Jan
05

The difficulties of building a quality bench

By

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

In the mid 2000s the Yankees had a penchant for building weak benches. Players such as Matt Lawton, Bubba Crosby, Mark Bellhorn, Miguel Cairo, Craig Wilson, Nick Green, and Wil Nieves routinely sat near Joe Torre during those years. It wasn’t exactly a fatal flaw; the Yankees did manage to make the playoffs basically every year in that span, and it’s not as though the bench makes a huge difference in the postseason when a team has nine clearly superior starters. It wasn’t until 2009 that the Yankees actually managed to assemble some talent to back up their starters.

While the 2009 bench, highlighted by Erik Hinske and Jerry Hairston, was built through mid-season trades, the 2011 bench, perhaps the Yankees’ strongest in a decade, came fresh out of the box on Opening Day. In a way the Yankees got lucky there. The circumstances happened to line up. They needed a right-handed fourth outfielder, since two of their three starters were lefties and the other was a switch-hitter. A left-handed infielder came in handy, too, because most of his work came spelling the right-handed Alex Rodriguez and the switch-hitting Mark Teixeira. It was mere chance that a solid-hitting right-handed outfielder, Andruw Jones, and a reclamation project infielder, Eric Chavez, happen to be not only available, but willing to take on a reduced role.

For the most part, the bench moves worked out. After struggling in the first half, Jones came back with a huge second half performance. Chavez did miss considerable time with a foot injury — worse, because it overlapped with Alex Rodriguez’s knee surgery — but he still managed to hit .263/.320/.356 when healthy. Considering the playing time available and the playing time they actually got, Jones and Chavez were two of the better bench players in the entire league last year.

It’s tough to mete out actual bench players. We can look at plate appearances, but there are so many variables that we can’t control for. Some bench players turn into starters when the player they back up gets hurt. Some players begin the season as a starter only to lose the job. There are also mid-season call-ups who are actually starters, but end up with a number of plate appearances similar to a bench player. And, of course, some bench players do get hurt, and others are so bad that they’re replaced — in which case neither of a team’s backups might fit into a plate appearance range. This is a long way of saying that it’s tough to place Chavez and Jones among their peers.

Keeping the above caveats in mind, Chavez fared very well compared to other infielders who got between 100 and 250 plate appearances in 2011. His .320 OBP in 175 PA ranked seventh in that group, all but a couple of the players ahead of him were injured starters (Casey Blake) or late call-ups (Brett Lawrie, Jason Kipnis, Dee Gordon). Using the same parameters for outfielders, Jones fares even better. His OBP ranked third among that group, and his SLG ranked second (by 25 points to a guy whose BA was 80 points higher). You can sort it out any way you want, but when you look at non-starters and compare them to Jones and Chavez, they come out looking great.

This is actually a remarkable feat for the Yankees, especially considering these players came from the free agent market. After all, who wants to sit on the bench while Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano play every day? Perhaps Jones made sense, because he could play platoon caddy to Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson. But before that the Yankees have had pretty solidly set outfields, which hurt the market for free agent backups. Remember, before the 2009 season both Hinske and Hairston signed elsewhere. It took a trade to get them in pinstripes, and even then it lasted just half a season.

The Yankees failure to sign Hiroyuki Nakajima now re-opens the door for Chavez, and the Yankees would do well to bring him back. He’s not ideal in many ways, particularly his penchant to land on the DL every year, but seeking out bench players is essentially choosing which ones have the most manageable flaws. If Chavez can avoid hurting his foot while running the bases, he could be one of the more productive infield options, both offensively and defensively. It’s hard to see any options on the free agent market, or any worth their price in a trade, who has the potential to add as much as Chavez.

(And that’s most certainly a commentary on the quality of bench players and not on Chavez himself.)

If the two sides don’t work out a deal, it won’t threaten the season. The Yankees will simply roll with Eduardo Nunez as their all-purpose infielder and perhaps carry another lefty, say Chris Dickerson, on the bench. But given their current options and needs, Chavez seems a nice fit. He’s not going to hit like a starter, but of course, few if any bench players do. He can, however, provide production superior to his direct peers. That’s really what matters in this situation. While there’s plenty of risk involved, he is once again a nice fit for the Yankees.

Categories : Bench
  • Big Boy

    I thought Cairo was a very good bench player and what about Sojo?

    • vin

      Sojo was good in ’97, but pretty crummy every other year with the Yanks. Cairo was solid in ’04, but looked washed-up after that. Not quite sure how he resurrected his career in Cincinnati the last couple years.

    • PBFog

      Maybe it was unwarranted, but Cairo was always one of my favorite reserve players…except when he was used as a starting 1st baseman.

  • CJ

    I like Conor Jackson as a potential minor league contract signing

  • Jose M. Vazquez..

    Today’s ballplayer’s salaries prohibit a team from constructing a bench like the 96 team had. A short time ago I commented about that bench in one of these blogs. The thing is that that team had almost another team sitting on the bench. That is impossible at today’s prices. That was a great contribution to the success of those 90′steams, especially the 96 club.

    • Ted Nelson

      Young guys and old guys are still often cheap. Andruw Jones, Montero, Chavez, Cervelli, Dickerson, and Nunez (if he could throw to 1B). Pretty close to Raines, Rivera, Leyritz, Strawberry, Andy Fox, and Gerald Williams.

      • Jose M. Vazquez..

        Pardon me Ted but Torre had almost a platoon system with Hayes/Boggs, Fielder and Martinez. He also played Sojo sporadically in place of Duncan or as alate replacement. He also had Posada on the bench. Thus the grandeur of that bench.

        • gc

          Duncan started 109 games but was platooned often with Sojo and Andy Fox in 1996, but Wade Boggs started 132 games at third. That’s not really a platoon player. Hayes was acquired very late that season if you remember. Tino Martinez started 155 games at first. Again, not a platoon player. Most of Fielder’s at bats were as a DH. And Jorge Posada only played in 8 games and went 1 for 14.

          If you want to talk about the real platoon players that year, it was Raines, Leyritz, and Strawberry.

          I understand that there was more of a platoon with the players you mentioned in the post-season that year, just saying…

        • Ted Nelson

          My point was more that you can build that bench today. I also think you’re referring more to 97 than 96, and sort of combining the best performances different bench players had in different years over a multi-year period.

          In 1996 Hayes had 69 PAs as a Yankees. It 97 where he was a key part of the team. Posada had 15 PAs… and Montero provides a modern day comparable.

          Fielder was the starting DH, not a bench player. He played 9 games at 1B in 1996 and 8 in 1997… Tino played in 157 games in 1997 how is that a platoon?

          2011:
          Jones – 1.4 fWAR
          Montero – 0.6 fWAR
          Chavez – 0.6 fWAR
          Cervelli – 0.5 fWAR
          Dickerson – 0.3 fWAR
          Nunez – 0.6 fWAR

          1996:
          Raines – 1.3 fWAR
          Ruben Rivera – 1.1 fWAR
          Leyritz – 0.9 fWAR
          Strawberry – 0.7 fWAR
          Hayes – 0.5 fWAR
          Sojo – 0.2 fWAR
          Aldrete – 0.0 fWAR
          Fox – -0.8 fWAR
          Williams – -0.8 fWAR

          In 1997 they had some platoons, but that also speaks to having declining players at multiple positions in Raines and Boggs.

  • Brooklyn Ed

    I like Keppinger as an option on a minor deal.

  • Mark L

    So our bench is Jones, Chavez, Cervelli and Nunez?

    I’d rather teach Nunez how to be an emergency catcher, trade Cervelli, and sign someone like Fukudome to be a 5th OF/PH/DH. If no one wants him, he’d be a fine upgrade over Dickerson.

    • Soriano Is A Liar

      I like that plan, with Montero as the backup catcher. Nunez, or somebody, could catch in a true emergency, since it’s not the end of the world to lose the DH if you get in a jam, and Martin has decent speed, so it’s not like he’ll be pinch run for a lot. Honestly, I’d rather keep Dickerson over Fukodome though, at least Dickerson has good speed, and I figure that last outfielder is more useful as a pinch runner/defensive replacement than as yet another DH candidate.

      • Slugger27

        what did soriano lie about?

        • nsalem

          Maybe he’s talking about Alfonso Soriano whoo lied about his age.

        • Rainbow connection

          Meow!

        • Soriano Is A Liar

          lol no, this was funnier back when everyone was going nuts about CC lying. I need a new handle…

      • nsalem

        Apparently they are not sure that Montero can catch on this level. Until Montero shows he can catch 40-50 games a year and not kill them I think Cervelli or another back-up catcher will remain on the 25 man roster. It’s the price we will pay for having Montero’s bat here before he has had the chance to fully develop his defensive skills in the minor leagues.

    • CJ

      There are teams that are interested in Nunez as a starting SS/2B, emergency catcher is a great way to reduce his value.

      • Cris Pengiucci

        I don’t see how this reduces his value as a potential starter for other teams. Please enlighten me.

      • nsalem

        yes that makes perfect sense CJ

      • nedro

        Because players who can play more positions are less valuable. Duh. That’s some fuckin Joe Morgan logic, bro.

        • CJ

          Starting shortstops don’t become emergency catchers. Super utility Joe mcewing players do.

  • BK2ATL

    I think Chavez should be our last piece. We all know he’s going to get hurt, just a matter of when. However, he’s a veteran presence on the bench and quality backup for A-Rod.

    I’d be fine if our bench was Jones, Chavez, Nunez, and Cervelli. Hopefully, Montero will get 30-40 games behind the plate and show some improvement, possibly freeing up the Yanks to move Cervelli for something.

    There is no real need to go outside of this group for bench options.

    • RkyMtnYank

      If Montero catches at all then Cervelli is completely irrelevant and should be traded. I agree with Dickerson for the last spot currently.

      • RkyMtnYank

        eh, I guess until the playoffs there is merit to it for a long season.

  • Monteroisdinero

    I know a good lefty bench bat and (very) occasional backup infielder.

    Jorge Posada!

    • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

      and he means VERY! :)

      • vin

        Swisher still has nightmares about Posada crow-hopping towards him from 35 feet away.

    • Need Pitching

      you realize he would likely end up taking AB’s away from Montero, right??

      • Rainbow Connection

        lol

      • Monteroisdinero

        No. Montero bats EVERY game. 40-50 as catcher. The rest as DH. Sado can pinch hit/help if there is an injury and DH when Montero catches and a righty is pitching.

        • Need Pitching

          In that scenario, the days Montero caught, ARod would get most of those days at DH (along with Jeter occasionally)leaving Sado maybe 10 or so starts a year, and who would he PH for, other than in interleague road games? So Posada would get maybe 80 PA over the season if he doesn’t take PA from Montero (PA that could easily be absorbed by Jones/Nunez/Chavez without much of a loss in production) while providing zero defensive value. Seems like they should be able to find a better use of that roster spot.

    • nedro

      ‘Sadoisdinero

      • Monteroisdinero

        I have been very critical of Posada and actually wished his contract had finished in 2010 so Montero could have come north after ST.

        I just think his bat is better and has more pop than Chavez based on 2011. If he can hit 10 more HR’s than Chavez that would be great.

  • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

    I’ll never forget sitting behind some Sox fans at the stadium right after the Yankees signed Bellhorn, and watching them boo him. What a bunch of classless idiots. I actually turned to them and asked how can they boo a guy for signing with another team after the Sox released him. I think they farted in response.

    • JohnnyC

      They were Ivy League grads I assume.

    • Rainbow Connection

      Sox fans always look inbred to me. Then again, so do many Yanks fans.

  • Plank

    I think the best move at this point would be to offer Strawberry 20/60MM and have him be awesome for the next two decades.

    Maybe they could check in on Rickey while they are at it.

    • MattG

      Listen to this man. If you want to build a bench, you start with a plank.

  • Monteroisdinero

    Montero and Martin do ALL the catching with Romine backing up at AAA. Get rid of Cervelli. Posada is not that crazy an idea if he would be happy with 2M to be a bench guy and Tex backup at 1B. Emergency catcher also is a possibility.

    • Need Pitching

      2M to never play – the only starting AB’s he would likely get would be at the expense of Montero, and I’m not sure they would use him to pinch hit for any of their starters. No need to pay him 2M to collect dust.

    • nsalem

      Don’t you think that if the front office really believed Montero could handle the position they would do exactly what you’re suggesting? Their assessment of what Montero can do (defensively) is apparently different than yours. If he hits the way everybody hopes he is capable of I doubt he will have any AB’s taken away from him.

      • Cris Pengiucci

        Actually, we don’t know for sure that Cervelli will be on the 25-man roster (or some other BU catcher). Perhaps they make the decision on ST that Montero can handle the back up role and DH most of the time. That didn’t appear to be the case in Sept., but we don’t know what April will bring.

        • nsalem

          very true.

        • Monteroisdinero

          This will happen. Believe in Jesus my friends.

          • nedro

            Sorry. I’m no scout – not by a long shot – and even I could see he sucks behind the plate. Stabs @ the ball, doesn’t block. I don’t mean “doesn’t block well,” I mean, never once did he go to his knees for a ball in the dirt. And that was catching AJ. I think. Getting…old…memory…failing…

    • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

      The only manner in which I want to see Jorge Posada at the stadium next year is on “Jorge Posada Day,” when he rides a horse around home plate to the sweet sounds of Johnny Pacheco.

      • Rainbow Connection

        Amen.

      • nsalem

        How about as DH on the Rays or a Met backup catcher?

        • Jumpin’ Jack Swisher

          I would hope not, but that’s his decision to make.

          • nsalem

            agreed. Bernie faced the same decision and I think he made the right one. If he decides to play somewhere else I hope it’s just as a DH. I think he is risking serious injury if he ever got back behind the plate. He appeared in a daze to me at the end of 2010.

            • Plank

              Bernie couldn’t have gotten another job if he tried. He was offered a NRI with the Yankees and it seemed to me like Torre insinuated if he showed up he would be the 5th OF, but he considered it insulting not to be offered a contract and “retired”.

              At least that’s how I remember it.