David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - During this new era of lowered expectations for the Yankees' middle infield, we're starting to wonder just how low they can go. Then again, once you reach the bottom, what's the point of asking anymore?
That's pretty much where the Yankees are with Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew, two of the least productive offensive players still wearing a uniform in the majors. We know there's a reason they bat in the bottom third of the Yankees' lineup, but employing near-automatic outs in two of the nine spots seems like too high a percentage.
We can almost discount Gregorius because Brian Cashman made a three-team trade during the offseason to install him as Derek Jeter's replacement, giving up Shane Greene in the process. The deal was focused on upgrading the Yankees' defense at the position, and now that Gregorius appears more comfortable in pinstripes, he should be able to deliver that.
Drew's grim performance at the plate is another story. He snapped an 0-for-12 slump Saturday night with a pair of hits, including a double, in the Yankees' 5-1 win over the Royals to provide some ammo in Joe Girardi's unflagging defense of the struggling infielder.
With the Yankees righting the ship after a four-game losing streak, how much do they really need from his bat, anyway?
Is it merely enough to play a decent second base, with the occasional start at shortstop to spell Gregorius? That's not much of a return for $5 million, even with the additional insurance policy at short made necessary by Brendan Ryan being sidelined indefinitely. The Yankees are in first place, so it's not as if Drew is crippling them. But he's not helping all that much, either.
"I think the balance is what he gives you defensively and some of the big hits that he's had," Girardi said before the game. "And I think in a lot of cases, if you're relying on your eighth and ninth hitters to win you a ton of games offensively, there's not a lot of teams that are doing that."
Certainly not the Yankees, whose .519 OPS in the No. 8 hole was ranked 13th in the AL, better than only the White Sox (.488) and Angels (.419). The ninth spot was marginally better, ranked 11th (.522).
This may be nitpicking for a first-place team. But after the Yankees' dreadful offensive week, every at-bat counts.
When you break it down by position, the Yankees went from one of the more successful middle-infield bat combos (Jeter, Robinson Cano) to virtual zeros at the plate. The Yankees' .593 OPS at second base ranks 27th at that position in the majors; their .494 OPS at shortstop is 29th.
Only the Diamondbacks (.442) are worse.
Cashman signed Drew to that generous one-year contract because he didn't believe Jose Pirela or Rob Refsnyder was ready for the full-time gig. Turns out he was right, with Pirela -- initially sidelined by a concussion -- only now getting platoon work at second base (he made an error Saturday night) and Refsnyder still needing to polish his glove skills at Triple-A Scranton.
Almost six weeks into the season, however, it's worth asking if the Yankees will have to re-evaluate second base, especially coming off a dry offensive week. Before the game, Drew was hitting .171, barely enough to hold a major-league job. Among second basemen with a qualified number of at-bats, Drew ranked 22nd; only Chase Utley was worse (.124).
Drew also was next-to-last with a .607 OPS, and despite Girardi's public support, he's not making great contact, with a line-drive percentage of .160, lowest at the position. The only factor that could suggest improvement is Drew's .182 batting average on balls in play, which means he's either extremely unlucky or a predictable hitter to defend.
Before Saturday night, in his previous 422 plate appearances, Drew was batting .165. The excuse a year ago was the rust caused by turning down Boston's qualifying offer and not signing until May 21. The Yankees hoped he would be past that this season, but so far, it hasn't looked that way. They're just trying not to sound concerned yet.