Archive for Bench
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.
The Yankees showed up to camp last spring with the bench mostly set, but this year was a different story. None of the four bench spots were accounted for when position players reported last month — there were favorites for jobs, but nothing was close to set in stone — and right now the only guarantee is that either Chris Stewart or Frankie Cervelli will be the backup catcher while the other starts. The backup infielder, backup outfielder, and remaining bench spot are still undecided.
Less than two weeks before Opening Day, those three bench questions are joined by two injury-related questions in the starting lineup. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira will be out until May, possibly longer in the case of the latter, meaning the Yankees must also sort through their assorted scraps for an outfielder and a first baseman. Thanks to some recent roster moves, these five position player questions are starting to be answered.
“There is no guarantee for anything … We will continue to evaluate these guys as we move forward,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings and Dan Martin after Matt Diaz was released over the weekend. “Maybe one piece is gone, but it’s still going to play out probably for the next two weeks … We just thought the other guys were ahead of him and to be fair to him to have a chance to [play] somewhere else.”
In addition to Diaz being released, youngsters like Slade Heathcott and Zoilo Almonte were sent to minor league camp and effective removed from the outfield competition. Juan Rivera has played an awful lot of first base lately in the wake of Teixeira’s injury — he’s played the outfield just once in the last eight Grapefruit League games — and seems to have been dropped from the outfield race. That leaves Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, Melky Mesa, and Thomas Neal in the competition.
With all due respect to Neal, who has quietly had a nice camp, the other three guys stand out as prohibitive favorites. I think the Yankees consider the 27-year-old Boesch is the no-doubt replacement for Granderson — I think he would play right with Ichiro Suzuki shifting to left, putting the weaker defender in the smaller field — just because he’s left-handed and has played everyday the last three years. That said, Boesch signed a split contract and Buster Olney confirmed he has two (!) minor league options left, so he could be sent to Triple-A in a heartbeat. The fact that he’s the only left-handed hitter left in the competition leads me to believe he has a leg up on a big league roster spot come Opening Day.
That leaves Francisco and Mesa to battle it out for the right-handed outfield/DH role, and the Yankees always seem to lean towards the veteran when it comes to these part-time/reserve roles. Going with Francisco and sending Mesa to Triple-A allows the team to keep both players and frankly they could use the depth. Neither guy is like to hit much and while Melky2.0 is the better defender, Francisco is solid in the corner spots. Keeping him with Mesa in Triple-A is preferable to having Mesa in the show with no backup in the minors just in terms of having as many warm bodies as possible. Both guys will be needing over the course of the 162-game season.
Since the Yankees don’t need a fifth starter until their seventh game of the season and can backdate a DL stint ten days into Spring Training, they could have Phil Hughes start the season on the DL due to his back problem and carry an extra position player. Hughes would still be eligible to come off the DL in time for that seventh game, but the club would buy itself just a tiny bit more time to evaluate their position player options. It’s the difference between carrying both Rivera and Dan Johnson at the start of the season rather than just one or two. The Yankees only figure to see one left-handed starter in those first six games (Jon Lester on Opening Day), so having Johnson around would be helpful.
We still have no idea who the Yankees will carry north as the utility infielder, but Jayson Nix might have a leg up on Eduardo Nunez because of his versatility and defensive reliability. Going into the season with Boesch, Francisco, Rivera, and Johnson leaves the team just one spot for a utility man even if they open with Hughes on the DL. We know they’re just dying to use Nunez at short when Derek Jeter plays DH against lefties, but he hasn’t played any other position in camp. If they’re going to use him as the utility infielder, they’ll need to get him a few reps at second and third just to prepare him for the season.
With Diaz released and some others assigned to minor league camp, it looks more and more likely the Yankees will have both Boesch and Francisco on their Opening Day roster. Rivera and Johnson are the obvious first base fill-ins, but the club would need to manipulate Hughes’ injury — if they backdate his DL stint ten days, he can’t pitch in a Grapefruit League game during that time and will have to get his work in on the minor league side — to buy a temporary extra roster spot. The competition for the outfield, first base, and bench spots is still relatively wide open, but the picture is much clearer right now than it was just one week ago.
The Yankees downgraded their offense this offseason, most notably by allowing Nick Swisher and Russell Martin to sign elsewhere as free agents. The drop-off from those two guys to their 2013 replacements is in the neighborhood of two wins apiece, and that’s being generous to 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki. It’s a lot of power and patience to replace, but the biggest offensive loss of the winter might not have even been an everyday player. Valuable part-timer Eric Chavez signed elsewhere as well.
All told, the 35-year-old Chavez produced a .281/.348/.496 (126 wRC+) line with 16 homers in 313 plate appearances for New York last summer. He played 64 games (50 starts) at third base thanks in part to Alex Rodriguez‘s hand injury, but he also managed 19 games at DH and another ten at first. Chavez made it easy to forget that he hit .263/.320/.356 (80 wRC+) with two homers in 175 plate appearances a year ago, when he was tolerable at best and easily replaceable at worst. To say his production was unexpected last year would be an understatement.
Chavez signed a one-year contract with the Diamondbacks during the Winter Meetings, taking a $3M guarantee to move closer to his Phoenix home. The Yankees had interest in retaining him, especially once news of A-Rod‘s hip injury broke, but ultimately the two sides did not have any substantive talks according to Ken Davidoff. Kevin Youkilis was signed to take over third base on a full-time basis, but the Bombers never did get around to finding a Chavez replacement. The closest they’ve come is Dan Johnson, a third baseman in theory who took a minor league deal.
Now here’s the thing: the Yankees were never getting Chavez back, at least not the Chavez they had last year. Even if they had outbid the D’Backs and re-signed him, there’s no way they should have expected him to hit like he did last summer. Furthermore, they shouldn’t have expected him to stay that healthy again either. Chavez had a stint on the 7-day concussion DL last year and sat out a few games for various aches and pains, but that was it. He was available far more often than not, and given his lengthy medical history, it would have been quite foolish to expect him to do it again. Repeating that kind of production and durability is certainly possible, just unlikely.
The post title is a overly dramatic, but losing Chavez is a pretty big loss for the Yankees. I had no problem with letting him walk under the right circumstances at the outset of the offseason, mostly because I figured it was better to get rid of him a year too soon rather than a year too late. Those right conditions did not include a major hip injury for A-Rod and not bringing in a viable alternative, however. Given the replacement level catching tandem, Joe Girardi is going to need a legitimate threat off the bench to pinch hit in late games. Chavez, the 2011 version, would have been perfect. The Yankees had the right player in the right role, just in the wrong year.
Late last week the Yankees addressed the left-handed half of what will presumably be a DH platoon, signing Travis Hafner to a one-year contract worth $2M. Pronk’s power and on-base ability will be an upgrade over Raul Ibanez‘s offensive contributions last year as long as he stays on the field. That part is far from a given thanks to his extensive injury history.
Last season the Yankees employed — or attempted to employ before injuries an other factors interfered — an unorthodox DH platoon that consisted of playing Eduardo Nunez in the field against left-handers while either Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez served as the DH. I expect them to try a similar arrangement in 2013, but obviously the pieces will change. A-Rod is going to miss at least half the season due to his hip surgery, leaving Jeter and Kevin Youkilis as the infielders most of need of regular rest.
In addition to being 38-years-old, Jeter is coming off a major ankle injury that required surgery. He recently resumed baseball activities and right now it appears as though he’ll be ready in time for Opening Day. Even if he is healthy and ready to go when the season begins, I still expect Joe Girardi to give him regular turns at DH just to ease him back into things following the ankle fracture. Girardi is always conservative when it comes to injuries and it makes complete sense to take it easy on the Cap’n in April. Youkilis is no stranger to the DL and he will need his fair share of DH days, but hopefully not as many as Jeter early in the season.
The question about who replaces Jeter or Youkilis in the field on those DH days is unanswered. Despite the club’s insistence that he is most valuable at shortstop (duh), Brian Cashman recently said they would convert Nunez back into a utility infielder if he makes the team out of Spring Training. The other option is Jayson Nix, who did an admirable job off the bench last summer as the primary utility infielder following Eduardo’s defense-related demotion. David Adams and Corban Joseph could receive consideration for the job, but their inability to play shortstop works against them.
Jason Bartlett is pretty much the only notable infielder left on the free agent market who can legitimately play shortstop, so it sure looks like it will be Nix or Nunez subbing in against lefties while Jeter or Youkilis spends the day at DH. Nix, 30, is steady but unspectacular in the field and below-average but adequate at the plate. The 25-year-old Nunez offers much more exciting tools in his speed, contact ability, and arm strength, but he’s a big liability in the field. He has little trouble getting to balls and offers more range than Nix, but obviously he has major issues finishing the play. If the Yankees want reliability, they’ll take Nix. If they want some upside, they’ll take Nunez. There’s not much point in arguing strongly either way right now.
Assuming the Yankees carry a right-handed hitting outfielder on the bench to platoon with their various left-handed hitting outfielders, they have three bench spots left to fill. One will go to the backup catcher, so it’s really two spots. Given the weak catching tandem, I would really like to see the team carry a good left-handed bat on the bench so Girardi could pinch-hit liberally in the late-innings. Dan Johnson, who can play the corner infield spots in a pinch, could make sense for that role. It’s a job that Eric Chavez would have filled perfectly, but alas. Given how unlikely the team’s catchers (whoever they end up being) are to hit, I think having that dangerous lefty pinch-hitter is more of a necessity than a luxury.
If the Yankees do carry such a player, they’re left with one bench spot for a utility infielder. That guy will have to be able to play shortstop and play it fairly regularly, I’m thinking two or three times a week until Jeter settles in following the surgery. Not only that, but he has to be able to run for inevitable pinch-running situations. I think Nunez is a better bet to do that than Nix, but his defense stinks. At the same time, the more at-bats Nix receives, the more his production is likely to go down. He’s the type of guy who gets exposed with too much playing time. There is a scenario in which the Yankees could carry both on their bench at the start of the season, but they would be short-changing themselves elsewhere.
The new playoff system is both fun and weird. It’s fun because so many races went down to the wire but weird because the Yankees, who finished with the best overall record in the AL, still don’t know who they’re going to play in the first round. They do know it’ll be either the Orioles or Rangers, but that doesn’t help all that much. The opponent will surely impact New York’s ALDS roster decisions to some degree, but for the most part we can piece things together right now.
The Yankees have carried 11 pitchers and 14 position players on their postseason rosters these last few years, opting to shorten the pitching staff by one so they could carry a designated pinch-runner or something like that. I see no reason to think they’ll do something different this year. I mean yeah, they could probably get away with ten pitchers in the ALDS given the off-day between Games Two and Three, but I doubt they’ll go that far. Anyway, a dozen of those 14 position player spot are all but accounted for already:
C Russell Martin
1B Mark Teixeira
2B Robinson Cano
SS Derek Jeter
3B Alex Rodriguez
OF Ichiro Suzuki
OF Curtis Granderson
OF Nick Swisher
DH Raul Ibanez
C Chris Stewart
IF Eric Chavez
IF Eduardo Nunez
Nunez will make the roster as the backup infielder because of Jayson Nix‘s hip injury, and there’s a decent chance he’ll start some games at DH against left-handed pitchers. Chavez will serve as the primary left-handed bat off the bench, meaning one of the two vacant spots is likely to go to a right-handed hitter. The only two options for that role are Andruw Jones and Casey McGehee, neither of whom sounds all that appealing. Jones has been dreadful in the second half, to the point where Joe Girardi started benching him the last week or two in favor of Nunez. The team never really showed much faith in McGehee after acquiring him at the deadline, though he’s almost certainly a better offensive option than the shell of Andruw.
The other spot figures go to a speedster, and I have to think Brett Gardner is the favorite for that job over Chris Dickerson, especially now that he’s been cleared by the doctors and has no restrictions with his surgically repaired elbow. Carrying Gardner as the speedy fourth outfielder might mean that McGehee, an infielder, will get the nod over another outfielder in Jones. Then again, the Yankees could lean towards the playoff-tested veteran and take Andruw for that other open spot instead. They’ve seen what he can do in the postseason first hand, and as I said yesterday, I do think there’s some value in veteran experience.
Now that the Yankees are healthy, or at least as healthy as they’re going to get, the starting lineup is pretty much set. Girardi is unlikely to pinch-hit for any of those guys other than maybe Ibanez against a really tough lefty, so any substitutions figured to come in pinch-running spots or late-inning defensive replacements. Or injury, that’s always an unfortunate possibility as well. I’m about 99% certain that Gardner will occupy one of the final two bench spots while Jones-McGehee is more along the lines of 50-50. Either way, that guy would be the proverbial 25th man on the roster and thus unlikely to see meaningful playing time in a best-of-five series.