As we’ve learned through the years, winning the AL East and eventually a World Series takes an awful lot more than the nine regular position players, five starting pitchers, and a closer. Clubs need not just a strong bullpen and bench, but they also need quality backup backup players in Triple-A. The full 40-man roster is important.
The Yankees have gotten some excellent production from their projected reserve players this season, but they also assumed more prominent roles due to injuries — specifically Brett Gardner’s. Dewayne Wise filled in admirably for a while but was replaced on the roster by Ichiro Suzuki yesterday. He’s not the Ichiro of old but he does add some sorely needed speed and outfield defense, and perhaps more importantly he relegates those reserve players back into their projected roles.
Gardner’s injury forced Ibanez into left field far more often than we or the Yankees would have liked, but now he gets to return to the platoon DH role he was brought in to fill. Ichiro is going to play left field against right-handed pitchers while Ibanez’s bat stays in the lineup and his glove stays in the clubhouse. Hopefully the extra rest can revive Raul’s bat a bit, because he has tailed off noticeably since that monster start in April…
We’re still going to see Ibanez play the field once in a while since Joe Girardi figures to rest Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher more often down the stretch, especially if the Yankees maintain their big division lead. Once a week isn’t the end of the world but not having to run him out to left day after day is a huge boon.
Andruw’s role actually won’t change very much at all. He was and remains the right-handed hitting half of the left field/DH platoon, so whether he subs in for Ichiro in left or Ibanez at DH depends on the day and whoever else is resting. Jones already has just 22 fewer plate appearances against righties this year thanlast, so expect that pace to change a bit. He’ll probably get fewer total plate appearances moving forward that he otherwise would have, but that’s not necessarily a bat thing as long he still takes his hacks against southpaws, either as a starter or off the bench.
In terms of playing time, Chavez probably lost the most with the Ichiro pickup. He had been getting regular DH and third base plate appearances — just six fewer plate appearances than last season with two months to go — but now will give Alex Rodriguez a day or two off a week and little more. There will be occasional spot starts at DH and Chavez could spell Mark Teixeira at first base once in a while, plus he’ll be the primary left-handed pinch-hitter off the bench. Given his fragile body, less playing time for Chavez is probably a good thing in terms of keeping him healthy down the stretch and potentially into the postseason.
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I’m hopeful that with Ibanez spending more time at DH, Girardi will be a more open to pinch-hitting for him against tough lefties in the later innings. As the left fielder, a pinch-hitting appearance generally required three players — Ibanez the starter, Jones the pinch-hitter, and Wise the defensive replacement. Now they can replace Ibanez with Jones, leave Ichiro in the outfield, and still have Chavez on the bench in case Andruw winds up facing a right-hander later in the game. Whether or not he’s actually open to doing that remains to be seen, but I’m cautiously optimistic.
Ichiro isn’t Gardner but he’s a reasonable approximation, at least in the field and on the bases. The Yankees should use him in a similar way, which means hitting near the bottom of the lineup while sitting against tough lefties. Returning Ibanez, Chavez, and to a lesser extent Jones to their intended roles is a fringe benefit that may have huge dividends if Raul stays fresh and Chavez stays healthy.