As the MLB player portion of our 2019 Season Preview series winds down, it’s time to hit on the depth position players, the guys every team needs but doesn’t want to use. The third catcher, the sixth outfielder, the backup backup utility infielder. Players like that. Inevitably, a few of these deep depth guys find their way to the big leagues each season. It is part of baseball.
At perfect health, the Yankees have good depth options on the infield (Tyler Wade) and in the outfield (Clint Frazier). They’re not at perfect health though. Aaron Hicks is hurt and Frazier is ticketed for Triple-A to get regular at-bats after losing so much time to injury last year. Beyond them, this year’s cast of depth players includes the usual non-roster types, the incumbent third catcher, a late-spring addition, and a well-paid question market. Let’s preview the depth guys.
It is kinda weird to include the third highest paid Yankee with the depth position players, but that’s where Jacoby Ellsbury is with the Yankees now. He has not played since the 2017 ALCS — Ellsbury pinch-hit in Game One and pinch-ran in Game Four, and that was it that series — and various injuries sidelined him all last season. Most notably, Ellsbury had hip surgery in August, and he’s still rehabbing.
“It feels real speculatory of me to even go down that road,” said Aaron Boone to Kristie Ackert recently when asked when Ellsbury will be able to play again. “First things first. It does seem like he is improving and getting better and obviously he’s here now … Hopefully he just continues improving and at some point becomes an option for us.”
Ellsbury stayed home in Arizona for a few weeks before finally reporting to Spring Training last weekend to continue his rehab. He recently started running on flat ground and is doing very light baseball activities. Hitting off a tee, playing catch at short distances, things like that. Ellsbury is not in Spring Training mode. He’s still in rehab mode and is presumably weeks away from really ramping up his baseball work.
“It’s nice to be going, doing baseball activity. As far as a timeline of when I’ll be playing, we’re not sure yet,” said Ellsbury to Coley Harvey. “You want to be out there, for sure. That’s why I put in the time, put in the work. You want to be out there, you want to contribute, you want to be part of the team. And the best way for me to do that right now is just put the work in in the gym, and the training room, the batting cage and that sort of thing. If I do that, we can get back on the field quicker.”
In addition to not playing in over a year, Ellsbury was not a lineup regular the last time he did play, and he is a 35-year-old speed guy coming off major hip surgery. You’d expect him to slow down and his skills to diminish at that age anyway. Add in the surgery and it is basically impossible to know what to expect this season, assuming Ellsbury makes it back on to the field at some point. That’s not a given.
The Yankees reportedly have insurance on Ellsbury’s contract and his current status indicates he’ll spend at least a few weeks on the injured list. They’ll collect insurance while he rehabs, monitor his progress, then make a decision about his future when he’s ready to play in a big league game. It could be they Yankees will need Ellsbury like they needed him last August, when Shane Robinson and Neil Walker were playing right field.
There’s also a non-zero chance the Yankees will have no room for Ellsbury, and release him the way they released Alex Rodriguez three years ago, or the way the Red Sox released Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, or the way the Dodgers released Carl Crawford. Teams are increasingly willing to release unproductive players with multiple years on their big contracts. Ellsbury could be next.
For now, Ellsbury is still rehabbing, and it’s unclear when he’ll return to game action. Between his rehab work and rehab games, it sounds like he’s weeks away from returning. It’s impossible to know what to expect from him but it is difficult to envision him fitting into the outfield picture when the Yankees are full healthy. There’s not much we can do other than wait and see. Ellsbury may’ve already played his final game in pinstripes. Or it could be they’ll need him in the lineup once he’s healthy.
“I believe when he’s healthy he’ll be back and he’ll be able to show us what he is capable of doing,” said Brian Cashman to James Wagner. “I’ve been told by doctors that if that’s the case we’ll be able to see the player we used to see.”
Higashioka is an ideal third catcher. He really is. He has a minor league option remaining, so the Yankees can shuttle him in and out as necessary this year, and he already knows the pitching staff. Higashioka has been in the farm system since 2008, he’s been in big league camp every year since 2015, and he’s had multiple stints with the MLB team the last two years. He’s not some scrap heap pickup who has no history with the pitchers, you know?
Also, Higashioka can put a mistake in the seats, which is about all you could ask from the third string catcher offensively. Expecting a third catcher to hit for average and draw walks and hit for power isn’t realistic. If he could do even two of those things, he wouldn’t be a third catcher. He’d be starting or at least backing up somewhere, not riding the shuttle. Higashioka rates well defensively, he has some pop, and he’s optionable. What more could you want from the third guy on the catching depth chart?
The Yankees have a good third catcher situation right now, and, in a perfect world, we won’t see Higashioka until rosters expand in September. (The 28-man September roster limit kicks in next year.) A healthy Gary Sanchez and a healthy Austin Romine is the best thing for the Yankees. Chances are one of them will miss time though (catchers are known to get beat up), and when they do, the perfectly cromulent Higashioka will step in as backup. He’s fine.
OF Mike Tauchman
Can’t say I expected to write a Mike Tauchman (!?) season preview blurb this year, but here we are. The Yankees acquired Tauchman from the Rockies for lefty relief prospect Phil Diehl over the weekend, and Tauchman will be on the Opening Day roster as Aaron Hicks’ replacement. Tyler Wade, who seemed to have a roster spot locked up, had the rug pulled out from under him at the end of camp. Ouch.
“Excited to get a guy that we feel is pretty talented and can play multiple positions out in the outfield, a guy that does have options,” said Aaron Boone to Brendan Kuty following the trade. Tauchman has only a little big league time, hitting .153/.265/.203 (17 wRC+) in 69 plate appearances spread across multiple cups of coffee, but he did lose his glove over the wall while trying to rob a home run once, and that’s kinda funny.
While not a true launch angle guy, Tauchman made some swing changes two years ago in an effort to unlock some power. “I cleaned up my mechanics in my lower half, and that enabled me to use more of my body weight. I felt like I was in a really good place going into the offseason, and I kept working … I was kind of settling for singles and just looking to get on. Now I’ve changed my approach,” he said to Patrick Saunders in June 2017. The numbers:
|2016 in AAA||527||.286/.342/.373||92||1||14.6%||7.6%||57.5%|
|2017 in AAA||475||.331/.386/.555||139||16||15.4%||8.4%||46.7%|
|2018 in AAA||471||.323/.408/.571||153||20||14.9%||12.7%||43.5%|
Going from one homer in 527 plate appearances one year to 16 homers in 475 plate appearances the next is really something, especially when it coincides with a mechanical change. Tauchman hit four more homers in four fewer plate appearances the following year, and look at those ground ball rates. Grounders going down, power numbers going up. It is the way of the world.
That all said, my dude has spent three straight season in Triple-A (with a few short MLB call-ups mixed in). You’d expect any player to improve his performance each time he repeats the level. Tauchman’s not special in that regard. It is difficult — if not impossible — to separate what is legitimate mechanics-related improvement and what is statistical noise stemming from a guy playing at the same minor league level year after year.
I know this much: Tauchman fills a need and the Yankees are really good at identifying talent in other organizations. Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hicks were post-hype prospects. Chad Green was an afterthought Double-A starter. Luke Voit was repeating Triple-A when the Yankees came calling. A 28-year-old outfielder who has never appeared on any prospect lists and was heading into his fourth Triple-A season hardly screams sleeper, but … maybe?
The Non-40-Man Roster Depth Players
You never want to see them, but sometimes they’re necessary. Shane Robinson was maybe eighth on the outfield depth going into Spring Training last year, yet he appeared in 25 big league games with the Yankees. Jace Peterson went from non-roster invitee in the spring to starting in left field in April. Ji-Man Choi, Mason Williams, and Pete Kozma all spent time with the Yankees in 2017. Injuries happen, and sometimes teams have to call up players they were hoping they wouldn’t have to call up. C‘est la vie.
The Yankees had three position players with MLB service time in camp as non-roster players this year: Ryan Lavarnway, Billy Burns, and Gio Urshela. Lavarnway is at best the fourth catcher behind Sanchez, Romine, and Higashioka, so if we see him in the Bronx this season, it will mean something really went wrong. I was surprised the Yankees signed Lavarnway because he doesn’t seem like their type (bad pitch-framer, etc.), but whatever. His best skill is power. Lavarnway is the deep catcher option.
Among these non-40-man roster depth guys, Burns likely has the best chance at seeing big league time this year. He is a true center fielder, and Aaron Hicks is already hurt, so a Brett Gardner injury could land Burns in the Bronx. Seriously. Gardner filling in for Hicks with Tauchman (or Tyler Wade) as the backup center fielder is a good short-term plan. In a long-term injury situation, the speedy Burns makes more sense as a reserve outfielder. He’s a speed and defense guy who is better at speeding and defensing than Robinson, basically.
Urshela is only 27 and he is a fantastic defender at third base. Offensively, he’ll punish a mistake, and that’s about it, which is fine. Should Miguel Andujar miss time with injury, I assume DJ LeMahieu would step in at third base. If Andujar and LeMahieu miss time, the Yankees still might go with Wade (or 40-man roster guy Thairo Estrada) over Urshela. Urshela’s a great Triple-A player and good MLB depth piece. It’ll take a few infield injuries to get him to the Bronx this summer. Given the way Spring Training went, we’ll probably see him at third base in two weeks.