Ryan & Jones: The Necessary Bench Players [2015 Season Review]

Acquiring decent bench players has always been difficult for the Yankees. First and foremost, bench players are like relievers. They tend to be good one year and terrible the next. Secondly, the good ones who hit free agency never want to sign with New York because they know they’ll be stuck behind someone with a big name or a big contract or both. Players want to play. The Yankees over the years haven’t been able to promise much playing time to bench guys.

So the Yankees have instead had to grow their own bench players. Either that or acquire them in trades, which is how they ended up with Brendan Ryan and Garrett Jones. Ryan came over in a trade with the Mariners in September 2013 before taking a two-year contract to be Derek Jeter‘s caddy. Jones was part of last offseason’s Martin PradoNathan Eovaldi swap. Both were part of the 2015 bench. For at least part of the season, anyway.

Ryan. (Presswire)
Ryan. (Presswire)

The Utility Infielder, Because You Need One

For the second straight year, Ryan was not healthy enough to be on the Opening Day roster. He had an ongoing back problem in Spring Training, then, once his back was healthy, he strained his calf making a play in the field during a Grapefruit League game. That landed him on the 15-day DL and eventually the 60-day DL. (Ryan was transferred to the 60-day DL to make 40-man roster room for Jacob Lindgren in late-May.)

Eventually Ryan got healthy. He played in some minor league rehab games — that was his Spring Training, basically — before being activated off the DL on June 10th. Ryan made his season debut that day and, naturally, went 2-for-3 with a triple. He reached base three times in the game overall.

Ryan’s return lasted less than two weeks. He appeared in six games over the next eleven days — he started three of them and went 4-for-13 (.308) overall — before returning to the 15-day DL with another back injury on June 22nd.

It wasn’t until after the All-Star break that Ryan returned to the Yankees. He played sparingly the rest of July though did finish the month very well. Ryan went 6-for-16 (.375) with three doubles and a triple in the span of three games at the end of the month. That includes a 2-for-6 with two doubles night in that 21-5 blowout win over the Rangers.

Of course the offense wasn’t going to last though. Ryan has never been much of a hitter and one of those doubles that night looked like this:

That, ladies and gents, is some good ol’ fashioned BABIP luck. It happens.

Ryan stayed healthy the rest of the season but was just awful at the plate. He had four hits in August. Four. Four hits in 35 at-bats (.114) spread across 17 games, including ten starts. A seven-hit September followed. For a while Joe Girardi used Ryan in a straight platoon with Stephen Drew, and, to Ryan’s credit, he did hit .283/.321/.453 (109 wRC+) against southpaws this summer.

All told, Ryan hit .229/.275/.333 (64 wRC+) with a 28.2% strikeout rate and a 4.9% walk rate in 103 plate appearances this past season. He did not hit a home run or steal a base, and 53 of those plate appearances came against lefties. Believe it or not, the 64 wRC+ represents Ryan’s best offensive season since 2011 with the Mariners (84 wRC+).

Ryan makes his living in the field, not at the plate. The defensive stats say he was a below-average defender this summer but it’s hard to take them seriously. He played 261.67 innings in the field. That’s slightly more than 29 full games. The eye test told me Ryan is still really good in the field. He can still do stuff like this:

For the most part Ryan played the middle infield and third base. He also dabbled at first and even spent a few innings in right field. Heck, Ryan threw not one, but two (!) scoreless innings in a blowout loss to the Astros on August 25th. He threw 20 of 28 pitches for strikes and even got a swing-and-miss. What a time to be alive.

As expected, Ryan exercised his $1M player option shortly after the end of the World Series. I suppose the Yankees could look around for an upgrade — Cliff Pennington just signed a two-year contract worth $3.75M, if you’re wondering what backup infielders are going for on the open market — but I consider it a low priority. Utility infielders typically aren’t very good. Ryan still plays strong defense, he’s cheap, and he’s an A+ clubhouse dude. I’m not sure what more you could want from a position that is lucky to crack 150 plate appearances in a season.

(Presswire)
G.I. Jones. (Presswire)

The Perfect Fit That Wasn’t

Coming into this season there were a lot of questions about Carlos Beltran (offseason elbow surgery), Mark Teixeira (terrible second half), and Alex Rodriguez (suspended all of 2014). The Yankees didn’t really know what to expect from any of them. All three could have been at the end of the line.

So, to get themselves some protection, the Yankees acquired Jones in that five-player trade with the Marlins. Jones had experience playing right (Beltran) and first (Teixeira), and could also step in at DH (A-Rod). He provided depth at all three spots. The Yankees had been after Jones for years — they first tried to get him from the Pirates in the A.J. Burnett trade — and they finally got him last winter.

Once it became clear A-Rod and Teixeira still had something left in the tank, it was very hard for Jones to get playing time. He appeared in only 18 of the team’s first 41 games, starting just eight of them. Jones went 6-for-40 (.150) with one walks and eleven strikeouts in those 41 team games. It wasn’t until May 22nd that he hit his first home run. The next day he pitched in a blowout loss.

Jones actually got into a bit of a groove in late-May, going 11-for-25 (.440) with three home runs in the span of 13 team games. The biggest of those three home runs — and Jones’ most notable moment as a Yankee — was a game-winning three run homer in extra innings against the Mariners on June 2nd.

That was a huge hit at the time. The Yankees had lost 13 of their last 19 games and needed someone, anyone, to come through with a huge hit. And that was it. Jones came through. The homer earned him another start the next day and Jones went deep again. It looked like he was finally going to contribute.

It didn’t last though. Jones went back to playing sporadically and eventually the Yankees cut him loose at the end of July. They acquired Dustin Ackley to effectively replace Jones. Ackley could play right field and first base like Jones, as well as fill-in at second base. Plus he’s seven years younger. It made sense. It seemed like a small upgrade at the time but it was an upgrade nonetheless.

The Yankees cut Jones loose, then, after Ackley hurt his back a few days after the trade, the Yankees ended up re-signing Jones to fill his old roster spot. The timing was a bit awkward, I’d say. Ackley missed the entire month of August but Jones never did get appear in another game with the Yankees. He remained with the team for another two and a half weeks or so, then was designated for assignment when Greg Bird got called up.

Jones was unable to hook on with another team after that. I thought maybe someone would pick him up as a lefty power bench bat once rosters expanded in September, but it didn’t happen. All told, Jones hit .215/.257/.361 (65 wRC+) with five home runs in 152 plate appearances spread across 57 games with New York. He played 24 games in right field, 21 at first base, four at DH, four in left field, plus one on the mound. And he pinch-hit a few times.

On paper, Jones was a great fit for the 2015 Yankees. He gave them some protection at first base, right field, and DH, three positions with questions, and his left-handed power looked like a perfect match for Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch. It didn’t work out. That’s baseball. The Yankees paid Jones $5M this season and he’s a free agent. No reason to think he’ll be back next year.

Game 123: Andy Pettitte Day

Yesterday afternoon the Yankees retired No. 20 and dedicated a plaque in Monument Park in honor of Jorge Posada, and today they’ll do the same for Andy Pettitte. No. 46 is officially coming out of circulation. This weekend honoring two all-time great Yankees continues today with Andy Pettitte Day.

Pettitte is arguably the best starting pitcher in franchise history and I don’t think I know a single person who doesn’t love Andy. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in strikeouts (2,020) and is third in innings (2,796.1), wins (219) and pitching WAR (51.6). Andy is certainly the team’s best starter during the expansion era, if nothing else.

Hall of Famer? I’d say Pettitte is borderline at best. He is a five-time World Series champ and was a rotation stalwart during the most recent Yankees dynasty, but his candidacy will be hurt by his performance-enhancing drug ties. Either way, Andy’s going into Monument Park, and deservedly so. Monument Park was built for guys like Pettitte.

Just like yesterday, fans have been asked to be in their seats by noon for the pregame ceremony, though the actual ceremony probably won’t start until 12:15pm or 12:30pm ET or so. YES will have the whole thing, as always. As for this afternoon’s game, here is Cleveland’s lineup and here is New York’s lineup:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. DH Brian McCann
  5. 1B Greg Bird
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. 2B Stephen Drew
  9. C John Ryan Murphy
    LHP CC Sabathia

It’s a bit cloudy in New York today and there is some rain in the forecast, but not much. Nothing that will ruin the ceremony or cause a postponement. The game is scheduled to begin at 1:05pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy the ceremony and the game.

Injury Updates: Mark Teixeira (leg) did some light running and took batting practice for the first time since the foul ball. It seems unlikely he will play tomorrow … Bryan Mitchell (face) threw a bullpen session. He could make a minor league rehab appearance next, then come off the DL … Alex Rodriguez is healthy. Joe Girardi said he is trying to “refresh” him with two straight days off.

Roster Update: Garrett Jones, who was designated for assignment a few days ago, has been unconditionally released. He’ll probably hook on somewhere and serve as an extra lefty bench bat in September.

Yankees call up Capuano and Goody, send down Pinder, designate Jones for assignment

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

As expected, the Yankees have made some moves to beef up their bullpen following last night’s 16-inning marathon loss. Both Chris Capuano and Nick Goody have been called up from Triple-A Scranton, the team announced. Branden Pinder was sent down and Garrett Jones was designated for assignment to clear roster spots. The Jones move also clears a 40-man spot for Capuano.

Pinder threw two innings and 20 pitches last night, taking the loss. Joe Girardi has thrown Pinder into some tight spots the last few days and he wound up with two losses on his record. Sucks. Jones re-signed with the team last week following Dustin Ackley‘s injury and did not get into a game. Bryan Mitchell, who threw 60 pitches last night and won’t be able available for a few days, is still with the team.

Capuano was scheduled to start for the RailRiders today, so he’ll be available for multiple innings tonight if necessary, which I really hope is not the case. He was able to get stretched out to 65 pitches in Triple-A after being designated for assignment two weeks ago. Capuano had a 6.97 ERA (5.00 FIP) in 31 innings for the Yankees before being cut and accepting his assignment to Triple-A.

Goody threw 16 pitches in Triple-A last night and was called up simply because there weren’t any other options. Caleb Cotham and Nick Rumbelow were both sent down last week and were unable to be recalled due to the ten-day rule. Goody was the only healthy call-up-able pitcher on the 40-man roster. He allowed one run in 1.1 innings with the Yankees earlier this year.

The Yankees have been talking about using a spot sixth starter at some point during this road trip and keeping Mitchell around will allow them to do that at some point. Had he been sent down, they wouldn’t have been able to call him up for ten days. Cutting Jones means the Yankees are down to a three-man bench, however. That will change once rosters expand in three weeks.

Yankees designate Garrett Jones for assignment

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

Earlier today, the Yankees designated first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones for assignment, the team announced. The move clears a roster spot for the recent acquired Dustin Ackley. Joe Girardi confirmed Ackley will fill the same role as Jones: seldom-used backup outfielder and backup first baseman, plus he’ll take some grounders at second.

Jones, 34, hit .215/.257/.361 (67 wRC+) with five homers in only 152 plate appearances this season. He had a brutal start to the season — 6-for-40 (.150) in the team’s first 41 games — but kinda sorta picked it up of late, hitting .240/.288/.413 (92 wRC+) in his last 111 plate appearances. Jones did hit one huge home run this season, so thanks for that.

The Yankees acquired Jones in the Nathan EovaldiMartin Prado trade this past offseason and still owe him the rest of his $5M salary, which is a relative drop in the bucket. Brian Cashman explained they replaced Jones with Ackley because Ackley is younger, more versatile, and under team control beyond this season.

2015 Midseason Review: Odds & Ends

Time to tie up some loose ends and conclude our Midseason Review series. The second half of the 2015 seasons starts tonight, thankfully. I’ve come to appreciate the All-Star break, but yeah, I am ready for more baseball.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

G.I. Jones and the Serial Killer

By bench player standards, Chris Young has been dynamite this season. He’s mashing lefties and playing strong defense, which are his two main job functions. Garrett Jones, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a set role. He’s the backup at first base, yeah, but otherwise he doesn’t play regularly against righties or anything. Jones has started just 28 of the team’s 88 games, for example. He batted 28 times in April. That’s it.

Playing that infrequently didn’t exactly help Jones remain productive. He went 6-for-40 (.150) before hitting his first home run on May 22nd, a pinch-hit three-run homer into the Yankee Stadium short porch. That seemed to get him going. Jones is 24-for-89 (.270) with four homers since then, including at least one big one …

… while continuing to play sporadically. Jones is hitting .233/.277/.395 (84 wRC+) with five homers overall — again, he’s been much better since that dreadful start — and all things considered, he’s been really good for his role. That backup first baseman/fifth outfielder/lefty power bat off the bench who rarely plays. This is exactly the kind of veteran dude you want in this role. Not some prospect with an actual future.

John Ryan Murphy, meanwhile, has a total of 85 plate appearances as Brian McCann‘s backup this year, and is hitting .247/.286/.325 (65 wRC+). That’s about on par with the league average for backup catchers. Murphy’s defense has been fine to the untrained eye — he’s thrown out six of 19 attempted base-stealers (32%), so teams have tried running on him in limited action — and for whatever reason the pitching staff has better strikeout (23.4%) and walk (5.6%) rates with him behind the plate than McCann (21.8% and 7.2%, respectively). Could easily be sample size noise.

The Yankees reached the point where something had to happen with their catching depth. Someone had to go, and it was Francisco Cervelli, who was two years from free agency. The Yankees turned him into Justin Wilson, gave Murphy the backup job, and managed to keep Austin Romine in Triple-A as a non-40-man roster player. As an unabashed JRM fan, I’m happy with the way things turned out and I look forward to seeing Murphy continue to develop on both sides of the ball.

Futility Infielders

Pirela. (Patrick Smith/Getty)
Pirela. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

It feels like more, but the Yankees have had four differential utility infielders this season, not counting the just called up Rob Refsnyder. Gregorio Petit, Jose Pirela, Brendan Ryan, and Cole Figueroa have hit a combined .209/.243/.310 (~53 wRC+) in 140 plate appearances. Pirela (41 wRC+) has exactly half those plate appearances. There’s a decent chance the Yankees will stick with Refsnyder as the regular second baseman and push Stephen Drew in the backup infielder role going forward, which would still be a net upgrade even as bad as Drew has been. Young, Jones, and Murphy have been pretty good off the bench, all things considered. The infielders have … not.

Get Called Up, Get Injured

When Jacoby Ellsbury hit the DL, the Yankees first called up Slade Heathcott, and it was a great story. Slade has dealt with all sorts of on-the-field and off-the-field issues over the years, so much so that he was dropped off the 40-man roster in the offseason, but he came to Spring Training healthy and played well in Triple-A. He earned the call up, went 6-for-17 (.343) with a homer, then blew out his quad and landed on the DL for a few months. Brutal.

Heathcott’s injury opened the door for Mason Williams, who battled mostly work ethic and makeup problems the last few years, but had the proverbial light bulb go on this offseason. He played well in Double-A and Triple-A, got called up to replace Slade, went 6-for-21 (.286) with three doubles and a homer, then suffered a shoulder injury diving back into first base on a pickoff throw. The day-to-day injury turned into a 60-day DL stint. I repeat: brutal.

The only young fourth outfielder to escape the injury bug in the first half was Ramon Flores, who got called up to replace Williams and went 7-for-32 (.219) with a double. He’s been up and down a few times and hasn’t gotten the everyday opportunity like Heathcott and Williams did before getting hurt. Maybe that’s the team’s way of keeping him healthy. I’m glad the Yankees have given their young outfielders a chance. It sucks they keep getting hurt. Seriously hurt too.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

One Hundred Pitches Or Less

Through 88 games this season, the Yankees have had a starting pitcher throw 100+ pitches only 22 times, tied with the Rockies and Royals for the fewest in MLB. Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi have both thrown 100+ pitches seven times, Adam Warren did it four times before being put in the bullpen, CC Sabathia has done it three times, and Masahiro Tanaka has done it once. That’s it. The Yankees do have 38 starts of 90-99 pitches, for what it’s worth.

The lack of 100+ pitch starts is the result of many things, first and foremost ineffectiveness. Sabathia and Eovaldi have gotten knocked around a bit at times, Warren struggled in April, and even Tanaka and Pineda went through rough stretches. The Yankees also have a strong bullpen and Joe Girardi has not been shy about going to it early rather than letting his starter go through the lineup a third time. Can’t say I blame him.

That said, the Yankees rank 22nd in innings by starters (510) and eighth in innings by the bullpen (283.1), which is a bit unbalanced. Over the last five years the ratio of rotation innings to bullpen innings is almost exactly 2.0 (1.996, to be exact) in the AL. The Yankees are at 1.80 this year. I’m not saying it can’t work all year, but it would be nice to see Girardi let the starters go a little deeper into games to help avoid bullpen burnout, especially with multi-run leads. I’m not sure asking the relievers to get a dozen outs each night is a built to last strategy.

Game 50: Late Night on the West Coast

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The only thing that sucks worse than a Yankees loss is waiting until late at night for a Yankees loss on the West Coast. The Yankees have dropped the first two games of this four-game series to the Athletics — which team is in first place and which one has the worst record in the league again? — and we’ve had to wait until the wee hours of the morning for both games to go final. Blah.

Anyway, the Yankees have lost two straight and 12 of their last 16 games, yet they somehow aren’t buried in the AL East. Quite the opposite in fact. The division is just that bad. Still, the Yankees can’t keep losing at this pace. The offense, the defense, and the pitching has let them down in not so equal parts. Start righting the ship with a win tonight, mmmkay? Here is the A’s lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. 3B Chase Headley
  3. DH Alex Rodriguez
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. RF Carlos Beltran
  7. LF Ramon Flores
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. 2B Jose Pirela
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

It’s cool and foggy in Oakland tonight, though there is no rain in the forecast. First pitch is scheduled for 10:05pm ET and can be seen on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Try to enjoy the game.

Roster Move: As expected, Slade Heathcott (quad) was placed on the 15-day DL and Flores was called up from Triple-A Scranton.

Injury Updates: Jacob Ellsbury (knee) is working out in a pool and getting treatment. That’s about it … Garrett Jones is dealing with plantar fasciitis but it’s manageable … Gregorio Petit (hand) has started taking batting practice … Brendan Ryan (calf, hamstring) has started playing in Extended Spring Training games.

Hot starts by A-Rod and Chris Young have left little playing time for Garrett Jones

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

The Yankees had been after Garrett Jones for quite a while before landing him this offseason in the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade. They first tried to get him in the A.J. Burnett trade a few years ago, at least as far as we know. Given his left-handed pull power and the ability to play first base as well as right field, Jones sure seemed like a good fit for the roster this year. The Yankees needed protection at those two positions as well as DH.

Instead of being that part-time first baseman, part-time right fielder, part-time DH against righties this year, the 33-year-old Jones has been limited to 34 unproductive plate appearances in the team’s first 27 games. He’s started just seven of the 27 games — two in right, two at first, and three at DH. Jones is currently in an 0-for-15 slump and has hit .152/.176/.242 (9 wRC+) with no homers so far this year. His defense hasn’t been anything special but that was always the case.

The lack of playing time is only partly due to the ugly batting line. Both Alex Rodriguez and Chris Young are off to very good starts and are stealing at-bats from Jones, so to speak. No one expected A-Rod to be this productive this soon. We all figured Jones would get a fair amount of DH at-bats coming into the season. And whenever someone in the outfield has needed a day off, Young has stepped in because he’s tearing the cover off the ball, even against righties.

The leaves Jones almost as a man without a role. He’s not seeing much time in the outfield, isn’t seeing much time at DH, and Mark Teixeira‘s combination of good health and lots of dingers has kept Jones from playing first base as well. There’s just no way to squeeze him into the lineup right now, and his lack of production is only going to make it easier for Joe Girardi to avoid using him going forward. Jones is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Jones averaged 527 plate appearances per season from 2010-14 and never came to the plate fewer than 440 times. He’s on pace for 204 plate appearances this year, so his playing time has been more than cut in half, and it’s hard to be a bench player after playing everyday your entire career. This is a chicken or the egg thing — is Jones not producing because he isn’t playing, or is he not playing because he isn’t producing? It’s probably some of both. He’s the position player version of David Carpenter, basically.

I’m not saying Jones should play more. I just don’t think he’s turned into a true talent 9 wRC+ (!) hitter in an offseason and my guess is the lack of regular playing time is at least partially to blame. It’s hard to stay sharp when you play this infrequently. Extra batting practice and time in the cage only does so much. Live pitching is a different animal. A-Rod and Young (and Teixeira) have been too good to take out of the lineup and the Yankees should milk those hot starts for all they’re worth.

Jones is stuck in an unfortunate spot right now, and, aside from an injury, I’m not sure there is any way to get him the playing time he maybe needs to be a productive part-time player. I don’t think the Yankees should replace him, at least not yet, and even if they were going to replace him, who’s a better option? It’s not like the next guy is going to play much. Calling up Slade Heathcott or Ramon Flores to play once a week is a waste. For the time being the Yankees should ride it out with Jones and hope he figures out a way to be a productive yet seldom-used bench player.