Archive for Bench
Barring injury or a trade, 12 of the 13 position player spots are already set. Joe Girardi made it clear Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson will be the starting second and third basemen, respectively, leaving Brendan Ryan on the bench with Frankie Cervelli and Ichiro Suzuki. The fourth and final bench spot is up for grabs in Spring Training and the Yankees have indicated it will go to an infielder. More than a few players are competing for the job.
IF Dean Anna
Acquired in a minor November trade with the Padres, Anna had a big year in Triple-A (.331/.410/.482) but was unable to land a 40-man roster spot with San Diego. They flipped him to the Yankees for a Single-A reliever rather than lose him for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft. The 27-year-old lefty hitter has a ton of experience on the middle infield and a little at third, making him prime backup infielder fodder.
Anna lacks a standout tool but he’s okay at everything. His plate discipline is his strongest skill but there is more to life than minor league strikeout and walk rates. Last year was the first year in which he hit higher than .280 and he’s never been much of a power guy or base-stealer. His defense is generally regarded as solid even though last Saturday’s play in the hole makes you think he’s the best defender ever. It’s a classic backup infielder’s profile and a strong spring could push Anna onto the Opening Day roster.
1B/OF Russ Canzler
As of right now, Johnson is the backup first baseman according to Girardi even though he only has 18 career innings at the position. The 27-year-old Canzler is the only other true first baseman in camp, though he has a good amount of left field experience as well. The Yankees had him working out at third base earlier in camp in an attempt to increase his versatility. Canzler is a pure right-handed platoon bat, hitting .307/.390/.531 against lefties in Triple-A over the years compared to .267/.346/.442 against righties. He only has 102 career big league plate appearances to his credit. Canzler is a long shot for the bench despite his ability to play first, so he’s likely ticketed for Triple-A.
IF Corban Joseph
CoJo, 25, made his very brief big league debut last season before needing season-ending shoulder surgery. They Yankees dumped him off the 40-man roster over the winter and he went unclaimed on waivers, giving you an idea of how he’s regarded around the league. Joseph had a big 2012 season split between Double-A and Triple-A (.276/.375/.465 with 15 HR) and while he’s versatile in that he can fake first, second, and third bases, he’s a liability everywhere. If he shows he can hit like he did two years ago, Joseph might have value as a bench player. If not, well there’s really nothing he can offer. He seems to be well behind the rest of the pack in the race for the final bench spot.
IF Eduardo Nunez
Boy did Nunez blow a golden opportunity last summer. Rather than cement his place in the future of the team by playing well at shortstop during Derek Jeter‘s various leg injuries, he got hurt himself and showed little improvement at the plate or in the field. Nunez had a strong September as the (almost) everyday third baseman, but one good month wasn’t enough to salvage his season, nor should it be.
Nunez, 26, came to camp as the incumbent backup infielder but that doesn’t guarantee him anything. The Yankees could have very easily handed him the job and been done with it — they really seem to like Nunez, don’t they? — but instead they brought in several players as legitimate competition. It definitely appears as though he fell out of favor with last summer’s continued lack of progress. I don’t think they would bring in so many infielders if they were comfortable with him.
We all know what Nunez can do at this point, right? He is a high contact hitter who can run but doesn’t have much power — he did say he spent most of the winter trying to bulk up and add strength, for what it’s worth — and his defense is a complete wildcard. He’ll make a stunning play one inning and botch a routine one later in the game. Unfortunately the bad plays outweigh the good ones. Nunez is not being handed a bench job and if he doesn’t make a strong case for one in camp, he has a minor league option left and can go to Triple-A.
2B/3B Scott Sizemore
After missing all but two games over the last two years due to back-to-back torn ACLs, the 29-year-old Sizemore signed a minor league contract and got into his first post-surgery Grapefruit League game last night. He had a nice half-season with the Athletics in 2011 (.249/.345/.433 with 11 HR) but given the sample size and the long layoff, I don’t think we can say that’s the real Sizemore. Healthy or not, he’s a tough guy to predict for the upcoming season.
If you’re a believer in uniform numbers being an indicator of a player’s roster chances, then Sizemore is sitting pretty after being issued Robinson Cano‘s old #24. Everyone else in this post other than Nunez has a number north of 70. Maybe that’s a sign the team considers Sizemore the favorite for the job as long as he’s healthy. Who knows. Either way, he has a lot to prove after missing two full years. I believe Sizemore has a best chance of being a league average player (that’s very valuable!) out of everyone in this post but making the team is not a given.
UTIL Yangervis Solarte
I didn’t expect to include the 26-year-old Solarte in this post initially, but he’s hit the snot out of the ball early in camp (.778/.800/1.444) and is very versatile, spending a bunch of time at the three non-first base infield positions as well as both corner outfield spots in his career. That would be nice to have off the bench. The switch-hitting Solarte has hit .282/.332/.404 in 1,145 Triple-A plate appearances the last two years, which is pretty underwhelming considering how hitter friendly the Pacific Coast League is.
The Yankees have shown a willingness to give roster spots to big Spring Training performers in recent years (2009 Ramiro Pena and 2012 David Phelps, most notably), so it’s not completely out of the question that Solarte could sneak onto the Opening Day roster if he keeps raking. A versatile switch-hitter would be nice to have. Then again, nothing in his track record suggests he’s some kind of hidden gem or in the middle of an early spring breakout.
* * *
Others like Zelous Wheeler and Jose Pirela have utility man profiles and are technically competing for that bench job in camp, but they are clear long shots to me. Solarte really belongs in that group as well, hot spring start notwithstanding. Because of the questionable starting infield arrangement and various injury risks, whoever gets that final bench spot may wind up playing a larger role than expected. Despite being the 24th or 25th spot on the roster, this bench spot offers quite a bit of opportunity.
Back during the late-90s dynasty, the Yankees always seemed to have a deep bench laden with former stars who accepted reduced roles. Guys like Wade Boggs, Tim Raines, and Darryl Strawberry all excelled as part-timers during the dynasty years, mostly as platoon players. They accepted their role and adjusted to the reduced playing time, helping the team as high-end role players.
In Ichiro Suzuki, the 2014 Yankees will also feature a former star in a part-time role. The club has added three outfielders to Brett Gardner in the last seven months (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury), pushing the 40-year-old Ichiro into what amounts to a glorified fifth outfielder role. If the season started today, he would be a pinch-runner and come off the bench as a defensive replacement in right field. That’s it.
Needless to say, being a part-timer will be a new experience for Ichiro. This dude is a global superstar who has been an everyday player since 1994, and when it’s all said and done, he’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame in two countries. His skills have slipped with age though, and last year he hit only .262/.297/.342 (75 OPS+) in 555 plate appearances. The Yankees had to replace him as their everyday right fielder if they wanted to contend. Ichiro now has to adjust to a new role.
“This is a place where the greatest players gather and play, so I’m really excited to play with those guys,” said Ichiro to Chad Jennings yesterday. “Obviously with the additions, I’m going to have to find a place for myself, but I worked hard this offseason. I worked on a lot of things, and throughout Spring Training, hopefully those things will come together and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
I actually think that, given his skillset, Ichiro would be excellent in his current role. His defense did fall off a bit last year but it was still solidly above-average, plus he remains a stolen base threat and a smart base-runner. I think experience is something that can very valuable in role players; you know Ichiro will make the smart base-running play and be in good position defensively. Speed and defense are the things he can still offer his team. He just can’t hit anymore.
The question isn’t so much if Suzuki still has the skills to be a pinch-runner or defensive replacement (I believe he does), but whether he can adjust to that role. Going from an everyday player to a part-timer is tough. Veteran plays tend to be set with their routines and finding a new one is difficult. Staying sharp when you aren’t on the field everyday is not something guys can do with a snap of the fingers. Being a productive bench player is something of an art.
The Yankees shopped Ichiro in trades this offseason but weren’t able to find a taker, so at this point it seems likely he will open the season with the team. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect him to be as productive as Raines was back in the day, but I think Ichiro could be one of the best backup outfielders in baseball this year, as long as he figures out how to/is willing to adjust to decreased playing time. He can definitely be an asset to the Yankees off the bench if he does make that adjustment.
Unless the Yankees surprisingly sign Stephen Drew, they will head into the regular season with Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson at second and third base, respectively. Brendan Ryan will probably see time all around the infield. The Yankees have indicated the last bench spot will go to another infielder, with 40-man roster guys like Eduardo Nunez and Dean Anna competing against non-roster invitees Russ Canzler, Corban Joseph, and Scott Sizemore.
“It hasn’t been a good two years,” said Sizemore to Kevin Kernan last week, referring to the left ACL he has torn twice in the last 24 months. “It was devastating really. After going through it the first time and feeling like I was ready to go, healthy, I felt like I was back on my way but obviously, two serious knee injuries, doubts crept into my mind if I was ever going to be able to play again … I’m feeling pretty good, getting back on the field feels great and I haven’t had any issues with the knee.”
Sizemore, who turned 29 last month, tore the knee ligament in Spring Training 2012 and then again last April, after playing only two regular season games with the Athletics. Before that he had shown quite a bit of promise with Oakland, hitting .249/.345/.433 (118 wRC+) with eleven homers and a 12.1% walk rate in 355 plate appearances following a midseason trade with the Tigers in 2011. It was the initial knee injury that led to the A’s moving Josh Donaldson from catcher to third base, so things worked out well for them.
The two lost years mean Sizemore will come to camp next week as a complete unknown. Sure, that 2011 effort with Oakland was promising, but it was only 355 plate appearances and that doesn’t mean much of anything. Baseball America (no subs. req’d) called him a “blue-collar grinder who comes to the park ready to play every day” and a potential “steady if not spectacular regular,” but that was four years ago now. Hitting is a rhythm and timing thing, and it can be very easy to lose that rhythm and timing if you spend two years rehabbing a knee injury.
“Throughout the rehab process, I kind of knew what to expect the second time around, so I really pushed myself even harder, being that I figured this was my last go-round,” added Sizemore. “I feel like I’ve had really good results so far. I haven’t had a lot of baseball experience in the last two years, but as far as a mental toughness standpoint, I’ve definitely learned to grind through some stuff and have a higher pain tolerance.”
Luckily for Sizemore, who is a second and third baseman by trade, the infield bar is rather low right now. Roberts hasn’t played much these last four years, and, when he has played, he hasn’t been all that good. Johnson has minimal experience at third base. If he plays anything like he did with the A’s in 2011, Joe Girardi will work Sizemore into the lineup everyday. Even if he comes back as a league-average hitter, someone with a little power and a healthy amount of walks, he’ll see regular playing time. There’s a lot of opportunity on the infield right now.
Of course, Sizemore would have to beat out Nunez and Anna and whoever else for that last bench spot in Spring Training before even getting that opportunity. That’s not a given. Not for a non-40-man roster guy coming off two major knee injuries. Nunez had a decent run after returning from a ridcage injury last July and Anna had a really strong year in Triple-A with the Padres, so they have their own cases for that bench job. I do think that, given his skillset and sliver of big league success, Sizemore could potentially help the Yankees the most if he’s healthy and shakes the rust off in camp. That is a rather big if, though.
The Yankees came into this offseason with a lot of needs. They needed to upgrade their lineup, their rotation, and their bullpen, so pretty much entire team. The offense was addressed weeks ago and the team is working on the pitching staff at the moment — only 55 hours or so left in Masahiro Tanaka‘s signing period! — but there is still more work to be done. There never isn’t a move to be made, really.
One spot we haven’t discussed this winter is Mark Teixeira‘s backup at first base. That position is a low priority in the grand scheme of things and that was especially true this offseason. There were so many other and more important things to worry about first. Now that we’re getting closer to Spring Training and Teixeira says his wrist is still stiff — probably not that uncommon less than seven months out from surgery, but still not ideal — we should probably sit down to think about this a bit.
Russ Canzler is the obvious in-house option. The Yankees signed him to a minor league deal a few weeks ago and his best position is first base, so he’s a logical option. I expect him to start the year with Triple-A Scranton, though winning a bench spot in camp isn’t completely out of the question. After that there’s … uh … Kelly Johnson? He has a total of 18 innings (across three games) at the position in his career, all last year with the Rays. Not exactly a ton of experience.
That’s pretty much it as a far as internal options. Playing Brian McCann at first every once in a while seems like a good idea but he’s never played the position during his professional career. I can’t help but think back to Gary Sheffield in 2006, when the Yankees stuck him at first and he looked completely lost. Like he’d never picked up a glove in his life. First base is the easiest position on the field but that doesn’t mean it isn’t tough to learn, especially on the fly. This applies to guys like Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, and even Derek Jeter as well.
As far as options outside the organization, the list of available free agent first baseman is pretty small right now. From MLBTR:
Jeff Baker (33)
Yuniesky Betancourt (32)
Casey Kotchman (31)
Kendrys Morales (30)
Carlos Pena (36)
Chad Tracy (34)
Ty Wigginton (36)
Betancourt and Wigginton are both terrible and not worth roster spots, Tracy and Kotchman have both been awful in three of the last four years, and Pena is pretty much toast at this point. Baker would be a fine pickup given his ability to pound lefties and play all over the field, plus the Yankees have interest in signing him, so that’s cool. He could backup Teixeira.
At this point Morales would be a long-term solution, as in Teixeira’s wrist acts up and he needs to miss a big chunk of the season again. Otherwise what would the Yankees do with him? They already have about five guys slated to spend a bunch of time at DH next year and adding another — Morales has played 214 games at DH and only 59 at first the last two years — doesn’t make sense at all. They have nowhere to play him. If Tex hurts his wrist again and misses a bunch of time, sure, Morales would be a fit. But that’s the only situation in which he makes sense for the current roster.
There is one other free agent out there who would fit the roster as a backup first baseman, but he’s hiding away under another position. Here, look:
Michael Young (37)
Sneaky. The Yankees had interest in Young earlier this winter but Ken Rosenthal says he’s been mulling retirement so he can spend more time with his family. Luring a player away from retirements feels like something right out of the Yankees’ roster building playbook, so we can’t rule him out just yet. Young has played a bunch of first (and third base) in recent years and his bat wasn’t terrible last season (102 wRC+), though I’m not sure how much gas is left in that tank at age 37. Just a year ago he hit to a 79 wRC+, remember.
I think that, if the season started today, Johnson would be the backup first baseman whenever Teixeira needs a day off almost by default. That last open bench spot figures to go to a second/third base capable infielder like Scott Sizemore or Eduardo Nunez, not a lumbering guy like Canzler. That could always change but right now it seems unlikely. If Teixeira suffers a setback in camp and has to miss the start of the season, I think the Yankees would do what they did last year and wait to see who gets released in March. Scrounging the scrap heap for a first baseman in Spring Training is not ideal, but given the current roster construction, that’s probably what it’ll come to if Teixeira gets hurt. Until then, Johnson seems to be the guy.
Thanks to all the injuries, the Yankees went through a small army of infielders this past season. They went internal with Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, David Adams, and Corban Joseph before going outside the organization for guys like Alberto Gonzalez, Chris Nelson, Luis Cruz, Brent Lillibridge, and Reid Brignac. Seven different players started a game at shortstop for New York in 2013 while ten (ten!) started a game at third. Eventually Brendan Ryan and Mark Reynolds helped stabilize things.
All four infield spots are a question mark right now for various reasons. Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter are returning from major injury, Robinson Cano is a free agent, and Alex Rodriguez may or may not be suspended. Nunez, Nix, and (to a lesser extent) Adams played fairly regularly last season and failed to impress, at least impress enough to solidify their standing as viable infield options should the need arise in 2014. Adding infield depth will be a priority this offseason and so far it’s the only area the team has addressed.
Since re-signing Derek Jeter to a new one-year contract, the Yankees have reportedly agreed to re-sign Ryan and acquired Dean Anna in a minor trade. Ryan won’t hit at all but his defense is among the best in the game and allows him to be a net positive if playing everyday. He’s not great, mind you, but you can run him out there on a regular basis and get some return. The 26-year-old Anna is a lefty bat with little power but quite a bit of on-base ability, plus he’s capable at the two middle infield positions. With all due respect to Ben Paullus, the Single-A reliever who went to the Padres in the deal, Anna cost basically nothing.
To me, bringing back Ryan and adding Anna for depth is an indication the Yankees have either grown tired of Nunez or will non-tender Jayson Nix prior to next month’s deadline. Maybe both. Nix is projected to earn $1.4M through arbitration next year and although I think he’s perfectly fine as a rarely used backup infielder, that is a bit pricey for what he brings to the table. Maybe he’d be worth keeping at that price in a luxury tax-free world. Nunez has been in the big leagues for parts of four seasons now and he hasn’t hit (86 wRC+) or shown any real improvement defensively. There’s only so much patience you have have with someone who projects to be an okay player but not a star if things go right.
Nunez appears to have a minor league option remaining and can go to Triple-A Scranton next season, so the Yankees won’t have to worry about finding a spot for him. I doubt he would fetch much in a trade anyway. The club has him, Ryan, and Anna to serve as depth behind Jeter at the moment, though the obvious caveat is that the offseason is still very young. Nix could return on a minor league deal (I would like that very much, actually) but you couldn’t blame him if he sought out another team that offers more of an opportunity if he is non-tendered. As a veteran guy who’s been in the show a while, Ryan sits atop the utility infielder depth chart and will open the year on the bench if the Cap’n is healthy enough to play shortstop. Anna and Nunez are behind him.
Regardless of what happens to A-Rod, the Yankees have to bring in a capable third baseman because he’s going to miss time one way or another next season, either through suspension or injury. That still has to be done. Middle infield depth was another priority this winter given the uncertainty surrounding Jeter following his self-proclaimed nightmare season, and early on they’ve addressed that with the Ryan and Anna moves. Nix became expandable and so did Nunez, but there’s no sense in dumping him until absolutely necessary since he’ll earn something close to the minimum and can go to Triple-A. The Yankees have a lot of business to take of this winter, but they’ve already made a series of moves to upgrade the utility infielder spot and add middle infield depth.
Two weeks and one day ago, the Yankees and Dodgers were rained out at Yankee Stadium. They played a doubleheader the next day and that forced New York to call up Ivan Nova for a spot start four days later. Nova has remained with the team ever since that spot start ten days ago, meaning they’ve been playing with an eight-man bullpen and a three-man bench for more than a week. That’s no big deal for a day or two, but ten is pushing it.
The three-man bench has come back to bite them in just one painfully obvious way so far, in the ninth inning of Sunday’s loss to the Orioles. Lyle Overbay started the inning with a double, but the next three batters were Jayson Nix, Chris Stewart, and David Adams. The only hitters on the bench were Alberto Gonzalez and Austin Romine — Vernon Wells was used off the bench in the eighth — so Joe Girardi had no real option to pitch-hit and the rally was soon snuffed out. Having that one extra bat would have been a help.
While the bench has been a man short, the bullpen has been a man heavy. Girardi opted to use Nova over Adam Warren in long relief of an ineffective David Phelps this past Saturday, which is fine except that Warren has now appeared in just four (!) games in the last 33 days. One of those outings last one batter (last night). I get that long relievers work on irregular schedules and could go a week or so between appearances, but that’s just ridiculous. There’s no need to carry two long men, not when the offense has trouble scoring runs and you’re playing a position player short.
Now, the elephant in the room here is that there are no obvious call-up candidates in Triple-A to help the bench. Outfielder Brennan Boesch, infielder Corban Joseph, and utility man Ronnie Mustelier are all on the minor league DL, so they aren’t options. Thomas Neal, who was sent down to make room for Nova ten days ago, is eligible to come back up today, so he’s an option. Then again, adding another right-handed bat to a three-righty bench is less than ideal.
That leaves a bunch of Quad-A types as call-up candidates: outfielder and former top prospect Fernando Martinez, corner infielder Dan Johnson, first baseman/DH Randy Ruiz, outfielder Corey Patterson, and utility man Brent Lillibridge. Johnson is the only one of those four who has been with the organization all year — the rest were acquired in the last two weeks or so. Martinez (177 wRC+) has been hitting the best with Triple-A Scranton, though Lillibridge has a strong big league season to his credit in the not too distant past (125 wRC+ in 2011) and can play almost everywhere. Martinez, Johnson, and Patterson are lefty hitters.
The 40-man roster is not a problem at the moment. The Yankees currently have one open 40-man spot, plus both Mark Teixeira and Kevin Youkilis can be transferred over to the 60-day DL at any time given their injuries. We’re not talking about clogging up the 40-man with another prospect, it’ll be a spare part who can be designated for assignment at a moment’s notice. The only thing standing in the way is the decision to demote either Warren or Nova. Frankly, I don’t care which one goes, but one should.
Hiroki Kuroda‘s minor hip problem means both Nova and Warren will stick around for another few days, but as soon as Kuroda is ready to rejoin the rotation, I’d send one of the two long men down in favor of an extra bat. I’d probably go with Johnson myself, just because he’d add a lefty bat who can actually hit the ball out of the park on occasion to the bench. The Yankees need some more homerun power. He could also spot start at first base and DH, which would help given the suddenly long-standing struggles of Lyle Overbay and Travis Hafner.
Two long men and three-man bench doesn’t do this team much good as presently constructed. Adding an extra position player is something they should consider doing as soon as Kuroda is healthy enough to make one of Nova and Warren unnecessary.
The Yankees were hit hard by injuries and setbacks in Spring Training, forcing them to mine the scrap heap for stopgap solutions in the weeks and days leading up to Opening Day. One position that needed to be addressed since the end of last season was a right-handed hitting complement for their three-lefty outfield. Andruw Jones played his way out of New York in the second half and finding a replacement was near the top of the offseason agenda.
Brian Cashman & Co. flirted with pretty much all available options during the winter, including free agent Scott Hairston and trade target Vernon Wells. The team eventually acquired Wells from the Angels, but not until the very end of camp, when injuries left the team without a left fielder and the lineup devoid of power. It wasn’t until the very end of the offseason that the Yankees imported Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz on minor league contracts to compete for Andruw’s role.
Neither guy made the cut as New York instead opted to take Ben Francisco north after he was released by the Indians. Since youngsters like Melky Mesa, Thomas Neal, and Zoilo Almonte had little chance of making the veteran-loving Yankees, Francisco’s relative youth and defensive competence won him the job over Rivera and Diaz.
So far this year, the 31-year-old Francisco has hit just .114/.220/.182 (12 wRC+) overall, including a measly 3-for-34 (16 wRC+) against left-handers. Three-for-34! A southpaw-heavy schedule allowed the Yankees to start Francisco in eight of 12 games at one point last month, and he responded with three singles in 25 at-bats. Worst of all, he batted either second or fifth in seven of those eight games.
“He’s struggled,” said Joe Girardi to Mark Feinsand two weeks ago. “He’s had some good at-bats, and he’s struggled somewhat. You don’t want a guy to feel like every at-bat is the end of the world. Just go out and play and take care of what you can take care of, and that’s really all you can do. Go out and have good at-bats … Just go out and have good at-bats.”
Are 40 plate appearances against lefties and 50 plate appearances against all pitchers a big, meaningful sample? No, but players on the right-handed half of a platoon aren’t privy to big samples. They get 200, maybe 250 plate appearances in a given season. There’s no guarantee Francisco will get enough playing time to see his .125 BABIP (.080 vs. LHP) return to his career .287 (.267 vs. LHP) average. Girardi is loyal to his players and has given Francisco every opportunity to bust out of this slump so far, but he has shown zero signs of snapping out of it.
“Just in terms of your fan comments section, just say I’m holding onto him to piss everybody off,” said Brian Cashman to reporters over the weekend before going on to acknowledge the team always looks for upgrades and will pounce if a better right-handed hitting outfielder becomes available. Cashman is a great quote and he has an 80 troll tool, but he’s no idiot. He knows Francisco and the lack of a quality right-handed bat — the Yankees are hitting .228/.299/.359 (75 wRC+) against lefties this year — is a major issue right now.
None of the team’s righty bats in Triple-A are distinguishing themselves right now — Mesa is striking out in over 40% of his plate appearances while Neal and Zoilo own .739 and .623 OPSes against lefties, respectively — so any solution will likely have to come from outside the organization. The trade market should start to heat up with June on the horizon, but Francisco’s time has come. We’ve seen enough to know a replacement is needed regardless of who is on the DL and when they’re scheduled to be activated.
Thanks to the magic of interleague play, the Yankees will play their next three games under National League rules. They open a three-game set with the Rockies in Coors Field later tonight, which means pitchers hitting and bunts and double switches and all sorts of other stuff we never see in the so-called Junior Circuit. It gets passed off as “strategy,” but whatever. Most of the moves are no-brainers that require no real thought.
Anyway, because the Yankees will be in an NL park, they’re going to use their non-starting players more than usual these next three games. Someone like Brennan Boesch will go from rarely-used backup outfielder to important lefty pinch-hitter. Vidal Nuno, the last man in the bullpen, could become a matchup lefty or middle innings guy depending on how the ballpark treats the team’s pitchers. Unfortunately, some nagging injuries might leave the Yankees in a bit of a roster bind.
For starters, Eduardo Nunez is day-to-day with what the team called left ribcage irritation. I think that means an oblique problem, and we all know how tricky those can me. Joe Girardi has already acknowledged his starting shortstop is unlikely to be healthy enough in time for the series opener tonight, so the Yankees will be a position player short. That means they don’t have a backup for Jayson Nix and Chris Nelson, will be are short a pinch-hitter, don’t have an obvious pinch-runner … losing a position player in an NL park hurts.
Secondly, David Robertson is still a question mark for tonight due to his left hamstring trouble. He played catch in New York over the weekend and will give it another try this afternoon, and if that goes well he’ll throw a little in the bullpen. If the bullpen goes well, he’ll be available in the game. If not, Girardi will again be short his best non-Mariano Rivera reliever and only have six pitchers in the bullpen. That might not be such a big deal tonight coming off the off-day, but it will be a problem if Robertson still isn’t available come Wednesday or Thursday.
On top of that, Travis Hafner is close to a dead roster spot. He can’t play the field at all, so for these next three games he’ll be a strategic left-handed pinch-hitter and nothing more. That’s an awesome bat to have on the bench for big situations, but it leaves the Yankees short another position player. With Nunez banged up and Hafner unplayable in the field, the Yankees could be heading to Colorado with a three-man bench of Boesch, Ben Francisco, and Austin Romine. It’s a short-term thing, but it still stinks.
Hopefully Nunez’s ribcage and Robertson’s hamstring will feel better tonight and the Yankees can move forward will a full roster. They’re missing a ton of players as it is, but at least players on the DL can be replaced. These guys who are day-to-day with nagging injuries can’t be replaced, so the team has to play shorthanded until they’re ready to go. That’s not a big deal in AL parks thanks to the DH, but in the NL, where pinch-hitters and the like are imperative, it’s a big disadvantage. The Yankees have a bit of a roster mess heading into this series against the Rockies.
Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.
Previewing the bench will not be easy because we still — four days before Opening Day — have basically no idea who will fill these four spots. Sure, either Frankie Cervelli or Chris Stewart will be the backup catcher, but we don’t know which one yet. I’m guessing Joe Girardi has some kind of convoluted personal catcher situation planned; I feel like having two backup catchers on the roster is his managerial dream.
As for the backup outfield and infield spots … who knows right now? There are a lot of candidates for a few spots and the Yankees continue to look outside the organization for help. Given their massive 40-man roster logjam, a multi-player trade shouldn’t be ruled out at this point either.
It’ll be either Stewart or Cervelli and the Yankees have indicated a pretty even playing time split (maybe more like 60/40), I think it’ll only be a matter of time before Frankie grabs the job outright. His throwing has been greatly improved and he’s a far better hitter (but still nothing special), the two things that stand out most about a catcher. If they start the year with a 55/45 or 60/40 split, I think sometime in mid-May it’ll be slanted about 75/25 in favor of Cervelli. The Yankees love Stewart but they love winning more, and playing a guy with a legit chance to post a .200s across the board slash line will only last so long given how much offense they lost elsewhere.
Derek Jeter‘s nagging ankle issues cleared up the backup infield situation quite a bit. Eduardo Nunez will open the season as the starter and that paves the way for Jayson Nix to make the team as his backup. There really isn’t much competition for this spot — veteran Gil Velazquez is the only other guy in camp who could play a passable shortstop at the big league level. Again, we shouldn’t rule out a trade, but Nix seems like a lock for a bench spot right now.
The real question is whether the Yankees want to carry two backup infielders like they have the last two years, Nix and a corner infield guy like Eric Chavez. The only real candidates for that Chavez role are Dan Johnson — who seems to have little chance of making the team at this point — and Ronnie Mustelier. The 28-year-old Cuban defector has had a good spring — mostly against Triple-A caliber pitching according to B-Ref’s OppQual stat — and has seen a bunch of time at third base lately, so he’s at least earning consideration from the team. I guess we shouldn’t rule about a two-headed first base platoon with Juan Rivera and Lyle Overbay, which would soak up that second infielder’s spot.
Assuming Vernon Wells is penciled in as the everyday left fielder, the fourth outfielder’s spot is down to Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Melky Mesa, Thomas Neal, and I guess Mustelier. Depending on whether they take a second backup infielder, it’s possible two of these guys will make the team. Mustelier makes the most sense really, since he could backup both the corner infield and corner outfield spots.
Boesch and Francisco presumably have a leg up on Mesa and Neal given their big league experience, and again, both could make the team. The Yankees were planning to open the season with three left-handed outfielders and a right-handed backup, and Boesch would give them that third lefty. He also has minor league options remaining and could be stashed in Triple-A. I’m not sure if Francisco has an out clause in his contract before the end of Spring Training, so sending him to the minors might not be an option. The Yankees will want to retain as much depth as possible given their rash of injuries.
Knocking on the Door
In addition to the guys mentioned above — Velazquez, Johnson, Mesa, Neal, etc. — the Yankees will have a handful of other bench options waiting in Triple-A Scranton. That is what the level is there for, after all. Austin Romine is the clear third catcher but would probably need an injury to earn a shot in the big leagues. He’s missed a lot of time these last two years with back problems and needs to play everyday.
Corban Joseph gives the team depth at second and third bases, though they had more before releasing David Adams yesterday. Zoilo Almonte is another warm body for the outfield mix, but he has never played above Double-A and will need some Triple-A time before coming to the show. He’s pretty much at the bottom of the outfield depth chart at the moment. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t win a bench spot will open the year in Triple-A as a backup plan. That’s who’s knocking on the door.
* * *
My opinion changes by the day/hour, but if the season started today I believe the Yankees would go with a four-man bench of Stewvelli, Nix, Mustelier, and Boesch with Francisco & Co. heading to Triple-A for the time being. The club could play finagle Phil Hughes‘ expected DL stint into a fifth bench player — Francisco would be the guy for that one, I assume — for the first few games of the season, but I don’t see that happening.
That four-man bench pretty much stinks. There is no speed to pinch-run — that would have been Nunez’s job before he forced into playing short everyday — and basically no versatility outside of Nix. Carrying Mesa over Boesch would address the speed issue while Mustelier is the only one who could offer real versatility. Barring an unexpected trade(s) these next few days, the bench figures to be a work in progress pretty much all season.
The Yankees acquired Vernon Wells from the Angels yesterday — begrudgingly, I’m sure — a move that helped clear up some of the roster questions heading into the regular season. The right-handed Wells and left-handed Brennan Boesch will presumably share left field/fourth outfielder responsibilities with either Juan Rivera or the recently signed Lyle Overbay temporarily replacing Mark Teixeira at first base. A trade for a new first baseman shouldn’t be ruled out, but I don’t expect it. With Eduardo Nunez taking over for the injured Derek Jeter at short, Jayson Nix figures to make the team as the utility infielder.
Even though Wells, Boesch, Nunez, Nix, and either Rivera or Overbay are all expected to make the team now, the Yankees still have one bench spot and potentially two bullpen spots to figure out. Here’s the projected roster as of today, in case you don’t believe me:
|C Chris Stewart/Frankie Cervelli||C Stewvelli||CC Sabathia||Mariano Rivera|
|1B Rivera or Overbay||IF Nix||Hiroki Kuroda||David Robertson|
|2B Robinson Cano||OF Wells/Boesch||Andy Pettitte||Joba Chamberlain|
|SS Nunez||?||Ivan Nova||Boone Logan|
|3B Kevin Youkilis||David Phelps||David Aardsma|
|CF Brett Gardner||?|
|RF Ichiro Suzuki|
|DH Travis Hafner|
One of those bullpen ?s could disappear if Phil Hughes is able to avoid the DL to start the season, but that looks increasingly unlikely. He isn’t expected to miss much time anyway. Clay Rapada, on the other hand, will indeed start the season on the DL, ditto Jeter, Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Curtis Granderson.
Shawn Kelley, Cody Eppley, and the recently claimed Dan Otero are candidates for one of those vacant bullpen spots, and I assume Kelley is the front-runner because the other two have been Awful with a capital-A in camp. Left-hander Vidal Nuno is a consideration for the other open bullpen spot — “Still talking about it,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings the other day. “Obviously Nuno has opened everybody’s eyes and taken a run at it, still trying to force his way on. We’ll go with one lefty, or we’ll go with two.” — and he’s been used in traditional LOOGY spots (lefty batter, middle of an inning, etc.) the last few times out.
Assuming one of those three 40-man relievers gets one of open bullpen spots, the Yankees will still need to open at least three (!) 40-man spots before the Opening Day: one for Rivera or Overbay, one for Nix, and one for whoever gets that fourth bench spot (Ben Francisco? Ronnie Mustelier?). Nuno could potentially make it four 40-man spots, but I suppose they could take Eppley or Otero or Kelley or even Adam Warren as a short-term bullpen arm until Hughes comes back. Opening up three and potentially four spots will be very, very difficult.
The Yankees released a perfectly good (but not great) prospect in David Adams yesterday to make room for Wells. Cesar Cabral, Michael Pineda, and A-Rod are already on the 60-day DL, and as Jennings notes the team can’t back-date 60-day DL stints. That means Granderson can’t be placed on the 60-day because he’s expected to return in early-May. Teixeira isn’t due back until late-May/early-June, but the Yankees will want to have the option of bringing him back as soon as possible and are unlikely to 60-day DL him at this point. Since Manny Banuelos was already optioned to Triple-A, they won’t call him back up and 60-day DL him. They’re choosing between burning one of Manny’s three option years or one of his three pre-arbitration years, and obviously the former is preferable.
The 40-man roster is cluttered with a lot of Adams-esque good but not great prospects, and those guys never stand out as obvious DFA candidates. The most obvious DFA targets are Eppley and/or Otero, but sacrificing MLB-ready (and optionable!) pitching depth might not be the best idea. One could go, but two would be pushing it. That could put someone like Corban Joseph, Melky Mesa, Zoilo Almonte, or even Dellin Betances on the chopping block. I’m sure the Yankees will scour the trade market before simply cutting any of those guys loose, but as we saw yesterday, sometimes push comes to shove. Hell, maybe they could package two of ‘em together for one big leaguer (utility infielder? lefty reliever?) and kill two birds with one stone.
Outside of cutting Eppley or Otero (likely Otero), I honestly have no idea how the Yankees will handle this need for 40-man spots. Maybe they’ll take the easy way out and send Nuno to Triple-A, filling out the bullpen with 40-man arms. Melky Mesa could fill that final bench spot and he’s already on the 40-man. Maybe Joseph or Almonte sneak onto the roster for a few days — even though they’ve already been optioned down — just to ease the 40-man headache. Either way, the Yankees are still going to need to open up two spots (Nix and Rivera/Overbay) and that won’t be easy. The roster is an absolute mess right now.