2011 Season Preview: Quality of the bench

Fan Confidence Poll: March 21st, 2011
Handicapping the back-of-the-rotation battle

One issue that plagued the Yankees through the mid-00s was the lack of a quality bench. This included both the position players and the bullpen. Both units tended to be sub-par. As we covered last week in our 2011 season preview, the bullpen looks a lot better, in terms of Opening Day personnel, than it has in many years. The bench, too, has a stronger feel this year. With plenty of spare payroll, the Yankees were able to land a few chips that they haven’t sought in years past. For the first time in a long time they’ll have two quality bench bats to start the year.

Andruw Jones

(Kathy Willens/AP)

For most of the off-season, Jones and the Yankees appeared a natural match. They needed a fourth-outfielder, preferably a righty, and Jones needed a part-time destination. It took a while for the move to finally happen, and even longer for it to become official, but Jones is in a Yankee uniform for 2011. He’s not the same player that ranked among the most valuable in center field from 1998 through 2005, but he can still play a useful role.

For the past three seasons Jones has been a part-time player, either because of injury or ineffectiveness. Right knee problems completely sapped his 2008 season. In 2009 he appeared to be on the comeback trail, but fell off considerably after a hot start. Last year, with the White Sox, he started similarly hot, and while he dropped off it was not nearly as dramatic. At season’s end he had produced a .364 wOBA in 328 PA. The Yankees will gladly take that from him in 2011.

Not only can Jones provide some value with the bat, but his defense can still come in handy. He’s no longer the best-in-league center fielder, but he can fill in there if needed. More likely he’ll play left field against tough lefties, relegating either Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson to the bench. This is a level of versatility the Yankees did not have in Marcus Thames.

Eric Chavez

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

When the Yankees signed Eric Chavez to a minor league deal just before the start of spring training, it appeared to be an insignificant move. After all, Chavez hadn’t gotten as many as 300 plate appearances since 2007, and has been generally awful since 2006. Even then, since 2004, when he was limited to 125 games due to injury, he hasn’t measured up to the lofty standards he set in the preceding five seasons. But at age 33 there’s still potential. The Yanks, as it turns out, were right to jump on it.

In Chavez the Yankees have a player who can back up both Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. If Jorge Posada hits the DL for the fourth straight year, he and Jones can platoon at DH. He also provides a lefty off the bench, which can prove useful in late-game situations. The need for a lefty off the bench last year wasn’t great, since there weren’t many players for whom Girardi would pinch hit. But with Russell Martin on the team, and with the repeated possibility of guys such as Kevin Russo getting playing time, having Chavez’s bat in late innings will help plenty.

While spring stats mean little, Chavez has impressed during his time this March. Even when he makes outs he’s hitting the ball hard. He will certainly travel north with the team, with the hope that a part-time role will help keep him healthy and productive. It might not be striking gold, but the Yankees have done very well for minimal risk.

Ramiro Pena / Eduardo Nunez

(Kathy Willens/AP)

It just feels as though the Yankees want Nunez to fill that utility infield role. In recent games they’ve tried him in the outfield, a sign that they’re grooming him for a super utility role. It hasn’t appeared pretty, though, and chances are Nunez will stick to the infield, at least in 2011. But will he play behind Jeter, Rodriguez, and Cano, or will he take regular reps at AAA?

The Yankees are always in a tough position with the utility infield role. It doesn’t make sense to take anyone significant, because Jeter and Cano do not take days off. Even last year, through his struggles, Jeter played in 157 games. Cano played in 160. There will be some at DH, and some of those games won’t be starts. Still, it leaves possibly a dozen games, absolute max, that will require a utility infielder as a starter. That’s why Pena makes sense. His noodle bat won’t hurt too much, since his playing time is limited. If either Jeter or Cano requires a DL trip, the Yanks can recall Nunez to play full-time.

(And at third base it’s a non-issue, since Chavez is there to play when A-Rod needs days off.)

This actually figures to be the least important spot on the bench. Oftentimes that title is reserved for backup catchers. But the utility infielder on the Yanks will almost certainly get less playing time than the backup catcher. And that’s especially if a certain top prospect sticks in that role.

Jesus Montero / Francisco Cervelli

(Kathy Willens/AP)

With Cervelli on the shelf to start the season, we can assume that Montero breaks camp as the backup catcher. That will give him a quick taste of the big leagues, affording him maybe three starts each week he’s with the club. Then, when Cervelli returns the team can re-assess. If Martin is playing well they can ship Montero back to AAA and use Cervelli as the backup, which is clearly his most useful role. If Martin isn’t hitting, perhaps they’ll keep Montero around and let him split time and learn at the major league level.

It’s hard for the Yankees to go wrong in this scenario. If Martin is hitting the Yankees have a valuable starter and backup combination. Cervelli can play once a week, which suits him well. If Martin isn’t hitting, the Yankees can put a greater emphasis on Montero, whose bat is, by all accounts, ready for the majors. Either way, the Yankees will likely realize well above average production from their catcher. That’s a good thing, since it’s what they’ve grown accustomed to in the past decade with Posada behind the plate.

It has been a while since the Yankees have broken camp with a high quality bench. They face issues every year in attracting free agent reserve players, since their full-time players don’t leave much room for additional playing time. But this past off-season they took time to build a strong and versatile bench. From the way things appear now, that effort should pay off handsomely. Even if it doesn’t, there’s still room for the Yankees to build the bench the way they did in 2009. There will always be players available around the deadline.

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Fan Confidence Poll: March 21st, 2011
Handicapping the back-of-the-rotation battle
  • Mike Myers

    I heard benji wants to play. sign for a month then trade?

    • Kevin

      He’s not even the most likely Molina to be the backup C.

      • Tom Zig

        Bengie Molina, yeah no thanks. Can’t hit, can’t play defense.

  • Frank

    “That will give him a quick taste of the big leagues, affording him maybe three starts each week he’s with the club.”

    I don’t see Martin/Montero platooning, at least not at the beginning of the season. I believe Martin needs to prove he can be an everyday catcher and he’s going to need to get regular ABs. Splitting time with Montero won’t get this done. I see Montero perhaps catching a handful of games while Cervelli is out and then he goes back to AAA. Of course if Martin gets hurt, this all changes.

    • Mike HC

      Martin is also coming off a couple of injuries and a knee surgery himself. He says he is all good, but giving him some extra rest to keep him strong down the stretch and into the playoffs could be a smarter move making him “prove” himself, and wearing him out by the end of the year.

      • Mike HC

        *than* making him “prove himself, etc …

  • bonestock94

    A+ bench this year

    • Ultimate Yankee Warrior (James)

      Easy there. Jones and Chavez are no sure things. Jesus could just as easily struggle as thrive.

      Marcus Thames was the most valuable member of the bench last year. You can’t predict baseball.

  • Ultimate Yankee Warrior (James)

    It almost feels as if the Yankees lucked into this bench. Jones may be at the precipice. Chavez broke right unlike Belliard. And Jesus will be the best backup in the game before swapping that title with Martin, unlike Cervelli.

    All in all, a fine scenario and they seem covered if any injury should befall an OF or IF or even the C. Is this the best bench of the Cashman Era? It kinda depends on Chavez, but they’re way out in front with Jones (unless he’s really done) and Jesus (who could easily stick all year). Even at SS/2B they could have done much worse (i.e., Miguel Cairo).

    • rbizzler

      Much like relief pitchers, bench players are fungible (see your example of Marcus Thames last year). I like what Cash has done in assembling a decent selection of guys with diverse skill sets. Being that he has made only modest financial commitments to players like Jones, Chavy and Belliard, if any of them don’t work out he can cut bait or send Pena/Nunez/Jesus/Frankie down to AAA for more seasoning.

  • YankeesJunkie

    It is nice to see that the Yankees have a fairly solid bench to start the season. Jones has shown to be an above average hitter and he can play field. Montero will finally get a chance to show his hitting prowess in the AL East. Pena can look like a 16 yr old, but play defense, and Chavez hopefully won’t break.

  • ADam

    RE: Nunez

    Girardi is really good with young players and getting them meaningful PT. I think Nunez is the perfect super util guy, Heed get time at short and second, and out in left and DH so that Girardi can use his bat. He can spot 4 or 5 guys on the team… I hope he makes it, As well as Chavez

    • pat

      I’ll eat my shoe if Eduardo ever gets a start at DH. Agree with everything else though.

      • RichYF

        Bookmarked. I want video.

      • ADam

        just for AB’s

        • MannyGeee

          wouldn’t you rather get him ABs at 2B/SS while Cano/Jeter DH’s and gets a break?

          Nunoz =/= a DH on a team “this old”*…

          *(C) Cliff Lee

          • Ted Nelson

            Yeah, I think it’s more likely that Nunez would be fielding for someone so they can DH than a situation where Nunez himself would DH. If that situation arises more than once or twice all season it probably says bad things about health and/or performance by Chavez, Jones, Martin/Montero, Posada…

    • Monteroisdinero

      I much prefer Nunez over Pena. Playing Jeter 157 games and Cano 160 is not a great strategy. Nunez can hit a homer to left and hit the ball off the wall the opposite way-2 things Pena will never do. I think starting Nunez 20-30 games at SS/3rd/2B is a good plan.

      • Tom Zig

        Nunez and Pena are both unbelievably bad hitters. Pena is a good fielder, Nunez isn’t.

        Pena >> Nunez.

        • Accent Shallow

          I don’t agree.

          Pena is an unbelievable bad hitter — he’s like a 10 year old with a pool noodle.

          Nunez is run of the mill bad.

        • Ted Nelson

          Let’s just ignore that Nunez out OPS’d Pena by 100 points in both AA and AAA, and out wOBA’d him by 30-40 points at both those levels, and just act like they’re the same player offensively and Nunez is “unbelievably bad.” Makes sense.

        • Monteroisdinero

          Heartily disagree. Nunez >> Pena. perhaps we should put this to a RAB vote.

          • Mike HC

            I’ll take Nunez all day.

            • jsbrendog (returns)

              even axisa would take nunez

    • Tom Zig

      and DH so that Girardi can use his bat.

      What bat?

      • MannyGeee

        Little known fact, Nunoz is like that kid you invite to play on your co-ed team who is not really any good, but he has a sweet original DeMarini or Orange Crush that he lets the team use…

        so yeah, that bat…

        • jsbrendog (returns)

          ietc

  • steve s

    I wish there was some way that Vazquez could get a shot as the righty bat off the bench instead of Jones but when you factor in the glove I guess there is no way to do that move. I am in the camp that sees Jones as most likely to “win” (pun intended) the Randy Winn Washed-Up award and not make it past the All Star-game. Perhaps by then Nunez will be able to go back on a flyball and become the 4th outfielder du jour.

    • MannyGeee

      funny, I was ready to award Chavez with the Nick the Stick Johnson award…

      • jsbrendog (returns)

        much more likely

    • Ted Nelson

      Winn had a wOBA of .302 the season before the Yankees signed him, while Jones had a wOBA of .364. I don’t expect Jones to repeat that necessarily and there is a decent chance he’s washed up in 2011, but I think the chance is lower than with Winn in 2010.

    • Monteroisdinero

      and Jones can go to the O’s next year following the Winn at all costs approach to a major league salary-after the O’s cut Randy.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      Vazquez will get his shot when someone gets hurt.

  • nsalem

    Many Yankee fans spent the winter bemoaning our failure to sign Cliff Lee and the perceived subsequent inability to pull off a deal for another big time ace. In the meantime the Yankee FO has assembled what appears to be our most balanced 25 man roster in many years certainly in this century. Having Jones, Chavez and Montero is more inspiring than say Huffman, Miranda and Curtis. Health of course may be an issue with the elders. Equally essential was the ability to hold to all of our key (mostly pitching) prospects.
    While there is little argument that the back end of our rotation is our biggest question mark, we will be in a great position to make any adjustments (either through our system or trades) we may need for our stretch run. We have come a long way from our deep and dark December.

    • Sayid J.

      I agree that it’s a balanced roster… but let’s not act like Jones and Chavez are more valuable than Lee or another top flight starter.

      • nsalem

        Of course Jones and Chavez are not as valuable as Cliff Lee. That sort of goes without saying and I don’t know how you could have possibly come to that conclusion. I was comparing them with the players that I actually mentioned (Huffman, Miranda and Curtis).

  • http://myspace.com/bksmalls Smallz

    I like the bench because it covers just about every position. Anything you get out of the bats is a bonus.

    • Mike HC

      I don’t see that being the case. I think the Yanks minor leaguers could have filled the role of covering all the positions with a hope and prayer for a bat. The Yanks brought in Jones and Chavez (although Jones and Chavez should also be solid with the glove, which is the bonus), and might open camp with Montero, because of the value they could potentially add with their bats. Getting something out of their bats is quite necessary, not a bonus.

      • MannyGeee

        in 2009 the Yankees signed Thames for his bat. he cost the team runs a-plenty with his defense. Jones, Chavez and Ramiuardo Penunoz will certainly not cost you runs with their defense (should they be healthy). Montero is at worse no less than what you got last season from Posada defensively.

        • Ted Nelson

          I think Mike HC’s point still stands. You can find competent fielders in AAA easily. If defense were the primary concern Greg Golson is way better defensively than Andruw Jones at this point, for example.

          Last season Thames only played 171 innings in the OF (19 full games), and would have played less if Winn or Kearns hadn’t bombed with the bat. Having Jones could give them nice flexibility if he works out, but he’s a fairly average defensive OF at this point. If he’s lost another step Jones could cost you runs (he’s been a hair above replacement defensively 2 of the past 3 seasons). Jones might also cost the defense runs compared to Thames if he’s playing instead of Gardner/Granderson on a more regular basis than Thames, with the hope of course being that he’s gaining you more runs on offense relative to Gardner/Granderson than he’s losing you on defense.
          Nunez and Pena were on the team last season.
          I hope he won’t be, but Montero could definitely be worse defensively than Posada in 2010. He could be Ryan Doumit bad.
          So, I don’t know that the defense is that much superior to last season’s bench. Jones’ versatility is nice.

          I wouldn’t go too far in saying the bench bats are “necessary” with what is a great everyday order on paper, but they’re on the team for their bats more than their glove in every case besides Pena and Cervelli… both of whom are being pushed for their roster spots by better offensive players who are regarded as inferior defenders.

  • Craig

    Does anyone know what brand bat eduardo Nunez uses