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.

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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.

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2014 Season Preview: Defensive Liabilities

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I suppose the silver lining of last season’s terrible offense was a strong team defense. The Yankees employed guys like Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, Lyle Overbay, Luis Cruz, Alberto Gonzalez, Reid Brignac, and Brendan Ryan as regulars at various points of the year, guys who can’t hit but can play some solid defense. The club sported a collective +12.5 UZR and +21 DRS in 2013, rates that are only slightly above-average (13th and 10th in MLB, respectively) on a team-wide scale.

The roster has turned over substantially this past offseason, especially on the position player side. That should greatly improve the lineup, but it will also impact the team defense. Some of the players the Yankees acquired over the winter are very good defenders but others simply are not. Not every player the team added is a two-way threat. Far from it. Let’s look at where the Yankees are vulnerable in the field thanks to subpar defenders.

The Infield
Last month I detailed how the team’s ground ball heavy pitching staff is not a good mix for their generally shaky infield defense, particularly at the non-first base spots. Mark Teixeira is a stud in the field and I have no reason to think a wrist injury will severely compromise his glovework. Maybe he’ll lose a step or two or some hand-eye coordination with age, but I don’t think the injury will have a huge factor on his defense.

Derek Jeter has moved around well in the field and on the bases this spring following all the leg injuries, but he’s still a negative on defense. We all know that. Brian Roberts has looked surprisingly agile during Grapefruit League play, so maybe he’ll be a positive in the field, at least while he’s healthy. Kelly Johnson comes into the season with only 118 career innings at third base and only 18 innings at first base, where he’s expected to be the starter and backup, respectively. He’s muffed a few hard-hit balls in camp so far, the kind that earned the position the nickname the “hot corner.”

The backup plans aren’t much better. Eduardo Nunez is inconsistent at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst defensively, and Scott Sizemore is coming off back-to-back left ACL surgeries. He hasn’t played enough in camp for us to get an idea of how he’s moving in the field. The various scouting reports indicate Dean Anna is an adequate to solid defender. Teixeira should be fine at first but all of the other infield spots come with defensive questions. I think the Yankees would be pretty happy if the infield graded out as a league average unit come the end of the season.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Right Field
As of right now, it seems like the plan is to have Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran split right field and DH duties most of the time in 2014. There have been some rumblings Brett Gardner could wind up in right with Soriano in left, but that seems unlikely to happen. The Soriano/Beltran timeshare in right field appears to be the way things are heading.

Aside from one defensive inning in right field during Game Five of the 2003 World Series, Soriano has never played the position. Moving over there at 38 years old may not be an easy transition, and that doesn’t even consider his weak throwing arm. Runners will be going first-to-third on him all day. Beltran was once a top flight defender but he has slowed down considerably with age and injury, to the point where he’s graded out as a below-average defender over the last few years by the various defensive stats. Regardless of whether Soriano or Beltran starts, the Yankees will have a subpar gloveman in right.

It’s not all bad though. First and foremost, right field in Yankee Stadium is pretty small, so there’s isn’t much ground to cover in the first place. Two, with Gardner in left and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Ellsbury figures to shade towards right to help cover the gaps. Three, Ichiro will almost certainly come off the bench as a defensive replacement for right field whenever the game is close. Even if Ichiro is traded or released or whatever, Zoilo Almonte can do the same job. Whenever they’re in right though, both Soriano and Beltran will be liabilities.

Outfield Arms
I mentioned this with Soriano in right, but it’s worth pointing out the Yankees have some weak outfield arms in general. Beltran’s is by far the best and might be the team’s best right field arm since Raul Mondesi way back in the day. Ellsbury’s arm is laughably weak and downright Damon-esque while Gardner’s is solid at best. Not particularly strong but accurate. Soriano’s arm is both weak and not accurate while Ichiro’s strong arm plays down because he takes forever to get rid of the ball. Gardner and Ellsbury more than make up for their arms with their range, but don’t expect to see many plays at the plate this summer. Beltran’s the only regular with a quality arm.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brian McCann‘s Arm
McCann does a lot of things well, specifically hit and frame pitches. He is also said to be very good at blocking balls in the dirt and working with pitchers. The one thing McCann does not do well is throw. Last season he threw out only 24 of 100 attempted base-stealers, below the 27% league average. The year before it was 22%, and in case you’re thinking this might be related to his October 2012 labrum surgery, McCann threw out only 24% of base-stealers from 2006-11. He’s simply not good at shutting down the running game.

In order to compensate for McCann’s arm, the pitcher will have to make sure to pay attention to runners on first base. CC Sabathia should have it the easiest as a left-hander, but runners have been successful in 70% of their stolen base attempts the last three years. Hiroki Kuroda has held runners to a 62% success rate since coming to New York and Ivan Nova has held them to a 63% success rate in his relatively short big league career. Masahiro Tanaka … who in the world knows. Frankie Cervelli has an excellent arm (after some mechanical tinkering last spring) but McCann is going to be the starter because he does so many things well. One of those things is not throwing and it’s something the Yankees will have to deal with this summer. It’s the essence of taking the bad with the good.

* * *

The Yankees have premium defenders at first base and in both left and center fields. The rest of the team will probably be net negative in the field, which is not ideal in an offensive ballpark in a tough division with a sketchy middle relief crew. This club is going to have to out-hit and out-pitch their defensive shortcomings in 2014.

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.

Eduardo Nunez and the writing on the wall

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

I can’t imagine this has been a comfortable offseason for Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees’ incumbent backup infielder and wannabe shortstop of the future has watched the team give Derek Jeter a raise, re-sign Brendan Ryan, sign Kelly Johnson, trade for Dean Anna, and sign Scott Sizemore. They’re still looking for infield help too, so there could be even more names added to the list. That’s a lot of moves involving players who play the same positions as Nunez.

Even before these moves, it was obvious the Yankees needed to prioritize middle infield depth this offseason. There was never a chance Jeter was leaving, even if he declined his player option. That just wasn’t happening. But, as we saw last year, he is not invincible and the team needed a better backup plan. That’s where Ryan comes into play. He can’t hit a lick but you can run him out there on an everyday basis if need be because of his slick glovework. Anna can play the two middle infield spots and has some nice on-base skills, plus he was basically free, so why not? Johnson and Sizemore are second and third baseman but two more infielders nonetheless.

None of this is good news for Nunez. Or at least it isn’t a vote of confidence, I should say. If the team had any real faith in his ability to play shortstop on a full-time basis should Jeter go down with another injury, they probably wouldn’t have given Ryan two years (and an option!) so early in the offseason. That just doesn’t strike me as something you do if you have a 26-year-old shortstop you believe in long-term. Am I wrong? If Nunez had shown any improvement with the glove — his throwing was way better early last year but that didn’t last — or more promise with the bat, finding a replacement for 2014 and 2015 wouldn’t have been much of a priority.

It’s not all bad news, however. Nunez did keep his job while others infielders like Jayson Nix and David Adams were non-tendered weeks ago. That’s better than the alternative. Cutting Nix was an obvious move given his projected salary ($1.4M) but keeping Nunez over Adams was not a given. Both players have a minor league option remaining and both will earn something close to the league minimum in 2014, so that stuff wasn’t a factor. The Yankees decided Nunez, who has a standout tool in his speed (and ability to make contact, really), was the one worth keeping. I know what Adams has done over the years and I’m not convinced the team made the wrong move, especially since Sizemore is almost the exact same player. Betting on the guy who can run and consistently put the ball in play is not unreasonable.

“[Nunez] has options and he could be a utility player. I wouldn’t want to start him [at third]. Regardless how he feels about it, I would want to find someone that I feel more comfortable with,” said Brian Cashman to George King earlier this winter, making it clear the Yankees have knocked Nunez down the depth chart a peg or two. There is only so much patience you can show with a guy who, even if everything breaks right, still projects to be a solid regular more than a star. In a perfect world, Jeter will play shortstop next year with Ryan backing him up and Nunez sitting Triple-A, rotating between second and short with Anna. That’s the best situation for the Yankees but a big step down for Nunez, who probably sees it coming.

Third Base Notes: Reynolds, Young, Drew

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

The Yankees now know, for certain, that Alex Rodriguez will not be available to them this coming season. Arbitrator Fredric Horowitz officially reduced A-Rod‘s suspension from 211 games to 162 games yesterday, but make no mistake, it was a huge win for MLB. They wanted Alex out of the game for the year and that’s what they got. The Yankees now have an extra $25M or so to spend but they also need a new third baseman.

With the ruling now handed down, the team will likely begin looking for a third base replacement in earnest. Here’s the latest on the hot corner situation courtesy of Anthony McCarron, Andrew Marchand, and Dan Martin:

  • The Yankees continue to mull a reunion with Mark Reynolds, but they are only offering a minor league contract at this time. Such an agreement has been dubbed “unlikely.”
  • Michael Young is also being considered and the two sides have been talking. It is “too early to tell” if anything will come from it, however. The Yankees tried to acquire Young at the trade deadline.
  • The Yankees remain uninterested in Stephen Drew for whatever reason. Brian Cashman said they won’t be signing him last week. Drew has never played a position other than shortstop as a pro.
  • Cashman said the team does not view Brendan Ryan or Eduardo Nunez as third base options, thankfully. Kelly Johnson is an option but his experience at the position is limited (16 games, all last year).