Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi has a problem. He needs to find enough playing time for all his players so that they are happy and will produce. Mark Teixeira returned to the lineup on Sunday and will be the everyday first baseman. A role that he has earned over the years in the field and at the plate. Shortstop will remain the domain of the Captain, Derek Jeter, with Dean Anna as the primary backup. Now is where things get interesting in the Yankees’ infield. The Yankees have a veteran former All-Star second baseman, a lefty slugger and a switch-hitting rookie who is leading the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles and hits. They have only third base and second base open. Three players for two spots in the lineup.
This is a situation where a manager would normally be telling his players to check their egos at the door while simultaneously massaging those egos to make sure no one’s feelings are hurt or get in the way of the team winning. However, this case is unique in that none of the participants in this playing time triangle have cause for a big head. Brian Roberts is a 36-year-old former All-Star second baseman who has played only 207 games since 2009. Kelly Johnson is a journeyman infielder on his fifth team. Yangervis Solarte is a 26-year-old rookie. However, all three are fierce competitors who want to play and want to win. For his part, Girardi feels confident he can come up with enough playing time to effectively use all three.
“All these guys are going to play,” Girardi said. “I think it’s important that they all play, that you keep them all fresh, that you make sure that they’re all involved in case you do have an injury or something. One year, because of rainouts and stuff, Eduardo Nunez didn’t play for the first three weeks. When he got in there and we needed him, he was really rusty. I don’t think you can afford to do that. And with the age on our team, I think that everyone is going to play.” (h/t Chad Jennings, LoHud Yankee Blog)
Despite his hot hitting, the Yankees seemingly have not yet figured out how to use Solarte. His success has seemingly caught the entire Yankees’ staff by surprise and Girardi has maintained that Johnson and Roberts are the regular third and second basemen, respectively. But how can you leave the American League’s leading hitter on the bench? Girardi loves playing lefty-righty matchups more than any Yankees’ manager in history. It’s possible he plays Johnson exclusively versus righties and Solarte against lefties. Of course, Johnson is a career .274 hitter against lefties while Solarte is hitting only .250 against them this season. Meanwhile, Solarte is hitting an absurd .394 against righties.
So if both Solarte and Johnson are producing, what about cutting down on Roberts’ playing time? This would seem the obvious option if the decision was being made solely on production thus far. Roberts is hitting a paltry .156 with no power (only two extra base hits). However, Girardi values the veteran presence of Roberts along with his ability to bat both right-handed and left-handed. I would say he can switch hit, but when you are batting .143 against righties and .176 against lefties, you really aren’t hitting period.
So if we still need to include Roberts in this puzzle, then the only option is to seemingly play upon the feature of Solarte’s game that was valued above all and was the main reason for including him over Nunez at the end of spring training: his versatility. Solarte can play third, second and the corner outfield spots. In 1995, on the way to winning the first ever American League Wild Card, Randy Velarde played in 111 games, getting to the plate over 430 times and hit .278 with 7 home runs and 46 RBI. At various points that season, he played second, third, short, left and right. He was not an everyday player at any position, but he played everyday. Solarte needs to be that player for the 2014 incarnation of the Bronx Bombers. He needs to play second to spell Roberts two days a week and play third three days a week to give Johnson a day off and when Johnson plays first to give Teixeira a rest. Solarte is a rookie whose magic may run out at any time. The Yankees just need to make the most out of it before its gone.