Archive for Bench
Day one without Alex Rodriguez went well, as the Yankees mounted their league-leading 31st come-from-behind win to take the series from the Mariners. Starting third baseman Eric Chavez went 0-for-2 with a strikeout and a pair of walks (one intentional) while presumed platoon partner Jayson Nix came off the bench to hit the go-ahead three-run double in the eighth inning. The seven-game West Coast trip went about as poorly as possible, but at least they picked up that nice little win before coming.
As I said, Chavez and Nix are expected to platoon at the hot corner either until the Yankees either make a trade or get A-Rod back from the DL. Obviously Chavez’s penchant for getting hurt is a concern, especially with the increased workload. As the left-handed hitter in the platoon, he’ll see the majority of the playing time at third. Here’s a quick look at the projected opposing starting pitchers for the next two series…
- Friday vs. Red Sox: RHP Aaron Cook
- Saturday vs. Red Sox: LHP Jon Lester
- Sunday vs. Red Sox: LHP Felix Doubront
- Monday vs. Orioles: RHP Miguel Gonzalez
- Tuesday vs. Orioles: RHP Chris Tillman
- Wednesday vs. Orioles: LHP Zach Britton
Now obviously these things are subject to change, especially with the trade deadline looming, but the next six games project to feature three right-handed and three-left-handed opposing starters. Chavez won’t have to start more than two consecutive games — next Monday and Tuesday — for at least a week. The Mariners come to town after the series with Baltimore and if they trade southpaw Jason Vargas as rumored, they’ll likely have five right-handed starters in their rotation. After that the Yankees are off to Detroit for four games and they have five right-handers in their rotation since Drew Smyly is on the DL. That’s when things will get tricky with the platoon and resting Chavez.
The trade deadline is 4pm ET on Tuesday, so the Yankees have plenty of time to swing a (major or minor) deal for a third baseman. I get the sense that Eduardo Nunez will eventually be back to replace Ramiro Pena, perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, and will get a chance to man the position regularly. The Yankees didn’t call him up yesterday just because of the travel and the timing — by not going to Seattle he’ll be able to play in two Triple-A games (yesterday and today) instead of zero big league games. Even if they leave Nunez down for a few more days, the schedule works in their favor through this weekend and early next week as far as not overtaxing Chavez.
As we’ve learned through the years, winning the AL East and eventually a World Series takes an awful lot more than the nine regular position players, five starting pitchers, and a closer. Clubs need not just a strong bullpen and bench, but they also need quality backup backup players in Triple-A. The full 40-man roster is important.
The Yankees have gotten some excellent production from their projected reserve players this season, but they also assumed more prominent roles due to injuries — specifically Brett Gardner‘s. Dewayne Wise filled in admirably for a while but was replaced on the roster by Ichiro Suzuki yesterday. He’s not the Ichiro of old but he does add some sorely needed speed and outfield defense, and perhaps more importantly he relegates those reserve players back into their projected roles.
Gardner’s injury forced Ibanez into left field far more often than we or the Yankees would have liked, but now he gets to return to the platoon DH role he was brought in to fill. Ichiro is going to play left field against right-handed pitchers while Ibanez’s bat stays in the lineup and his glove stays in the clubhouse. Hopefully the extra rest can revive Raul’s bat a bit, because he has tailed off noticeably since that monster start in April…
We’re still going to see Ibanez play the field once in a while since Joe Girardi figures to rest Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher more often down the stretch, especially if the Yankees maintain their big division lead. Once a week isn’t the end of the world but not having to run him out to left day after day is a huge boon.
Andruw’s role actually won’t change very much at all. He was and remains the right-handed hitting half of the left field/DH platoon, so whether he subs in for Ichiro in left or Ibanez at DH depends on the day and whoever else is resting. Jones already has just 22 fewer plate appearances against righties this year thanlast, so expect that pace to change a bit. He’ll probably get fewer total plate appearances moving forward that he otherwise would have, but that’s not necessarily a bat thing as long he still takes his hacks against southpaws, either as a starter or off the bench.
In terms of playing time, Chavez probably lost the most with the Ichiro pickup. He had been getting regular DH and third base plate appearances — just six fewer plate appearances than last season with two months to go — but now will give Alex Rodriguez a day or two off a week and little more. There will be occasional spot starts at DH and Chavez could spell Mark Teixeira at first base once in a while, plus he’ll be the primary left-handed pinch-hitter off the bench. Given his fragile body, less playing time for Chavez is probably a good thing in terms of keeping him healthy down the stretch and potentially into the postseason.
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I’m hopeful that with Ibanez spending more time at DH, Girardi will be a more open to pinch-hitting for him against tough lefties in the later innings. As the left fielder, a pinch-hitting appearance generally required three players — Ibanez the starter, Jones the pinch-hitter, and Wise the defensive replacement. Now they can replace Ibanez with Jones, leave Ichiro in the outfield, and still have Chavez on the bench in case Andruw winds up facing a right-hander later in the game. Whether or not he’s actually open to doing that remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously optimistic.
Ichiro isn’t Gardner but he’s a reasonable approximation, at least in the field and on the bases. The Yankees should use him in a similar way, which means hitting near the bottom of the lineup while sitting against tough lefties. Returning Ibanez, Chavez, and to a lesser extent Jones to their intended roles is a fringe benefit that may have huge dividends if Raul stays fresh and Chavez stays healthy.
The Yankees played their 60th game of the season last night and they’ve only had Brett Gardner in the starting lineup for eight of them. The elbow injury he suffered sliding for a ball against the Twins has morphed into a series of setbacks that culminated with a visit to Dr. James Andrews yesterday. Gardner will see Dr. Tim Kremcheck for a second opinion on Thursday, at which point the Yankees will presumably announce the latest diagnosis.
Barring some fortunate and frankly unexpected good news, Gardner is going to miss several more weeks. A few days ago Joe Girardi indicated that he doesn’t expect his left fielder back until after the All-Star break, which is still more than a month away. Raul Ibanez has been better than expected and softened the blow of losing Gardner a bit, but the Yankees can’t really rely on him as the everyday left fielder for an extended period of time. He’s already started 33 games in the field and at 40 years old, there has to be some concern about him wearing down later in the season.
Unless the Yankees get good news on Thursday, they have to at least consider bolstering their roster with Gardner on the shelf. With all due respect to Dewayne Wise, he’s nothing more than a defensive replacement/spot starter in the big leagues. The Yankees can do better without having to go outside the organization, they have some potential solutions sitting in Triple-A.
I’ve written about Dickerson before, noting that he offers the ability to hit right-handed pitching (career .341 wOBA against northpaws) in addition to strong defense and base running skills. I don’t know if he’s a better defensive player than Wise but the difference isn’t worth arguing about. Dickerson can handle all three outfield spots with aplomb as well as contribute offensively with his bat and legs. The Yankees don’t have to play him every day in a straight platoon, but they could run him out there three times a week against righties while keeping Ibanez in the DH role. Cutting Wise in favor of Dickerson — who is out of minor league options and would have be waived whenever Gardner is healthy — is an upgrade in almost every single way.
Joe and I talked about this option on yesterday’s podcast. The idea would be to dump Wise, keep playing Ibanez in left, and use Branyan as the regular DH against right-handers. He’s come back very well from his back injury — six homers in 13 minor league games already — but it’s tough to consider him anything more than a first baseman/DH option. Branyan’s days of even faking third base and the corner outfield are a thing of the past. Adding a huge left-handed power bat lineup is obviously desirable, but it would leave the Yankees without a true backup center fielder and further limit roster flexibility.
I suppose it’s also worth mentioning Jack Cust here, who is also raking in Triple-A but has yet to play a single game in the field. It’s been DH or the bench. At least Branyan has played first base pretty much every game.
The most interesting 27-year-old in the minor league system, Mustelier has been hitting non-stop since signing last summer and he’s now doing it at the Triple-A level. Joe Girardi raved about his bat speed recently and said his name has come up as a call-up candidate at various points this year … but that’s pretty much all we know about the guy. He’s small — listed at 5-foot-10 and 210 lbs. — and right-handed with phenomenal numbers, but we don’t know anything about his defensive skills or speed or anything else. Box scores only tell you so much. Mustelier has spent a ton of time in left field and also has experience in the infield, so his versatility as a plus. He’s not an ideal platoon candidate given his right-handedness, but he could also hit enough that it doesn’t even matter.
This one probably won’t happen for a number of reasons. For one, Nunez is currently on the minor league DL with a thumb issue. For another, the Yankees sent him to Triple-A to focus on one position after bouncing him all around the field over the last year or so. Calling Nunez back up to do anything — utility infielder, platoon left fielder, etc. — would go against that plan. That doesn’t mean it’s not an option, just that it seems unlikely. That said, we can’t rule anything out. Whenever Nunez gets healthy — probably soon since he was taking grounders just last week — he figures to at least be on the call-up radar.
As always, the top minor league affiliate is chock full of random call-up options. Brandon Laird is on the 40-man roster and can play all four corner spots, but he can’t hit — .251/.289/.393 in 870 total plate appearances in Triple-A. Corban Joseph has zero outfield experience so he’s of no use in this situation despite being on the 40-man. Colin Curtis is a solid enough defensive player and can play all three outfield spots, but he’s never been much with the stick. Kevin Russo can play all over the field and make some contact, but otherwise isn’t any kind of upgrade. Neither he nor Curtis is on the 40-man roster as well. Not much to see here.
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Of course, the Yankees always have the option of doing nothing and sticking with their current setup. Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and Jayson Nix could continue to take turns in left field while Wise gets nothing more than the occasional spot start. That’s fine for two weeks or whatever, but I’d rather not see them roll with it for an extended period of time. It’s already been long enough as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, stuff is like this begging for a poll, so…
I can’t imagine many Yankees fans look back fondly on the Cody Ransom era. He was a late-season call-up in 2008, hit two homers and two doubles in his first four at-bats in pinstripes, then failed spectacularly in 2009 after getting a chance to replace the injured Alex Rodriguez on an everyday basis. Overall, Ransom posted a 97 wRC+ in 137 plate appearances for New York despite being declared a better fit for the team than A-Rod. It was a crazy time.
The now 36-year-old Ransom is back on the market after being designated for assignment by the Diamondbacks earlier this week. He hit four homers and put together a 148 wRC+ in 58 plate appearances for Arizona before getting the axe in favor of the younger Josh Bell. The Yankees are stuck with Jayson Nix as their utility infielder at the moment because Eduardo Nunez had to be sent to Triple-A for defensive incompetence, but Nix isn’t anything to write home about himself. There’s actually some merit to bringing Ransom back for an encore.
Since both guys are classic Quad-A types, we’re talking about a marginal upgrade at the 24th or 25th roster spot. Ransom has performed better in limited big league time (90 vs. 71 wRC+) and the two guys have nearly identical Triple-A track records, though Cody offers a little more power (.183 vs. 164 ISO) and on-base ability (8.8 vs. 7.6 BB%). The biggest difference between the two probably comes on defense, as Ransom is a true shortstop capable of playing the position for weeks at a time if need be. You can’t say the same about Nix, though he has the advantage of being able to play the corner outfield spots.
Anyway, I don’t want to waste too much time talking about a move that would be largely inconsequential. Ransom is not a guy you want in the lineup on an everyday basis but like Nix, he has a skillset suited for a big league bench. It’s just that Ransom’s skillset might be a better fit for the Yankees even though he’s seven years old than Nix and has already had one forgettable stint in pinstripes. Claiming him off waivers and dumping Nix would be a justifiable move but hardly a season-saver. If they pass, well that’s no big deal either.
The Yankees have a bit of an outfield problem at the moment. Brett Gardner has been on the DL for nearly two weeks with a bone bruise and a right elbow strain, and yesterday Nick Swisher joined him in the infirmary with a low-grade left hamstring strain. The early word is that it will keep him on the shelf for “more than a few days” but not long enough to require a DL stint. It’s one of those in-between injuries, one that really throws a wrench into the current roster situation.
At the moment, the starting outfield is Curtis Granderson in center with Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones flanking him in the corners. The fourth outfielder is Eduardo Nunez by default, and he has 18.1 career innings in the outfield. The Yankees are left with a two-man bench for the time being, and one of the two is the backup catcher. Unless they unexpectedly release Freddy Garcia or demote the recently recalled D.J. Mitchell, there’s no obvious candidate on the pitching staff to go to Triple-A in favor of an extra position player.
“We won’t (add an outfielder) before tomorrow,” said Joe Girardi after yesterday’s game. “We’ll see how it goes. Gardy’s eligible to come back on Thursday. We’ll see how that goes. We could try to go through (without a call-up until then). We’ll see what happens and go from there.”
Gardner has swung in the cage in each of the last two days and could take batting practice as soon as today. I don’t know if a minor league rehab stint is necessary after such a short layoff, but basically everything has to go right between now and Thursday for the Yankees to get him back into the outfield after the minimum 15 days. It’s certainly possible, but planning for the best case scenario never seems like a smart thing to do.
If Swisher’s injury truly doesn’t require a DL stint, the best roster solution probably involves placing Garcia on the DL. They’re not going to release him after four starts, and frankly the Yankees should hold onto whatever pitching depth they have at the moment. Girardi did suggest that Freddy could be sent for medical tests following Saturday’s game due to his relative lack of velocity, and that alone would give them a reason to put him on the shelf. The Yankees could keep Garcia in the organization, keep Mitchell’s fresh arm in the bullpen, and keep Swisher off the DL while adding an extra position player to the roster. It’s a win-win (-win-win).
Having both Ibanez and Jones in the outfield at the same time for the next few days will bring back memories of the defensive disaster years when Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon roamed the corner outfield spots in the Bronx. It won’t be pretty, but hopefully it’s only temporary. Even if it is, the Yankees would really be rolling the dice with a two-man bench until Gardner comes off the DL. Brandon Laird makes sense as a temporary reinforcement since he’s already on the 40-man roster, can play both the infield and outfield corners, and can easily be optioned down later in the week. It’s just a matter of being willing to clear a 25-man roster spot.
The season is still relatively young, but we already have a pretty good idea of how the different pieces of the roster fit together. Eduardo Nunez and Andruw Jones are part of an unorthodox DH platoon, Clay Rapada is the low-leverage lefty reliever, and Chris Stewart is the rarely seen backup catcher. David Phelps has settled in as the long man and could eventually earn more responsibility. Everyone on the roster seems to have their set role except for one man: Eric Chavez.
Through eleven games, we’ve seen Chavez a total of five times. He pinch-hit for Nunez when the Yankees were down six runs with one out in the ninth inning of the second game of the season, singling off Josh Lueke for his lone hit of the campaign. He’s pinch-made outs on three other occasions with the Yankees down multiple runs in the late innings, and in one other appearance he replaced Nunez for defensive purposes after the Yankees took the lead in extra innings in Baltimore. Other than that, he’s been nothing more than a spectator.
Before his foot injury last season, Chavez was used primarily to rest Alex Rodriguez at third base and occasionally sub-in for Mark Teixeira at first. He was getting roughly two starts a week, but now it’s Nunez getting the playing time whenever A-Rod needs a day. When Teixeira came down with flu-like symptoms prior to last night’s game, it was Nick Swisher at first, not Chavez. That probably had something to do with the left-handed Francisco Liriano being on the mound, but Joe Girardi said before the game that he wanted to rest Swisher because he anticipates using his heavily in the coming weeks. Once Tex got sick, Girardi scrapped the Swisher plan rather than start Chavez against the southpaw.
Given the Yankees’ insistence on getting Nunez playing time, Chavez is a square peg and the roster is a round hole. There’s no obvious role for him other than the occasional pinch-hitting appearance or defensive replacement late in blowouts, whenever Girardi has a chance to rest both A-Rod and Derek Jeter for a few innings. Then again, that’s usually what the 25th man on the roster does anyway. Chavez is overqualified for the job despite his injury-proneness, but I suppose that’s the perk of having veteran players want to be on your team. Once the schedule opens up a bit and off days become a little more spread out, chances are we’ll start to see a little more of Chavez. Right now he’s just a seldom used spare part.
In the mid-00s the Yankees frequently fielded inflexible teams. Led by expensive veterans, they typically had set players in each of the nine lineup spots, with little room for platooning or pinch-hitting. That made it tough to sign bench players, leaving the Yankees without much depth. Those times have clearly changed.
With some veterans needing extra days off, and with platoon-able players at some positions, the Yankees of late have taken advantage of those bench spots. They’ve filled them with guys who can hit, and guys who can run. That comes in handy not only when handling the eight players in the field, but also the DH spot. Best of all, the Yankees still have some room to maneuver with the final bench spot.
Raul Ibanez will likely get most of his playing time as the DH against right-handed pitching. Since the Yankees faced a righty starter roughly twice as often as they did a lefty starter, this could constitute a significant number of plate appearances. In fact, against righties the Yankees are pretty well set one through nine. When a lefty comes in, they still have Jones to pinch hit.
Andruw Jones will play a hybrid role. He signed with the Yankees for less money than other teams offered, so it stands to reason that he expects more playing time. Chances are he’ll start every game against left-handed pitching, whether in the DH spot or in left field, giving Brett Gardner or Curtis Granderson a day off.
Eduardo Nunez‘s role will involve subbing for all three infielders when they need time off. The Yankees have talked about using Nunez more often, though, perhaps spelling Alex Rodriguez on some days, while A-Rod DHs. That could come against left-handed pitchers, perhaps on days that Jones subs for Gardner in left field. That would certainly help fill the remaining DH at-bats against left-handed pitching.
With these three shuffling playing time, the Yankees will have filled a lot of at-bats — and innings in the field. After counting Francisco Cervelli as the backup catcher, the Yankees still have one bench spot left. That could go to either:
Eric Chavez, with whom the Yankees have been speaking, could return to his role from last year. That would involve him spelling A-Rod at third from time to time, and perhaps taking reps at first when Mark Teixeira takes a rare day off. Chances are the Yankees would want to use Chavez primarily against right-handed pitching, in order to maximize his value at the plate. Those reps at third would come best when A-Rod needs a full day off, rather than a half day (since Ibanez figures to be DHing against RHP).
Bill Hall, whom the Yankees signed to a minor league deal, is a bit more flexible than Chavez, since he can play the outfield in addition to third base. He’s probably not playable at shortstop or second base at this point, but he does at least have experience there. He’s right-handed, so he could more cleanly spell A-Rod, even when A-Rod is taking a half day off to DH.
The crazy thing is that the Yankees could conceivably take both Chavez and Hall, if they were so inclined. We always work on the assumption that they will carry 12 pitchers and 13 position players, but the pitching staff really only needs 11 pitchers — especially if Phil Hughes or Freddy Garcia is there to absorb innings as a multi-inning reliever. They probably won’t do this, though; they could use that final roster spot on Clay Rapada or Cesar Cabral, giving them a second lefty in the pen. There is also the issue of finding enough at-bats for a fifth bench player. Chances are, they’ll be able to find bullpen innings a bit more easily.
Still, the Yankees clearly have options this spring. The baseball ops department has done a good job of identifying the team’s strengths and augmenting them. The Yankees now have flexibility on the roster. They can give guys rest without missing too much. That’s in stark contrast to the teams of the mid-00s, which featured veterans and superstars in the lineup, but nary a substitute on the bench. They Yankees might not have a superstar at every position, but they’re pretty well set up to hand out at-bats to capable hitters.
Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. That was the focus of the offseason, and it still is today given the continued A.J. Burnett trade talks. We haven’t paid too much attention to the other end of the battery though, mostly because the Yankees have some upper level catching depth and an above average big league backstop ready to handle the bulk of the workload in Russell Martin. The Jesus Montero trade took away some of that depth, but Austin Romine is still around as if Frankie Cervelli, the forgotten backstop.
Cervelli, who turns 26 next month, isn’t a terrible backup catcher even though we all seem to collectively loathe him. He’s got 560 big league plate appearances to his credit (roughly a full season), and he’s consistently put the ball in play with solid walk (7.9%) and strikeout (15.1%) rates. His .272 batting average and .316 BABIP are reasonable for a player with his batted ball profile, meaning few fly balls but lots of grounders and line drives. Of course the lack of fly balls means Frankie has next to no power (.082 ISO), but he did go on a rampage before getting hurt last September — three homers in five games across ten days, including at least one more ball knocked down by rain and wind in that ridiculous 11:30pm ET start against the Orioles. Offensively, a .272/.338/.354 line is pretty good compared to most backup catchers. With any luck, that power surge is something more than a fluke, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Despite a strong reputation, Frankie hasn’t been anything special on defense. He’s thrown out just 23 of 116 attempted basestealers in his career (19.8%), though it’s worth noting that runners are 26-for-29 against him when Burnett and his notoriously slow delivery is on the mound. Remove A.J. from the equation, and Cervelli’s been a more palatable 20-for-87 (23.0%) when it comes to throwing out runners. There aren’t any great (or even good) metrics for catcher defense, but I think we can all agree that Frankie isn’t the best receiver back there just from watching him over the last three seasons. He’s not the defensive-first backstop I’m sure Joe Girardi would like to have, but the total package is a viable big league backup catcher.
Cervelli has had some injury problems in the recent past, some fluky (Elliot Johnson breaking his wrist, a foul ball breaking his foot) and some not so fluky (four reported concussions in the last seven seasons). The last concussion came in September, when Nick Markakis bowled him over on a play at the plate. The Yankees take concussions very seriously (as they should), so the injury ended Frankie’s season and forced Romine to the big leagues. With Montero in Seattle, the Yankees need Cervelli to stay on the field this season to make sure Romine gets the couple hundred Triple-A at-bats he needs developmentally. Health is a skill but only to a certain extent, so there’s not much more anyone can do besides cross their fingers and hope he stays on the field.
Anecdotally, Martin seemed to play (or at least hit) better when getting regular rest last season, which is another factor to consider. A healthy and productive Cervelli allows the club to take it easy on their starting catcher during the hot summer months, theoretically keeping him fresher for a potential playoff drive. With all due respect to Gus Molina, Frankie is the guy you want filling in on Martin’s off days so that Romine can keep doing his thing in Triple-A. The backup catcher won’t sink the season no matter who it is, but having a healthy and reasonably productive Cervelli will have a positive impact on Romine, Martin, and the team’s overall chances.
As far as Spring Training position battles go, the Yanks have few, and those they have aren’t very compelling. The pitching staff has the non-problem of having three hurlers — A.J. Burnett, Freddy Garcia and Phil Hughes — for one rotation spot, and barring an injury, the starting lineup is set in stone. It will be, then, business in Tampa as the Yanks will use March to fine-tune the team for the regular season.
Yet, the club will have to make some decisions, and it may come down to those who are out of options. As I see it now, the Yanks have 23 guys with their tickets punched to the 25-man roster. It goes a little something like this:
This array of players leaves us with few noticeable holes. With Jones set to DH against southpaws, they could use another bat who can handle right-handers and serve as a weapon off the bench. They also could carry another infielder, as they did for much of last year. The in-house options include Ramiro Pena and Brandon Laird while Eric Chavez remains a free agent. We’ve heard Bill Hall’s name bandied about, but he hasn’t yet received his non-roster invitation to Spring Training yet.
For the empty outfield/DH spot, the Yanks could still look to the free agent market for help. Johnny Damon, Raul Ibanez and Hideki Matsui have all been linked, one way or another, to the Yanks this winter. It’s possible one of them could take spot No. 24 or 25. The Yanks though will let those players’ prices drop before making any sort of move. If one happens, it will be on our terms, and not yours, the Yanks’ brain trust has telegraphed.
The in-house options are Chris Dickerson and Justin Maxwell, and they’ll either break camp with the Yanks or on some other team. The two of them — along with Boone Logan, the only lefty on the 40-man with Major League experience — are out of options. The Yanks will have to take Dickerson and Maxwell with them north if they want to keep them or else the two players will have to clear waivers to remain in the Yanks’ system.
Throughout the winter, Mike has examined these two players in depth. He looked at Dickerson’s possible role earlier this month and Maxwell’s potential in December. Of the two of them, Dickerson seems to hit right-handers far better than Maxwell has, and that’s a need the Yanks have right now. The club may also be able to flip Maxwell for something reasonably useful as he’s a few years younger than Dickerson.
Complicating the roster dance are Brad Meyers, a right-hander, and Cesar Cabral, a lefty. The Yanks grabbed these two guys during the Rule 5 draft. Meyers would have to go back to the Nationals if the Yanks opt to exclude him from the 25-man, and Cabral could pick free agency as he’s a two-time Rule 5er. Cabral also would give the Yanks more bullpen options and pitched exceptionally well in Winter Ball this year. As Logan is out of options, he won’t bump Boone, but a solid spring could make the Yanks think twice about a second southpaw in the pen.
So for the Yankees, the big battles are all but over. We have to pick a fifth starter from a group of three guys who are all flawed for various reasons, and the last two guys on the team have to earn that trip to the Bronx. The guys without options have the inside track, but even then, they’re expendable AAAA types. With two weeks until pitchers and catchers, that’s not a bad problem to have.
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.