Yangervis Solarte beats out Eduardo Nunez as Yankees finalize bench

Anna and Solarte, half the new bench. (Presswire)
Anna and Solarte, half the new bench. (Presswire)

The Yankees have finalized their bench for the start of the 2014 season and it does not include Eduardo Nunez. Joe Girardi announced on Saturday that utility man Yangervis Solarte has won the final open roster spot. The team will need to make a 40-man roster move to accommodate him sometime before Tuesday’s season opener. Nunez will go to Triple-A Scranton.

Solarte, 26, could have opted out of his minor league contract if he did not make the team. He hit .429/.489/.571 with two homeruns in 47 plate appearances this spring while playing second base, shortstop, third base, and left field. Solarte hit .282/.332/.404 in 263 games in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League over the last two seasons while in the Rangers organization.

Nunez, 26, hit .265/.280/.388 with one homer in 50 plate appearances this spring. He blew a golden opportunity last season, hitting only .260/.307/.372 in 336 plate appearances while Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were on the DL. As you know, his defense has long been an issue. The Yankees seemed to grow tired on Nunez over the winter, signing players like Solarte, Dean Anna, and Scott Sizemore to directly compete with him.

Solarte will join Anna, Frankie Cervelli, and Ichiro Suzuki on the bench. There isn’t much (any?) offensive firepower there but Cervelli’s bat has been promising between injuries the last two years and, if nothing else, Anna knows how to work a walk and put together good at-bats. I thought the Yankees would take Nunez for a few reasons, mostly because he’s already on the 40-man roster and would be the easy move. I also didn’t think they’d buy into Solarte’s spring, but here we are.

Brendan Ryan will open the season on the DL with a back problem and earlier this week Brian Cashman confirmed he will miss more than the minimum 15 days. Anna and Solarte had to compete for a bench spot this spring, and now they have to continue competing to stay on the team once Ryan returns. Getting the big leagues is the easy part. Staying there is much harder.

Update: Dean Anna wins bench spot

9:44pm: Following tonight’s game, Joe Girardi confirmed Anna has indeed made the roster. He also said the other bench spot is still undecided, and they’re picking between Nunez and Yangervis Solarte. (Zelous Wheeler was reassigned to minor league camp tonight.) I will be surprised if it’s not Nunez. The deadline to set the roster is 3pm ET on Sunday.

7:30pm: Infielder Dean Anna has won the final bench spot, it seems. Former minor league teammate Jedd Gyorko congratulated him on Twitter for making the Opening Day roster, so either Anna made the team or Gyorko is playing a cruel joke. I’m guessing it’s the former. Anna is replacing the injured Brendan Ryan. He’ll join Frankie Cervelli, Ichiro Suzuki, and presumably Eduardo Nunez on the bench.

Dean Anna, Yangervis Solarte, and replacing Brendan Ryan

Anna. (Presswire)
Anna. (Presswire)

When Spring Training started, the Yankees had about six players in serious consideration for the final bench spot. The number of bench candidates has whittled down over the weeks and, thanks to the pinched nerve in Brendan Ryan‘s back, another bench spot has opened. Joe Girardi has indicated they will take two of Eduardo Nunez, Dean Anna, and Yangervis Solarte north when the team breaks camp in a week.

Nunez seems like a lock for one of those two bench spots even though he has been the same guy he’s always been this spring, meaning lots of contact, lots of speed, but also lots of defensive adventures. Yet, because he’s the incumbent, Nunez appears to have a roster spot in the bag, especially in the wake of Ryan’s injury. That leaves one spot for Anna or Solarte. Is one a better fit for the roster than the other? Let’s look at what they have to offer.

The Case for Dean Anna
Acquired in a minor offseason trade with the Padres, the 27-year-old Anna provides four things, specifically: patience, contact skills, solid defense, and some versatility. He has always been a high-walk (12.6% in Double-A and Triple-A), low-strikeout (12.0%) hitter from the left side of the plate, though his power and speed are non-factors. Anna has a ton of experience at second base and shortstop, plus some at third and the two corner outfield spots. He’s not a Gold Glover but he’s not Nunez either. Adequate all around the infield, which is valuable.

Carrying Anna would give the team another lefty bat off the bench in addition to Ichiro Suzuki — considering they both make a bunch of contact, Anna’s probably the greater offensive threat because he’ll take a walk and not hack at everything — but this isn’t a lineup that will require a bunch of pinch-hitters. The Yankees will live and die with the starting position players. Anna’s glove is more reliable that Nunez’s, which would be valuable whenever Derek Jeter gets a day off from playing the field. That figures to happen fairly regularly, at least early in the season.

"Yangervis, he makes all the pitchers nervous!" /Sterling'd (Presswire)
“Yangervis, he makes all the pitchers nervous!” /Sterling’d (Presswire)

The Case for Yangervis Solarte
The only reason the Solarte is in the conversation for a bench spot right now is his Spring Training performance. He’s gone 16-for-35 (.457) with two homers in camp, the kind of numbers that get a non-roster player noticed. Solarte, 26, has also spent a bunch of time at the three non-first base infield positions as well as left field this spring, though he’s spent most of his minor league career at second, third, and left. Only 30 games at short in parts of eight seasons, 20 of which came in 2013.

Solarte hit .282/.332/.404 in over 1,100 Triple-A plate appearances the last two seasons, which were spent in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. Nothing about his 91 wRC+ from 2012-13 suggests he can be an asset at the plate in the show, though it’s always possible something has clicked this spring and he’s a new hitter. Since he is another low power, little speed, adequate defense guy, the only things Solarte has on Anna are his versatility (more experience in third and left, less at short) and his ability to switch-hit. Having a switch-hitter on the bench is always nice for matchup purposes, but again, Girardi doesn’t figure to use many pinch-hitters this summer.

* * *

Brian Cashman said “all the answers are here in camp” the other day when asked about going outside the organization to replace Ryan, and unless they’re going to pony up for Stephen Drew, there aren’t many available options anyway. The recently designated for assignment Juan Francisco could make some sense as a corner fielder with (huge) left-handed power, though he’s a butcher in the field who won’t walk and will strike out a ton. He’s a lefty Mark Reynolds without the plate discipline, basically. As the last man on the bench, maybe he makes more sense that Anna or Solarte.

The Yankees have a 40-man roster crunch at the moment, which could give Anna (on the 40-man) a leg up over Solarte (not on the 40-man). Adding Solarte to the roster will cost the team another player, unless Ryan’s back injury is so bad that he’s a 60-day DL candidate. Anna is the simpler move and since he a) can play short no questions asked, and b) seems like a safer bet offensively because of his contact/discipline approach, he might be the best fit for the bench. Solarte is hitting the ball far better right now and is a switch-hitter with a bit more versatility, so it’s not like he has nothing to offer. Either way, whoever wins the job will have a big opportunity early in the season.

2014 Season Preview: The Bench

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Outside of last season’s injury wrecked nightmare, the Yankees have done a good job of fielding quality benches in recent years. Guys like Marcus Thames, Andruw Jones, and Eric Chavez provided some offensive pop while others like Jayson Nix were more about versatility. It’s tough for the Yankees to sign quality bench players as free agents — who wants to sit on the bench behind the guys making huge money? — but they’ve had some pretty good backups the last four or five seasons. Let’s run down the 2014 bench.

C Francisco Cervelli
Based on Spring Training, Brian McCann is going to be a great backup for Cervelli this year. Frankie has hit the snot out of the ball these last few weeks, going 14-for-25 with three homers in camp. He’s picked up right where he left off last April before getting hurt, which is good to see. Between this offensive spike — he won’t hit this well all year, but you know what I mean — and his strong defense (particularly his throwing arm), Cervelli would be one of the two or three best backup catchers in baseball, if not the best.

Unsurprisingly, a number of clubs have been scouting Frankie these last few weeks. Quality catching is hard to find and the Yankees have some upper level depth, so it makes sense teams are honing in on him. It would surprise me if Cervelli was traded before Opening Day but I don’t think it’s completely off the table. That’s the only way he wouldn’t make the team. Any idea of a backup catcher competition with John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine was silly to start with, but if it was a real thing, Cervelli has won. Competition’s over. I think we’ll see him quite a bit against left-handers this season too. It’s not a bad way to give McCann his necessary days off.

IF Eduardo Nunez
I am convinced that Nunez will not only make the Opening Day roster at this point, but he’ll also wind up playing quite a bit, likely in a third base platoon with Kelly Johnson. The writing is on the wall. Scott Sizemore has not played much this spring and is currently dealing with a quad problem, so he hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do this spring. Dean Anna has been solid but unspectacular in camp and Yangervis Solarte feels like a long shot for the roster even though he’s been crushing the ball these last few weeks.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Nunez, 26, now seems to have everything going his way after the Yankees spent most of the winter looking for players to compete against him. He’s hit well this spring (8-for-29 with a homer) and he’s played all three non-first base infield positions, plus he’s already on the 40-man roster. We can’t discount that the club really seems to like him and is willing to give him chance after chance either. The competition for the final bench spot is still technically ongoing, but barring injury, I think the job is Nunez’s to lose. (Keep in mind that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll keep it all season.)

IF Brendan Ryan
Early in the offseason, when Derek Jeter was still a major question mark and guys like Anna and Sizemore had not yet been acquired, the Yankees gave Ryan a two-year contract (with a player option!) to serve as their backup infielder. I can’t help but wonder if they wish they had a do-over right about now. The 31-year-old Ryan is essentially the 13th position player, whose only real job will be giving Derek Jeter and maybe Brian Roberts the occasional day off. He sure as heck won’t be a pinch-hitter and there will be better pinch-running candidates on the bench.

Ryan’s contract is cheap ($6M across three years max) but more well-rounded players like Anna, Sizemore, or even Zoilo Almonte might make more sense for this bench spot. It’ll be interesting to see how Ryan is used this year because right now his role is way more specific thank the typical bench player’s. As good as his defense is, Ryan is a very limited player.

OF Ichiro Suzuki
The Yankees shopped Ichiro all offseason and they continue to showcase him in Spring Training — you don’t think it was an accident he started in center while Brett Gardner played left yesterday, did you? — but no one is biting and it appears he will be on the roster come the start of the regular season. Going from an everyday player, something Ichiro has been since he was 20-year-old, to a bench player is a tough transition to make, but he can be an obvious asset as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement. I suspect we’ll see Ichiro more than we think this season thanks to injuries and days off and whatever.

* * *

If the Yankees do find a taker for Ichiro at some point in the next two weeks, Almonte is the obvious candidate to step right into the extra outfielder’s role. He can do the pinch-runner/defensive replacement thing, but all provide a little offense from both sides of the plate as a switch-hitter. Cervelli and Ryan are locked into their spots right now and I think Nunez has a firm hold on a bench job as well.

This isn’t the most usable group of reserve players in the world — Cervelli is the big bat off the bench right now — but the Yankees are going to live and die with their starters anyway. They don’t have many, if any platoon situations, so the lineup isn’t going to change much day to day. At least in theory. Jeter and Roberts will need days off their feet while both Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran go back and forth between right field and DH, but that’s it. This bench is there for emergencies, not regular use.

2014 Season Preview: Final Bench Spot

Yangervis. (Presswire)
Yangervis. (Presswire)

Barring injury or a trade, 12 of the 13 position player spots are already set. Joe Girardi made it clear Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson will be the starting second and third basemen, respectively, leaving Brendan Ryan on the bench with Frankie Cervelli and Ichiro Suzuki. The fourth and final bench spot is up for grabs in Spring Training and the Yankees have indicated it will go to an infielder. More than a few players are competing for the job.

IF Dean Anna
Acquired in a minor November trade with the Padres, Anna had a big year in Triple-A (.331/.410/.482) but was unable to land a 40-man roster spot with San Diego. They flipped him to the Yankees for a Single-A reliever rather than lose him for nothing in the Rule 5 Draft. The 27-year-old lefty hitter has a ton of experience on the middle infield and a little at third, making him prime backup infielder fodder.

Anna lacks a standout tool but he’s okay at everything. His plate discipline is his strongest skill but there is more to life than minor league strikeout and walk rates. Last year was the first year in which he hit higher than .280 and he’s never been much of a power guy or base-stealer. His defense is generally regarded as solid even though last Saturday’s play in the hole makes you think he’s the best defender ever. It’s a classic backup infielder’s profile and a strong spring could push Anna onto the Opening Day roster.

1B/OF Russ Canzler
As of right now, Johnson is the backup first baseman according to Girardi even though he only has 18 career innings at the position. The 27-year-old Canzler is the only other true first baseman in camp, though he has a good amount of left field experience as well. The Yankees had him working out at third base earlier in camp in an attempt to increase his versatility. Canzler is a pure right-handed platoon bat, hitting .307/.390/.531 against lefties in Triple-A over the years compared to .267/.346/.442 against righties. He only has 102 career big league plate appearances to his credit. Canzler is a long shot for the bench despite his ability to play first, so he’s likely ticketed for Triple-A.

IF Corban Joseph
CoJo, 25, made his very brief big league debut last season before needing season-ending shoulder surgery. They Yankees dumped him off the 40-man roster over the winter and he went unclaimed on waivers, giving you an idea of how he’s regarded around the league. Joseph had a big 2012 season split between Double-A and Triple-A (.276/.375/.465 with 15 HR) and while he’s versatile in that he can fake first, second, and third bases, he’s a liability everywhere. If he shows he can hit like he did two years ago, Joseph might have value as a bench player. If not, well there’s really nothing he can offer. He seems to be well behind the rest of the pack in the race for the final bench spot.

IF Eduardo Nunez
Boy did Nunez blow a golden opportunity last summer. Rather than cement his place in the future of the team by playing well at shortstop during Derek Jeter‘s various leg injuries, he got hurt himself and showed little improvement at the plate or in the field. Nunez had a strong September as the (almost) everyday third baseman, but one good month wasn’t enough to salvage his season, nor should it be.

Nunie. (Presswire)
Nunie. (Presswire)

Nunez, 26, came to camp as the incumbent backup infielder but that doesn’t guarantee him anything. The Yankees could have very easily handed him the job and been done with it — they really seem to like Nunez, don’t they? — but instead they brought in several players as legitimate competition. It definitely appears as though he fell out of favor with last summer’s continued lack of progress. I don’t think they would bring in so many infielders if they were comfortable with him.

We all know what Nunez can do at this point, right? He is a high contact hitter who can run but doesn’t have much power — he did say he spent most of the winter trying to bulk up and add strength, for what it’s worth — and his defense is a complete wildcard. He’ll make a stunning play one inning and botch a routine one later in the game. Unfortunately the bad plays outweigh the good ones. Nunez is not being handed a bench job and if he doesn’t make a strong case for one in camp, he has a minor league option left and can go to Triple-A.

2B/3B Scott Sizemore
After missing all but two games over the last two years due to back-to-back torn ACLs, the 29-year-old Sizemore signed a minor league contract and got into his first post-surgery Grapefruit League game last night. He had a nice half-season with the Athletics in 2011 (.249/.345/.433 with 11 HR) but given the sample size and the long layoff, I don’t think we can say that’s the real Sizemore. Healthy or not, he’s a tough guy to predict for the upcoming season.

If you’re a believer in uniform numbers being an indicator of a player’s roster chances, then Sizemore is sitting pretty after being issued Robinson Cano‘s old #24. Everyone else in this post other than Nunez has a number north of 70. Maybe that’s a sign the team considers Sizemore the favorite for the job as long as he’s healthy. Who knows. Either way, he has a lot to prove after missing two full years. I believe Sizemore has a best chance of being a league average player (that’s very valuable!) out of everyone in this post but making the team is not a given.

UTIL Yangervis Solarte
I didn’t expect to include the 26-year-old Solarte in this post initially, but he’s hit the snot out of the ball early in camp (.778/.800/1.444) and is very versatile, spending a bunch of time at the three non-first base infield positions as well as both corner outfield spots in his career. That would be nice to have off the bench. The switch-hitting Solarte has hit .282/.332/.404 in 1,145 Triple-A plate appearances the last two years, which is pretty underwhelming considering how hitter friendly the Pacific Coast League is.

The Yankees have shown a willingness to give roster spots to big Spring Training performers in recent years (2009 Ramiro Pena and 2012 David Phelps, most notably), so it’s not completely out of the question that Solarte could sneak onto the Opening Day roster if he keeps raking. A versatile switch-hitter would be nice to have. Then again, nothing in his track record suggests he’s some kind of hidden gem or in the middle of an early spring breakout.

* * *

Others like Zelous Wheeler and Jose Pirela have utility man profiles and are technically competing for that bench job in camp, but they are clear long shots to me. Solarte really belongs in that group as well, hot spring start notwithstanding. Because of the questionable starting infield arrangement and various injury risks, whoever gets that final bench spot may wind up playing a larger role than expected. Despite being the 24th or 25th spot on the roster, this bench spot offers quite a bit of opportunity.

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.