Ichiro Suzuki and the adjustment to his new role

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

Scott Sizemore and the final bench spot

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

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.

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

“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.

Sifting through the Yankees’ backup options at first base

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

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:

First Basemen

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:

Third Basemen

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.

Utility infield spot already starting to take shape

(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)
(Eric Christian Smith/Getty)

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.

Yankees have no use for two long men and a short bench

The rarely seen Adam Warren. (Al Bello/Getty)
The rarely seen Adam Warren. (Getty)

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 RomineVernon 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.