TAMPA — When it comes to what position Miguel Andujar will play this season the key issue is … will he hit?
If he hits, he will play. Somewhere. How do I know? History.
Third base is the most under-represented position in the Hall of Fame because so many elite players have been moved off the hot corner and relocated elsewhere to keep their bats in the lineup.
Harmon Killebrew, Tony Perez and Jim Thome are Hall of Famers, as is Jeff Bagwell, who was a minor-league third baseman. They will be joined some day by Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols. It is largely lost to time, but Killebrew, Cabrera and Pujols played more than a 1,000 games combined in the outfield. Killebrew was the first player to be selected to the All-Star Game at three positions (third, outfield, first).
Ryan Braun won the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year as a third baseman and has never played another inning at the position. Jason Giambi and Mark Teixeira came up as third basemen.
Aaron Boone, a career-long third baseman, explained the sustainability problem: to man third a player has to profile as a strong bat and yet not be a defensive liability. Most of the stars mentioned above were moved because either their defense was sketchy and/or the roster worked better if they moved off the position.
Both of those are true about Andujar. The Yankees have not given up the hope that athleticism and work ethic will turn Andujar into at least an average defender at third. But they are the epitome of a win-now team. And Gio Urshela is far better with his glove in 2020, and the Yankees believe Urshela’s 2019 offensive breakout while Andujar recuperated after should surgery was no fluke. But they also believe Andujar’s 2018 rookie hitting fireworks were real. That his bat-to-ball skills are elite. That he is an expert at using the whole field.
The Twins, another win-now club, are moving the hulking Miguel Sano across the diamond to accommodate the defensively superior new addition Josh Donaldson. Mike Moustakas is slated to move from third to second to add another big bat to his new club, the Reds, who have the currently injured Eugenio Suarez (49 homers last year) at third.
“Nowadays with matchups, if you can (play) not one, not two, but play three positions with that type of bat, you become an everyday player at three positions,” bench coach Carlos Mendoza said. “(Andujar) understands that. There is an opportunity for him to play pretty much on a daily basis.”
Andujar played third Sunday in his first start and homered against the Rays. He is scheduled to play third again Tuesday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays, but start in left and first before the end of the week. He said, “I’m aware and have seen that” other players were moved off third base early, yet went on to superstar careers.
The Yankees have liked what they have seen early — albeit in practices, not under game situations. Boone said Andujar was happy and relieved, not disappointed, when the Yanks approached him about multiple positions — in fact, Andujar already was working out on his own at the other spots.
Boone said Andujar “looks natural” in left and Mendoza cited Andujar’s quality footwork in both left and first, and complimented Andujar for asking the right questions about when to trail runners or go out for cutoffs at first and understanding foul territory and communications with fellow outfielders when he is in left.
“Whichever way the team wants to give me an opportunity to play, I’m more than happy to take that,” Andujar said.
Now to make it work. Boone loves outfield defense and Mike Tauchman, Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge from left to right is elite in his view. That would make Giancarlo Stanton the regular DH. Luke Voit and Mike Ford are at first and could force their way to some DH at-bats (with Stanton moving to the outfield), especially if the Yanks want Ford’s extra lefty bat in their righty-heavy lineup. Plus Clint Frazier remains an outfield option and Aaron Hicks potentially can return in midseason after Tommy John surgery.
Every team would hope for the problem of too many bats. And that is why hitting like Andujar did in 2018 (or better if he can better control the strike zone) is instrumental to him playing. Somewhere. If Andujar hits, there will be five starts a week among first, third and left — with a DH sprinkled in now and then.
“The fact he was open (to playing different positions) the first time we approached him, that was a big step,” Mendoza said. “He knows the value he would have if he provides that kind of versatility. He knows great players have done it before.”