TAMPA, Fla. — Put aside for a minute the instant aggravation the Yankees could have inflicted upon their crosstown rivals by snatching up Ruben Tejada, who instead signed Saturday with the Cardinals.
As much as the Mets wanted to pocket the $2.5 million saved by cutting Tejada loose this early, they surely didn’t want to see him in pinstripes. And neither did a fan base that had made Tejada its cause célèbre since Chase Utley snapped his leg with a vicious takeout slide during last October’s Division Series.
But the Yankees went only as far as to offer Tejada a minor-league invite to Steinbrenner Field, and shortly afterward, he took a one-year, $1.5-million deal to be a space-holder for the injured Jhonny Peralta in St. Louis.
The Cardinals’ success could end up having a much greater impact on the Mets’ own playoff pursuit. With Opening Day still two weeks away, however, it’s a bit premature to be worrying about that.
And we’re more concerned, at the moment, with how a Tejada-type acquisition might benefit the Yankees, a team currently trying to cobble together a reliable insurance plan for each of their infield positions. As it stands now, Joe Girardi has been using Starlin Castro — his starting second baseman, and a very good one — as the backup at shortstop, having smartly abandoned the third-base experiment earlier in camp.
That’s what spring training is about, to test a roster’s flexibility — even if we were never on board with Castro rotating around the diamond when he’s looked so valuable at second, a position he began playing in the majors only last August. And then there is Dustin Ackley, the team’s limited utility player, who’s being counted on for spot duty at first base, second base and, in a pinch, rightfield.
Missing from this equation is what someone like Tejada would provide: a steady glove at three positions, and most notably at short, which can be difficult to find.
As far as in-house options go, the Yankees have been auditioning Rob Refsnyder at third base to improve his versatility and perhaps increase his chances of making the Opening Day roster. But Refsnyder remains a work in progress at second after moving there from the outfield, and also using him at third might be a leap of faith at this point.
“When people ask me about playing different positions, I think the most underrated thing is the arm,” said Kelly Johnson, the former Met and Yankee who’s now back with the Braves. “Doesn’t mean you have to have a great arm. It means you have to have an accurate arm, a quick arm, and to be able to make different throws.”
In Johnson’s view, that’s what makes Tejada so valuable if needed in that utility role. Primarily a shortstop, he’s just as capable at second and third, but the Mets had no interest in paying him $3 million to do that job. Not for a career .255 hitter in a role they felt could be covered by Wilmer Flores and a Triple-A filler in Matt Reynolds.
Trustworthy insurance, however, doesn’t come cheap. The Yankees gave Brendan Ryan a two-year, $5-million contract heading into the 2014 season. This past offseason, the Nationals signed Stephen Drew to a one-year, $3-million deal.
Obviously, if things go as planned, the Yankees anticipate Castro, Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley playing 150 games or so each, thus minimizing the need for too many spare parts seeing time.
But how often does that happen? The Yankees gradually are getting younger as Brian Cashman has been trading toward that goal during the past two years. Still, that’s no guarantee against significant DL stints, and the Yankees got a scare Saturday when Jacoby Ellsbury was forced to leave the game after getting drilled on the right wrist.
Turns out, Ellsbury was OK. The CT scan and X-rays were negative, meaning no signs of a fracture. A little earlier, Girardi had been asked about contingency plans, and those would have involved Aaron Hicks replacing Ellsbury in centerfield while Brett Gardner stayed in left. Fortunately for the Yankees, it didn’t come to that. Not yet, anyway.
So Tejada donned his new Cardinals uniform Saturday in Jupiter and the Yankees, with a roster still very much in flux, will continue to keep their fingers crossed.