Roberts finding his stroke after slow start with Yanks
Second baseman put too much pressure on himself to replace Cano early in season
Brian Roberts had the opportunity to watch as Robinson Cano developed into one of the best second basemen in the American League for the Yankees, consistently presenting his Orioles with a puzzle to plan around as the clubs went head to head on a regular basis each summer.
So when the rosters were shuffled, with Cano bolting for a $240 million Mariners payday and Roberts trading that Baltimore orange for Yankees pinstripes, it was only natural that Roberts -- no matter how much he fought it -- measured himself against the man he was coming in to replace.
"I probably put a little too much pressure on myself early on," Roberts said.
After a slow start at the plate, Roberts has started to turn it on. He slugged a ninth-inning home run to lift the Yanks to a 4-3 win over the Angels on Tuesday, and over his last 13 games, the 36-year-old veteran is on a 17-for-50 (.340) tear.
That has raised Roberts' average from .156 on April 20 to .253 coming into Thursday's off-day, encouraging the Yankees that there will be more production in the tank as the season continues.
"I think he's played pretty well," manager Joe Girardi said. "I think he's been one of our unluckiest hitters. He's hit the ball a lot harder than his average has indicated. He's done a good job at second base, his at-bats have been good and he's a good presence."
For Roberts, who signed an incentive-laden contract with a base salary of $2 million, it has been a thrill just being able to see his name in the lineup. He missed a total of 445 games over the last four seasons with the O's, weathering injuries ranging from the routine (hamstring, hip, abdominal) to multiple concussions that effectively halted his career.
"It's great. I can't put into words, really, how tough those couple years were for me to not be on the field," Roberts said. "And there were things that went beyond just not being on the field; life in general was tough for a while with my concussion stuff.
"For the Yankees to give me an opportunity to come here and say that they really wanted me to play often, as much as I could, that was a huge step for them to go out on a limb a little bit."
After an offseason spending spree in which the Yanks imported high-priced hitters like Brian McCann ($85 million over five years), Carlos Beltran ($45 million over three years) and Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million over seven years), no one asked Roberts to recover the numbers lost by Cano's departure.
That would have seemed ambitious at best, considering Cano was the Yankees' best hitter in 2013, while Roberts posted just a .246/.310/.359 slash line in 192 games with the Orioles over the previous four seasons.
But Roberts, a two-time All-Star who was a fan favorite in Baltimore before injuries interrupted his career path, didn't want to go into a change of scenery setting a cap on his performance. In his mind, there was no reason not to try to patch the hole as well as possible.
"Certainly, when you're going to New York and filling in for someone who played as well as Robbie did, it's human nature to try a little too hard at times," Roberts said. "But I'd rather try too hard than not try enough."
Girardi has said that he does not want to place a number on how often he would ideally start Roberts at second base, preferring to allow room for Roberts' day-to-day health to impact that decision. So far, other than a minor back issue, there have been no problems.
"This is a guy that has had some tough injuries, had some concussions, but I still think he can be a very good player," Girardi said.
Like they did with Derek Jeter, the Yankees made it clear that they were counting on Roberts to be their second baseman as often as possible.
Roberts has started 25 of 33 games, and players like Yangervis Solarte, Kelly Johnson and Brendan Ryan are assigned strictly to backup duties until further notice. Roberts appreciates that confidence.
"Besides having the occasional day off just for a little bit of rest, it's been nice to come to the park and almost know that your name is going to be in the lineup," Roberts said. "That's something I haven't had in a while and something I was hoping to be able to do this year. I'm still taking it one day at a time, but so far it's been a blessing, for sure."