Injuries at first base forcing Yankees to go with inexperience

Francisco Cervelli of the Yankees hits an RBI
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Francisco Cervelli of the Yankees hits an RBI double in the fifth inning against the Texas Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, July 24, 2014.(Credit: Jim McIsaac)

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David Lennon

David Lennon has been a staff writer for David Lennon

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since

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The last time the Yankees rolled the dice on a third baseman with back problems, it didn't work out too well. Kevin Youkilis, after pooh-poohing his lumbar issues in Boston, signed for $12 million and played a total of 28 games before his 2013 season was ended by surgery to repair a herniated disc.

Sound familiar? That story isn't all that different from what we know about Chase Headley, who arrived Tuesday in the Bronx feeling chipper after last month's epidural shot to alleviate his own disc problem.

But this isn't about predicting doom for Headley, and especially not after his Gatorade-soaked debut, the reward for a walk-off single in the 14th inning Tuesday night. We brought up Youkilis to illustrate how the best-laid plans have a tendency to unravel.

Brian Cashman did what he had to do in trading for Headley, but the GM also admitted the move was a calculated risk. A few hours later, the Yankees lost Kelly Johnson -- their primary corner infield insurance -- to a strained groin and he was placed on the disabled list yesterday. Mark Teixeira, another potential DL candidate, will wait another two days to see if his platelet-rich plasma injection improves his own strained back muscle.

So for the immediate future, Joe Girardi again is forced to mix and match at first base, where Brian McCann started Wednesday for the second straight game. Before this year, his experience at the position was in a high-school doubleheader, after playing catcher in the opener.

It's not an ideal situation, not for a guy who signed a five-year, $85-million deal to be the Yankees' catcher -- and had zero interest in backing up Teixeira at first. But here we are, with McCann next on the depth chart, followed by Headley and Francisco Cervelli, probably in that order. We'll leave Carlos Beltran out of the discussion for now, despite his April cameo.

"Whatever is best for the team," McCann said. "Obviously with Tex being out it's tough."

There's a big difference, of course, between playing first base and calling yourself a first baseman. Teixeira has four Gold Gloves at the position. McCann, Headley and Cervelli have a combined five starts there. The Yankees, in sticking players out of position, must be a little lucky, too.

Cashman just got through telling us Tuesday how important it was to bring in Headley as a defensive upgrade because of a ground-ball pitching staff -- one fortified by the recent addition of sinker-ball specialist Brandon McCarthy. But even as Headley vacuums up grounders, he still needs a reliable target for his throws.

In Headley, the Yankees got a 2012 Gold Glover whose plus-7 in defensive runs saved this season was tied for third in the majors with David Wright. The A's Josh Donaldson is the overall leader at plus-19.

That still wasn't enough to earn Headley more than "average" praise from Cashman, who didn't exactly gush over his defensive prowess. That says a lot about what the GM must have thought of Johnson or Yangervis Solarte at third base.

"You want to support your pitching staff with a really quality defense," Cashman said.

Other than Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, however, the Yankees are not a team that features plus defenders. Without Teixeira, a suspect infield is considerably worse, though Headley should do a better job helping Derek Jeter's range.

These Yankees will never be the '99 Mets when it comes to infield defense. But if their patched-up rotation remains stable, and the offense comes alive, they might cover some blemishes. Not how they drew it up, as Girardi likes to say. But it's been that kind of season for the Yankees.