months. He wasn't on the field all the time and he wasn't close to being the great all-around player he was years ago, but Teix could still be counted on to provide some thump from the middle of the order.
Worst- His Powerless Finish
At least before the injuries caught up to him and he became a walking day-to-day line on the daily injury report. Teix's body didn't hold up over the season, each small injury seemingly sapping a bit of his strength and power until there was barely anything left at the end of the year. I covered this in detail last week, so it doesn't need to be fully reviewed here. All that matters is that Teix spent the entire season in monthly offensive decline and finished so pitifully that he can no longer be looked at as an effective everyday player.
Worst- Brian McCann's First Year In New York
I'm not even going to try to spin a positive out of his season, strong September finish or not. McCann was thought to be the surest bet of the big money free agent signings and he ended up being arguably the most disappointing. His offensive production dropped across the board, most notably in the power and patience departments. McCann's .406 SLG was the 2nd lowest of his career after the injury-shortened 2012 season, as was his 5.6% BB rate. The .286 OBP that resulted from the lower batting average and fewer walks was a new career low.
The defense was as advertised, and McCann looked like he worked well with his pitching staff. He also stands as one of the leading candidates to take over as clubhouse leader now that Jeter is gone. But the struggles with the bat, from dealing with the shift to not being patient enough to not hitting righties to changing his swing mechanics, raised concerns that he could already be on the start of his decline.
Worst- The Captain's Final Season
I think deep down in our hearts we all kind of knew that this was how Derek Jeter's final season was going to play out. Nobody can stay ahead of Father Time forever, and playing your final season coming off a major leg injury at age 40 just felt like it was going to be the perfect setting for Time to catch up.
Jeter hit for enough average and got on base at a decent enough clip in the first 2 months for it to not be an issue, but it became apparent early on that he should no longer be hitting in the #2 spot. The bat speed wasn't there, the foot speed wasn't there, and there was little to no power left in the bat when he did square a ball up. Jeter also started to make defensive mistakes on routine plays, the fallback defense for anybody who tried to argue that he was still a good defensive shortstop. Watching Jeter go out at far less than his best wasn't as fun as watching Mo go out on top, but that's how it usually goes for most athletes. The team taking every opportunity it could to capitalize on the "final seasonness" of his final season only made it more uncomfortable to watch.
Best- The Captain's Final Send-Off
All that negativity went out the window on September 18th though. That was the start of Jeter's final homestand at The Stadium and the start of his final storybook career moment. Jeter picked up some of that missing speed and oomph in his bat over those final 8 games, racking up 12 hits and 5 multi-hit games, 1 home run, 4 doubles, and 9 RBI. It was almost as if his body knew this was the last time and it summoned up everything it had left to let him go out on top. Jeter was playing well, the Yankees won 5 of the 8 games, and The Stadium had some real energy in it for the first time in years.
Derek Jeter finished his final MLB season with a mediocre .256/.304/.313 batting line. Years from now nobody will remember that and they shouldn't. What they'll remember was how great a player he was in his prime and how many big moments he had, moments like his last great one celebrating his last walk-off hit. The flashbacks of brilliance he provided in those final 8 homes games and the absolute fairytale ending to Game 159 were the 2 best memories of the season.