Poll: Tyler Austin or Rob Refsnyder on the bench

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

When Spring Training opens in a little under the a month, the Yankees are going to have to sort out a few positions, and for once, it’s not because there’s a veteran guy in camp trying to make the team. The Yankees have several young players vying for two rotation spots, a bunch of bullpen spots, right field, and also first base. Brian Cashman insists right field and first base are wide open.

Of course, if you give Cashman a truth serum, he’d tell you he wants Greg Bird to take the first base job and run with it. Bird completed his shoulder surgery rehab and got some at-bats in the Arizona Fall League last year, but the Yankees know he might be all the way back to his 2015 form come Opening Day. A stint in Triple-A is entirely possible. Hopefully not, but if it’s necessary, what can you do?

Bird’s primary competition at first base is Tyler Austin, who reemerged as a prospect last season and made his big league debut in August. He did some cool things, like sock some clutch opposite field home runs at Yankee Stadium, though he had his difficulties as well. Austin’s strikeout (40.0%) and contact (62.0%) rates weren’t much better than Aaron Judge‘s (44.2% and 59.7%), whom many seem to think will strike out his way to the prospect graveyard.

Also in the mix at first base will presumably be the recently signed Ji-Man Choi as well as Rob Refsnyder, who saw time at first last year. And the thing is, it’s entirely possible — if not likely — two of these players will make the Opening Day roster. Would a Bird-Austin platoon at first base surprise you? Not me. Same goes with Bird-Refsnyder. A Choi-Austin or Choi-Refsnyder platoon could happen too. (Austin-Refsnyder would be weird.)

Barring Spring Training injuries or surprises, the four-man bench going into the season figures to include a backup catcher (Austin Romine), a backup infielder (Ronald Torreyes), and a backup infielder (Aaron Hicks). That assumes Hicks isn’t needed to play right field because Judge gets sent down to Triple-A. I feel like that would be the ideal bench, with the fourth spot still to be determined.

Bird winning the first base job would make carrying Choi on the bench sorta silly. I mean, yeah, Choi can play a little outfield, but not really. Carrying two left-handed hitting first baseman doesn’t make much sense. Austin or Refsnyder would be the best candidates for that fourth bench spot, especially with the Yankees trying to go young. What’s the advantage of carrying, say, Ruben Tejada over those guys? I don’t see one. Let’s make cases for Austin and Refsnyder on the bench, shall we?

The Case for Austin

In his limited big league time last year, Austin annihilated left-handers, hitting .348/.444/.652 (195 wRC+) against them even though three of his five homers came against righties. (Austin had a 62 wRC+ against righties). His split was far less pronounced in Triple-A: .365/.459/.698 against lefties and .304/.394/.609 against righties. Austin was a man among boys in Scranton. I’m not sure how useful his Triple-A splits are.

One thing we know for sure is Austin has more power than Refsnyder. A lot more. Refsnyder hit two home runs in 405 plate appearances last year. Two. Both in Triple-A. Austin hit five homers with the Yankees on top of the 17 he hit in the minors. He hit nearly as many homers in 2016 (22) as Refsnyder hit from 2014-16 (27). Austin’s right field pop is a fun fit for Yankee Stadium. He’ll unquestionably give New York more thump.

Defensively, Austin is limited to first base and the two corner outfield spots. He has minor league experience at third base (35 total games), but he’s not good there, so I wouldn’t consider him anything more than an emergency option at the hot corner. Furthermore, Austin is not a good defensive outfielder. We saw him take some weird routes and pull up short of the wall a few times last year. At first base he was fine enough. Not great, not terrible.

Austin has long been a bat-first player, which is why his prospect stock took a big hit when he didn’t do much at the plate from 2014-15. Put him on the bench, and Joe Girardi can use him as a platoon option at first as well as occasionally in the outfield and at DH. He gives them some legitimate power to use against all those AL East southpaws (Chris Sale, David Price, Eduardo Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Blake Snell, Wade Miley).

The Case for Refsnyder

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

For long stretches of time last season Girardi used Refsnyder as a platoon bat against righties, often batting him second in the lineup. Refsnyder responded with a .274/.370/.355 (94 wRC+) batting line against southpaws, which, while short on power, is nice from an on-base point of view. Not making outs is cool. Austin has the advantage in power while Refsnyder boasts the better plate discipline numbers:

  • Austin in 2016: 40.0 K% and 7.8 BB% in MLB (25.2 K% and 13.7 BB% in Triple-A)
  • Refsnyder in 2016: 17.1 K% and 10.3 BB% in MLB (13.0 K% and 7.4 BB% in Triple-A)

One thing we saw out of Refsnyder last year — and even the year before, really — was consistently quality at-bats. He didn’t jump out of his shoes flailing at pitches out of the zone and he wasn’t afraid to hit with two strikes. The results weren’t always there, but have quality at-bats and the results will come eventually. Hopefully. Anyway, Austin has more swing and miss in his game.

Refsnyder’s lack of defense makes him a bat-first player as well, though based on what I saw last year, which admittedly isn’t much, Refsnyder is much more refined in the outfield than Austin. He won’t win Gold Gloves or anything, but he takes good routes and seems to be in control out there. Austin was a bit more … chaotic. Also, we know Refsnyder can play second if necessary, and last year the Yankees had him learn first and third base. As with Austin though, third seems like an emergency only option.

With Refsnyder on the bench, Girardi could continue using him as a platoon bat who will make a pitcher work, though he doesn’t figure to hit for much power. Right field is probably his best defensive position, but he can also play first and second bases if necessary, so there’s another layer of versatility there. Neither guy will set land speed records, so baserunning isn’t a tiebreaker.

* * *

Ultimately, this comes down to Austin’s power against Refsnyder’s contact skills and ability to play second base. Being able to play second is not nothing. With Torreyes and Austin on the bench, the Yankees can only rest one regular non-first base infielder at a time. With Torreyes and Refsnyder, Girardi will be able to rest two at the same time. At the end of a blowout or whatever.

In all likelihood both Austin and Refsnyder are going to spend time in the fourth bench spot next season. They both have minor league options remaining, and depending on the team’s needs at the time, they might find themselves going up and down. And you know what else? When injury strikes — and it inevitably will — chances are both will be on the roster at the same time. Baseball has a way of making these situations go away. Anyway, this question is ripe for a poll, so let’s get to it.

Who should get the final bench spot?
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Clearing a roster spot for Teixeira may not be as much of a no-brainer as it seems

2009 Yankees reunion in Scranton yesterday. (NY Daily News)
2009 Yankees reunion in Scranton yesterday. (NY Daily News)

Last night Mark Teixeira played his first minor league rehab game with Triple-A Scranton, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout and a sac fly. The results don’t really matter. Teixeira hasn’t faced live pitching in a few weeks and he is just trying to get his bearings at the plate. As long as the knee held up, it was a productive rehab game.

“You want to get as many at-bats as possible down here,” said Teixeira to Shane Hennigan. “Like I said, you’re going to make adjustments two-and-a-half weeks from the long layoff and my first three at-bats, I was definitely out front. So getting that fourth at-bat and having a really good swing was important.”

The plan is for Teixeira to DH today and then play a full nine innings at first base tomorrow. (He played six innings yesterday.) Assuming that goes well, he’ll take Friday off and rejoin the Yankees on Saturday. Considering there was talk about season-ending surgery not too long ago, coming back that quickly would be pretty impressive.

The Yankees will have to clear a roster spot for Teixeira whenever it returns, be it Saturday or next week or next month. All the discussion the last few days has involved Rob Refsnyder or Ike Davis for pretty obvious reasons. They’ve been playing first base while Teixeira is on the shelf and one figures to go when he returns.

Picking between Refsnyder and Davis is a no-brainer. The Yankees should keep Refsnyder and continue to find ways to get him into the lineup. Davis was brought in only because the team lost their top four first base options to injury. Refsnyder has played fairly well and might actually have a future with the Yankees. We already know Davis won’t.

There is a third way to clear a roster spot for Teixeira that hasn’t been discussed: sending out Ronald Torreyes. I wouldn’t blame you if you had forgotten he’s on the roster. He’s appeared in one of the team’s last eleven games and only three of their last 18 games. Two of those three appearances were one-inning stints in the field at the end of blowouts.

Torreyes has been a perfectly cromulent backup infielder this season even though he has cooled down since that insane start. He hasn’t played much lately because Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley have been two of the team’s better hitters over the last month or so, so it’s tough to take them out of the lineup. Refsnyder has filled in at second whenever Starlin Castro has sat too.

The Yankees recently used Castro at shortstop when they wanted to give Gregorius a day off, so clearly they’re willing to play him there. Refsnyder would back up second and third bases when Torreyes goes down, and Castro would fill-in at short. An ideal situation? No, but might be the best roster setup at this point in time. Sending Torreyes down accomplishes three things:

  1. Keep Refsnyder around. Refsnyder has played well in his limited time and he’s done the job at first base well enough, even though his inexperience has cost the Yankees at times. I’ve said this a million times already, but it’s time to find out what he can at the MLB level. Sending Refsnyder down to Triple-A is a waste of time.
  2. Keep Davis around. I know keeping Davis sounds silly, but the Yankees are short on healthy first basemen at the moment. There’s no guarantee Teixeira will stay healthy once he returns, so it would be nice to keep Davis around as depth is possible. Sending Torreyes down buys the team time before cutting loose a first base option.
  3. Let Torreyes play. It’s damn near impossible for any player to remain productive given as little playing time as Torreyes has received recently, not that anyone is expecting him to provide a big offensive boost off the bench. Sending him to Triple-A gives him a chance to get some at-bats and get back into game shape, so to speak.

The Yankees have an off-day tomorrow and then play 17 games in 17 days leading up to the All-Star break, meaning Refsnyder will probably have to make a start at third base at some point, something he’s yet to do at the big league level. Carrying two true first basemen like Teixeira and Davis is not great, but the Yankees could ride it out until the All-Star break, then cut ties with Davis should Teixeira show he’s healthy.

Remember, Chris Parmelee is on his way back. He’s due to begin baseball activities soon — “If I was guessing, the end of the week or the beginning of next week,” he said to George King — and once he returns, Parmelee should replace Davis on the roster. He’d give the Yankees a little more flexibility because he can play the outfield if needed in addition to backing up first base.

Ike. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Ike. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

If the Yankees decide to drop Davis when Teixeira returns Saturday, so be it. No one is going to lose sleep. I just think with Teixeira’s knee such an unknown — he has torn cartilage and is going to try to play through the pain, it’s not like the cartilage will heal — the Yankees may want to hold onto Davis a wee bit longer just to make sure they’re covered. At least until Parmelee returns.

Davis does have minor league options remaining, but he also has more than five years of service time, so he can refuse a trip to the minors. Maybe the Yankees could convince him to accept a Triple-A assignment and make this easy. The sell job would be something like “Teixeira’s knee is still a mess so there’s a chance we’re going to need you, and if you don’t accept the assignment, we’re going to have to release you, and no other team is looking for a first baseman right now.” Convincing? Maybe!

If Davis won’t accept a trip to Triple-A, which is his right, the Yankees might be best off sending Torreyes out until Parmelee returns just to make sure they have enough first base depth in case Teixeira’s knee gives out again. No one will miss Davis when he does go, but the Yankees still need to think big picture here. They need to make sure they’re covered at first after losing so many players to injury, and that complicates the roster decision a bit.

Ackley’s injury makes first base even more of a problem area for the Yankees

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Last season the Yankees were able to qualify for the postseason largely due to the tremendous production they received from their first basemen. Led primary by Mark Teixeira and Greg Bird, New York’s first sackers hit .248/.336/.516 (114 OPS+) with 43 homers. Only the Orioles got more dingers from their first basemen (44) thanks mostly to Chris Davis.

So far this season the lack of production from first base is a huge reason why the Yankees have been unable to keep their head above .500. Teixeira is hitting .195/.291/.286 (62 wRC+) with three homers and Dustin Ackley, his primary backup, owns a .143/.248/.143 (11 wRC+) line. All together, New York’s first basemen are hitting .168/.261/.246 (36 OPS+) with three homers this season. They rank dead last in homers and OPS+ at the position.

Teixeira returned to the starting lineup last night after missing five games with a nagging neck issue that also kept him on the bench for a few games last month. During Teixeira’s absence Ackley managed to suffer what is likely a season-ending injury when he dove back into first base on a pickoff throw and tore his labrum. Ouch. The team’s backup first baseman for the time being is backup catcher Austin Romine, and that is hardly ideal.

As we’ve learned in recent years, replacing a backup first baseman ain’t all that easy. The days of carrying a pure backup first baseman are over. James Loney? He made no sense. He provides no power, no speed, no versatility, and these days iffy defense as well. Either the primary first baseman or the backup first baseman has to be able to play somewhere else in the world of four (and sometimes three) man benches, and since Teixeira can’t, the backup has to for the Yankees.

Ackley wasn’t hitting at all. That doesn’t mean replacing him on the roster will be easy. The Yankees need to come up with a backup first baseman who can handle another position or two and hopefully be more than a zero at the plate. What option do they have at this point of the season? A few and none are great. Let’s look.

Stick With Romine

First base is obviously not Romine’s primary position, but it’s not completely foreign to him either. He started ten games at first base in Triple-A last year once Gary Sanchez was promoted, for example. All told Romine has 206 career regular season innings at first between MLB and the minors, plus whatever he did in Spring Training, which is better than nothing.

Using your backup catcher as your backup first baseman really limits flexibility though. You can’t pinch-hit or pinch-run for either when they both start the same game because that means someone has to play out of position at first. Well, I mean you could pinch-hit or pinch-run, but most managers won’t. They seem to be collectively terrified of not having a second catcher available in case of injury. Romine as the backup first baseman figures to be a temporary measure.

Torreyes Or Headley?

Ronald Torreyes has never played first base as a professional, so forget about him. He might be too short for the position too. I’m being serious! The guy is about 5-foot-8, so he doesn’t present much of a target over there. Chase Headley‘s played some first base in his career but not much (58 innings). His best position is third base. “I think I would be more inclined to put Headley at first and Torreyes at third,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. It doesn’t seem like Headley (or Brian McCann, for that matter) is much of a consideration at first, which is the right move in my opinion. He’s an emergency option only.

What About Refsnyder?

It would behoove Rob Refsnyder to pick up a first baseman’s mitt and start working out at the position. Take grounders, start to learn the footwork, that sort of thing. Refsnyder has to give the Yankees a reason to keep him on the roster and learning first base would be a big help. I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but if he wants to make himself as valuable as possible, trying to become a viable option at first would go a long way. Unless the Yankees explicitly tell Refsnyder to not work out at first — Girardi said he’s thought about, but the team hasn’t talked about it yet — he should put in some extra work there. That’s his best way to stay on the roster, and he just might be the team’s best option at the position.

(Photo via @swbrailriders)
(Photo via Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders)

Swisher Or Parmelee?

Bird had his shoulder surgery in early-February, which didn’t give the Yankees a whole lot of time to find a replacement depth option. The timing really sucked. First the team picked up Chris Parmelee as a minor league free agent, then, a few weeks later, they added Nick Swisher after the Braves cut him loose. Here are their Triple-A numbers to date:

Swisher: .244/.263/.366 (77 wRC+) with four homers in 137 plate appearances
Parmelee: .246/.333/.435 (125 wRC+) with six homers in 159 plate appearances

I get whey everyone asks about Swisher, but he’s not hitting in Triple-A, he didn’t hit in the big leagues the last two years, and his knees are pretty shot. It’s pretty obvious his days as a productive player are behind him. About the only thing he offers over Parmelee at this point is experience and the ability to switch-hit, and what good is the latter if his bat has lost its punch?

Parmelee, on the other hand, has put up decent numbers in Triple-A this season and he does have quite a bit of outfield experience in his career. More than I realized. He’s played over 300 games in right field in the minors plus another 127 in the show. It adds up over to 3,600 total innings at the position. Yankee Stadium in right field is tiny. The Yankees could hide Parmelee out there for a few innings if necessary. (He’s also played some left field too.)

No one wants to hear it, but between Swisher and Parmelee, Parmelee is the better bet at this point. He’s younger (28) and he’s healthier, and he’s putting up better numbers at the same level as Swisher. I love Swisher. He was awesome from 2009-12. It is now 2016. He is no longer awesome. Getting old (in baseball years) sucks.

The Trade Market

The only trades going down at this point of the season are really small. Loney for cash. Brian Matusz (and a draft pick) for salary relief. That sort of thing. Maybe the Marlins will give up Chris Johnson for cash or a player to be named. He seems like a realistic trade candidate. That type of player. Triple-A options around the league include, uh, Casey McGehee? Is he any better than Parmelee? The Yankees aren’t going to want to give up much for a new 25th man on the roster nor should they. I wouldn’t hold my breath for a meaningful trade. A trade like the Ackley trade represents the best case scenario. Young-ish and versatile players are hard to get.

Free Agenchahahah

Here is the list of current free agent first basemen, via MLBTR:

Jeff Baker (35)
Corey Hart (34)
Justin Morneau (35)
Mike Morse (34)

Hart’s knees are shot and he hasn’t faced live pitching since last June. Morneau had elbow surgery in the offseason and won’t be able to swing a bat until next month, according to LaVelle E. Neal. Baker hasn’t hit much the last few seasons and he literally handed out clown noses in the clubhouse to make fun of the Marlins front office last year. Good luck getting a job after that.

Then there’s Morse, who went 0-for-8 with the Pirates last month before being released. He was traded from the Marlins to the Dodgers to the Pirates last year, so I’m not sure who is paying what percentage of his $8.5M salary, but it doesn’t really matter. Because he was released, the Yankees (or any other team) can sign him for the pro-rated portion of the league minimum. Someone else is paying the rest of that $8.5M.

Morse did not hit last year (83 wRC+), not even against lefties (93 wRC+), and he’s 34 and only getting older. That said, he can play first base and handle right field in an emergency. He’s not the best free agent option. He’s the only free agent option. Oh, and by the way, he hasn’t faced live pitching in nearly two months now, so yeah. Morse is not exactly game ready. Free agency doesn’t offer much help.

* * *

Swisher reportedly has an opt-out date in his contract sometime in June and that could very well play a role in the team’s decision. Would the Yankees call up Parmelee knowing they could lose Swisher in a few weeks? That would leave them with no true Triple-A first baseman. Parmelee is likely the better player right now, but he might be the least roster and depth friendly option too.

My guess is the Yankees are going to roll with Romine as the backup first baseman for a few weeks and hope Teixeira’s neck doesn’t act up. Refsnyder will probably start working out at first too because, really, what do the Yankees have to lose? Taking grounders and throws before games only makes sense. Swisher could force the Yankees to make a decision with his opt-out, though his production doesn’t scream “call me up!”

Make no mistake, the Yankees aren’t going anywhere unless Teixeira starts hitting and soon. If they have to turn to their backup first baseman regularly at any point from here on out, they’re in big trouble. That was true even if Ackley stayed healthy. Expect them to scour the waiver wire these coming weeks for a potential backup at first. Chance are the best possible solution is already in-house.

Poll: The Backup Infielder

Refsnyder. (Presswire)
Refsnyder. (Presswire)

At some point during the road trip the Yankees are expected to welcome Alex Rodriguez back from the DL. He is eligible to be activated tomorrow, though following last night’s game Joe Girardi admitted that won’t happen. A-Rod has yet to test his hamstring by running at full speed. That’s kind of a big deal.

“He is not going to be ready on Thursday. He still has some hurdles to cross and get by, and he is not by them yet. He really hasn’t had a setback. We were hoping for 15 days, but it will be more than that,” said Girardi to George King yesterday. The team does expect to get Alex back “sometime in Oakland” though. He’ll be back soon, just not tomorrow.

Whenever A-Rod comes back, the Yankees will have to clear a roster spot for him, which almost certainly means demoting either Rob Refsnyder or Ronald Torreyes. I suppose the team could cut ties with Dustin Ackley, but that would surprise me. They could use the lefty bench bat and they wouldn’t have a backup first baseman. Refsnyder or Torreyes it is.

It’s easy to assume Refsnyder’s stint with the Yankees will be short-term a la Gary Sanchez last week — the circumstances aren’t quite the same, but you know what I mean — because, after all, Torreyes has been with the team all season and has mostly been fine. I don’t think that is necessarily the case, however. Refsnyder has the better track record offensively and he’s improved his versatility by playing third base and right field this year. He could stick instead.

For now both Refsnyder and Torreyes are on the roster until A-Rod comes back, whenever that may be. We’re not going to learn a whole lot about these two in the coming days, especially if they ride the bench, so we know pretty much all we need to know about them right now. Which one is a better fit for the bench going forward? Let’s look.

The Case For Refsnyder

Here’s a challenge: try to make a case for Refsnyder that doesn’t involve citing minor league stats from a year or two (or three) ago. Refsnyder is now 25 years old and he’s in his third year at Triple-A. His numbers have gotten worse each season (Triple-A wRC+ from 2014-16: 137, 123, 115) and he’s not a good defender at all. Refsnyder is, by all accounts, a great teammate and a hard worker. That matters. But so does everything else.

Refsnyder offers versatility in that he can play second and third bases in addition to right field, though we’ve seen him at second and third, and it’s not pretty. Right field? I’m not so sure. I haven’t seen him out there. He could be a Jason Heyward level defender for all I know. Seems unlikely though. So Refsnyder’s versatility isn’t as valuable as it may seem. Sure, he can play multiple positions, but if he can’t play them even decently, what’s the point?

That said, Refsnyder does have offensive upside, especially compared to Torreyes. He has more power — Torreyes has hit 22 home runs in over 2,600 pro plate appearances — and late last season he also showed the ability to spray the ball around a bit. And, even though his defense is below-average, it’s passable. Refsnyder probably isn’t someone you would be comfortable playing every day, but he can make spot starts here and there no problem.

The case for Refsnyder is built around his offense, and offense has been a problem for the Yankees much of the season. Especially against lefties too. They’ve hit .231/.289/.345 (78 OPS+) as a team against southpaw starters this year. We’ve already seen a few clubs call up lefties to make spot starts against the Yankees for that reason (Blake Snell, Cesar Ramos). Refsnyder’s righty bat would help the lineup whenever a lefty is on the mound. Torreyes has started 12 of 38 games. Start Refsnyder that often and his glove won’t be a huge issue.

The Case For Torreyes

Torreyes and Refsnyder are pretty much opposites. Refsnyder is bat first and glove second. Torreyes is bat second and glove first. Torreyes did get off to a fantastic start offensively, going 6-for-9 in his first three games, but that was never going to last and it hasn’t. He’s gone 4-for-29 (.138) since and is down to .263/.282/.342 (66 wRC+) on the season overall. Ewww.

(Presswire)
Torreyes. (Presswire)

That said, Torreyes does have an elite offensive tool in his contact ability. He’s struck out four times in 39 bats (10.3%) and his swing and miss rate is a measly 7.5%. Torreyes struck out in 6.2% of his minor league plate appearances, so this isn’t small sample noise, this is who he is. Few players in the game can get the bat on the ball as frequently as he can. Put the ball in play and generally good things happen.

In the field is where Torreyes really makes an impact. He’s an above-average gloveman who has already played the three non-first base infield positions this season, plus he’s spent a few innings in right field. Girardi has said he’s comfortable playing Torreyes pretty much anywhere. Offense can be hit or miss with bench players because it’s easy to lose rhythm with sporadic playing time. Defense seems to be more of a constant.

(It’s worth noting that if the Yankees go with Refsnyder or Torreyes, Starlin Castro would have to take over as the backup shortstop.)

Keeping Torreyes would mean prioritizing defense over offense and, frankly, the Yankees could use help in both departments. That he puts the ball in play so much means he’ll occasionally run into a BABIP fueled hot streak, like he did early in the season. Zero power limits his offensive upside though. Torreyes is a classic bench guy who can play almost anywhere and control the bat.

* * *

I’m pretty sure I know how this poll is going to turn out, but I guess I’ll post it anyway. Both Refsnyder and Torreyes have clear strengths and weakness and they are different strengths and weaknesses, which is why this is not an insignificant question. If they had the same skill sets, then who cares? Pick one and move on. They offer different things and the Yankees have to figure out which one fits their needs better.

Who should the Yankees keep with A-Rod returns?

Romine’s hot start allows the Yankees to be patient with Gary Sanchez

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s hard to believe that only a year ago, Austin Romine went unclaimed on waivers and seemed to be nearing the end of his time with the Yankees. Heck, it was only seven months ago that he looked like a candidate to lose his 40-man roster spot whenever the Yankees needed room. Romine’s time in the organization was about to come to an end after nine seasons.

Except it didn’t come to an end. The Yankees managed to hang on to Romine over the winter and he came to Spring Training as a backup catcher candidate. No one seemed to think he would actually win the job after Gary Sanchez‘s monster 2015 season, but the Yankees insisted he was in the mix, and eventually he did indeed win the job. Sanchez struggled in camp, Romine raked, and that was that.

“There was a lot of talk that (Sanchez would) be the backup, and we were encouraged with how he played last year, but it’s probably a guy trying too hard and trying to do too much,” said Joe Girardi last week when asked about Sanchez’s spring. “That happens all the time. The key is that you learn from that — like an Austin Romine did — and that you just go out and relax and be yourself.”

Six weeks into the regular season, it’s hard to think that decision could have worked out any better. The 27-year-old Romine is hitting .303/.324/.424 (104 wRC+) in limited time as Brian McCann‘s backup while Sanchez remains in Triple-A, playing every day to continue his development, especially defensively. Sanchez owns a .297/.345/.550 (163 wRC+) batting line with the RailRiders.

We spent so much time talking about keeping Sanchez down in the minors long enough to delay his free agency. Thirty-five days. That was the magic number. Thirty-five days in the minors in 2016 meant team control of Sanchez’s age 29 season in 2022. That’s a very long way off and no one has any idea what will happen between now and then, but 35 days? It was worth keeping Sanchez in the minors that long this year to gain that extra year of control.

Those 35 days have come and gone, and Romine has not given the Yankees a reason to make a change at backup catcher. On day 33 Romine went 3-for-4 with two doubles against David Price and the Red Sox while leading Nathan Eovaldi through eight innings of two-run ball. A few days later he started at DH because he’s been hitting so well. Romine was going to have to hit to keep his job. He’s credited his success to a change in his mental approach.

“I went home in the offseason and said I’m done not doing the best that I can,” he said to Laura Albanese last week. “You get passed up (for a job) by another catcher … It just makes me step back and realize what I needed to do, and that was hit. It comes down to the same thing. I’ve got to hit. I’ve got to show them I can hit up here, show them I can hit off big league pitchers and continue to show them I can catch.”

Romine has hit well and he has seemed to work well with the pitching staff, so much so that he’s essentially become Eovaldi’s personal catcher. The hitting success very well might be small sample size noise. That stuff happens. But Romine was going to have to hit in Spring Training to win a job and hit early in the regular season to keep that job, and he did just that. This is one of those cases where a small sample means a whole lot.

“Just being able to slow the game (down),” said Romine to Chad Jennings when asked what has made him successful this year. “I’ve been here. I’ve been in this situation before. I know how to prepare for hitting every four, five days. Being the backup catcher you get to play once a series, maybe. Being able to prepare myself to hit, going on a couple days now, it’s a hard thing to do. But it’s just being able to slow the game down.”

So now, with Romine emerging as serviceable backup catcher (if not more) rather than settling in a stopgap, the Yankees have some options. First and foremost, they have the option to remain patient with Sanchez and leave him in Triple-A. Not for service time reasons, but for developmental reasons. Sanchez is still only 23, remember. He’s 23 and still in need of refinement behind the plate. He can play everyday in Triple-A and work on things.

Also, Romine’s combination of strong play, cheap salary ($556,000), and years of team control (through 2019) means he may have some actual trade value. A year ago this guy slipped though waivers unclaimed. Any team could have had him and they all passed. Now, a year later, Romine is a productive big leaguer who seems to have turned a corner with his mental approach and preparation. And it helps that he plays the most premium position of all.

The Yankees have made a habit of trading backup catchers in recent years. They sent Chris Stewart to the Pirates for Kyle Haynes two years ago, Francisco Cervelli to the Pirates for Justin Wilson one year ago, and this past winter John Ryan Murphy went to the Twins for Aaron Hicks. Can Romine bring back a Wilson or a Hicks in a trade? Nah, probably not. Cervelli was an established big league backup catcher and Murphy had a full year as a productive backup to his credit and is three years younger.

Romine for all we know is a guy who just had the six best weeks of his career. He’s appeared in 15 games and has 35 plate appearances. That’s it. I do buy his change in approach because he does look different at the plate. Romine is swinging at way fewer pitches out of the zone this year than he did in 2013 (36.3% to 31.4%), his only other extended trial in MLB, and his hard contact rate is up too (29.4% to 37.0%). For the first time, he looks like someone who knows he belongs.

For now, Romine has performed better than anyone could have reasonably hoped in the early going this season, and that’s great news for the Yankees. I get that people are eager to see Sanchez, I am too, but Romine has given the Yankees no reason to make a change. Two quality backup catchers is better than one, after all. At some point the Yankees will have to pick between the two. Right now they can be patient. There’s no urgency to make a decision because Romine had made himself in an asset.

Aaron Hicks is starting to have an impact now that he’s getting regular playing time

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the winter the Yankees and Twins got together for an old school baseball trade. My young player for your young player, my surplus for your surplus. It was pretty cool. John Ryan Murphy went to Minnesota for outfielder Aaron Hicks as the Yankees looked to add athleticism to their outfield and the Twins sought to improve their catching situation.

Early on this season, neither team was getting what they wanted out of the trade. Murphy had a poor Spring Training and struggled so much the first few weeks of the regular season that the Twins shipped him to Triple-A. Hicks, meanwhile, started his Yankees career with two singles and two walks in his first 28 plate appearances. Those 28 plate appearances were spread across 24 games.

Going from playing every single day to playing part-time, as Hicks did this year, can be a really tough adjustment, and it sure seems Hicks had trouble with it. Lately though, he’s been able to play regularly thanks to Alex Rodriguez‘s injury, which allowed the Yankees to slide Carlos Beltran into the DH spot and play Hicks in the outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury‘s recent hip problem has pushed Hicks into his natural center field too.

Since A-Rod‘s injury Hicks has started eight straight games, and during those eight games he’s gone 9-for-25 (.360) with a double, two homers, and two walks. Last night he was one of the few bright spots in the loss to the Royals, going 3-for-4 with a single to right field, a single to left field, and then a single to center. The night before he went 2-for-3 with a homer to right and a double to left, all from the left side of the plate.

“For me, it’s just the opportunity that I’m getting to play every day, and I’ve been able to get consistent at-bats and I’ve been able to just relax, just swing and just play,” said Hicks to Fred Kerber yesterday. He told Chad Jennings, “I feel like the more at-bats I get, the more comfortable I’m going to be. To be able to see the ball more often is definitely helping out, especially when it comes to having a solid approach.”

A-Rod’s disabled list stint doesn’t expire until one week from today, so Hicks has at least another week’s worth of starts coming to him. (Ellsbury is due back this weekend, but he’ll take Ben Gamel‘s playing time, not Hicks’.) That’s more time to get comfortable and more time for Hicks to show the Yankees he deserves to get more than 28 plate appearances every 25 games when the team is at full strength.

No one thinks Hicks is a true talent .360 hitter like he’s hit the last eight games. That .077 average he put up while playing sparingly the first few weeks isn’t him either. We’ve seen that when he is comfortable at the plate, Hicks has power and can spray the ball around a little a bit, and part of keeping him comfortable at the plate is giving him more playing time. And there’s his defense too. He’s an upgrade in the field, especially thanks to him arm.

Once A-Rod and Ellsbury are healthy — knock on wood — the Yankees would be smart to continue giving Hicks regular at-bats to keep him locked in and productive. He can legitimately be a building block going forward as a 26-year-old switch-hitting center field. I mean geez, how do you not make playing time for that guy? It won’t be easy, the at-bat are going to have to come from somewhere, but it’s for the best both this year and the future.

It’s working now, but the Yankees should not make a habit of playing short-handed this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Thanks in large part to bench players Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks, the Yankees beat the Royals last night and won for the fifth time in seven games. Ackley and Hicks went a combined 3-for-6 with two walks, three runs scored, and three runs driven in. Ackley drove in the game tying run in the seventh and Hicks followed by plating what was temporarily the go-ahead run.

Last night was Ackley’s fourth straight start and fifth in the last six games. Hicks started for the seventh straight game and eighth time in nine games. They’re in the lineup because of injuries, obviously. Alex Rodriguez pulled his hamstring last week, allowing the Yankees to slide Carlos Beltran into the DH spot and play Hicks everyday. Ackley is in there because Jacoby Ellsbury is day-to-day with a hip issue.

Mark Teixeira entered the infirmary yesterday with neck spasms, clearing the way for Ben Gamel to make his first career start. The Teixeira and Ellsbury injuries mean the Yankees had a two-man bench last night: Ronald Torreyes and Austin Romine. It almost came back to bite them when they couldn’t pinch run for Brian McCann in the seventh. Luckily it didn’t matter.

In all likelihood the Yankees will again have a two-man bench tonight. Ellsbury has not yet tested his hip with full sprints and Teixeira is one day into an injury that is expected to require two or three days. This is a messy situation. The veteran players are hurting, but not hurting enough to require a DL stint, so the Yankees are playing short-handed. They have a 23-man roster while their opponent has a full 25-man unit.

“I think Torreyes gives you a ton of options. I can put him almost anywhere. (The bench is) short, but I think we have options that should make it okay,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. And he’s right. Torreyes gives them an option pretty much everywhere, so they’re not going to be forced into playing someone out of position. (You could argue Ackley in right field is out of position given his arm.)

That said, thanks to the makeup of that rained out game in Detroit, the Yankees are eight games into a stretch of 40 games in 41 days. Their next off-day is 12 days away and the short bench means they can’t rest people in addition to not pinch-hitting and pinch-running. Girardi’s options are really limited for the time being and it is absolutely a disadvantage.

The Yankees don’t really have a timetable for Ellsbury’s return — “If you’re in a week and you don’t feel he’s going to be ready anytime soon, you might as well backdate (the DL stint),” said Girardi — and let’s face it, he’s not exactly the quickest healer in the world. It’s already been four days and he’s not sprinting yet, so it’s not like Ellsbury will be back in the lineup tonight.

I get why the Yankees are hesitant to put him Ellsbury on the DL, but stuff like this can’t happen all season. They can’t slowly nurse players back to health and play short-handed, especially when multiple players are banged up like Ellsbury and Teixeira right now. The Yankees are playing much better of late but they still have to dig themselves out of this early season hole. That will be tough as it is. Imagine trying to do it short-handed?

Avoiding injuries just isn’t realistic. Players are going to get hurt. That’s baseball. The Yankees should be a little more liberal with their DL usage going forward, especially when it’s a situation like Ellsbury, where he might miss a week anyway before being ready to play again. The Yankees have some depth in the minors. It’s okay to use it. They’re already made things hard enough on themselves this year.