It’s someone I don’t think any of us expected, but the Yankees have their Didi Gregorius replacement in Troy Tulowitzki. The Blue Jays released Tulowitzki last month, the Yankees scooped him up at the league minimum, and Brian Cashman made it pretty clear Tulowitzki is expected to be the starting shortstop while Didi Gregorius is sidelined.
“I can’t say what it would take us out of, but we’re going into this with a commitment level to try Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop,” said Cashman to Kevin Kernan and Bryan Hoch last week. “… We are obviously looking at this as a risk because he hasn’t played for a year and a half, but I think there’s a lot of upside here in terms of what we were able to evaluate.”
Obviously a Manny Machado signing would change everything. He’s a special case. Otherwise, it sure sounds like the Yankees are done with their infield shopping. They’ve been connected to Josh Harrison, one of the lower end free agent infielders, but not Jed Lowrie or DJ LeMahieu. Signing someone like that would come out of nowhere. There’s been no chatter at all.
In addition to addressing the need at shortstop — potentially addressing the need at shortstop, I should say, because Tulowitzki is no lock to stay healthy — the Tulowitzki signing also clarifies the bench situation. The Yankees are a three-man bench/eight-man bullpen team. Here’s what we know about the bench right now:
- One of those three spots goes to a backup catcher (Austin Romine).
- The Yankees don’t need a shortstop on the bench because Gleyber Torres can play the position.
- The Yankees need a backup first baseman, unless they’ll let Romine do it (no thanks).
Had the Yankees replaced Gregorius with, say, Lowrie or LeMahieu, they would’ve had to carry a shortstop capable infielder on the bench. That would’ve been great news for Tyler Wade and Hanser Alberto with regards to their chances of making the team. That is no longer the case though. Torres can back up shortstop and that gives the Yankees a little more wiggle room when building their bench. A backup shortstop is not absolutely necessary.
With Gleyber backing up shortstop, the Yankees will need to use those final two bench spots on players who can provide coverage at first base, second base, third base, and preferably the outfield as well. The Yankees do have four outfielders (Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton) but all four figure to be in the lineup most days. Removing one (injury, pinch-run, etc.) means losing the DH the rest of the game. Maybe the Yankees are okay with that. I’d rather not.
The in-house bench options include Wade (second, short, third, some outfield), Alberto (second, short, third), Thairo Estrada (second, short, third), Tim Locastro (first, second, short, outfield), and Greg Bird (first base). Clint Frazier is returning from his post-concussion migraines and is probably not a bench option until he shows he’s fully healthy, and has enough Triple-A plate appearances to get back up to speed at the plate. Jacoby Ellsbury is a non-factor until he’s healthy and maybe even after that too.
Assuming Luke Voit is the starter at first base — “(Voit is the starter) unless Bird beats him out,” Cashman said to Jack Curry last week — I don’t love the idea of carrying Bird on the bench. That is two roster spots dedicated to first base only players with a three-man bench. The Yankees have done it before (Bird and Chris Carter in 2017) and they could do it again. Seems to me a backup first baseman who can also play other positions is the way to go though. That would give the Yankees their most functional roster.
The other option is having Stanton or Miguel Andujar (or Tulowitzki) play some first base, which solves the backup first baseman problem. A good idea, in theory. There are no indications either player is working to learn first base though, so at best we’re talking about a Spring Training crash course, which doesn’t seem fair to the player or smart for the Yankees. Not when you have five weeks to find a viable backup first baseman before pitchers and catchers report.
The Yankees could cobble together a bench from their in-house options. Locastro and Alberto gives you coverage everywhere. Wade and Bird gives you coverage everywhere as well. Clearly though, there’s room for the Yankees to go outside the organization for a bench guy. The versatile Derek Dietrich (first, second, third, outfield) is sitting in free agency. So are Harrison (second, third, short, outfield) and Wilmer Flores (first, second, third, short), just to throw two other names out there.
What about a reunion with Neil Walker? Walker can play the three non-shortstop infield positions and also fake the outfield, if necessary. He struggled with the transition into part-time duty last year — Walker had some very good runs when an injury pushed him into the lineup everyday — but perhaps year two will go better. Given his injury history, Tulowitzki might only play four or five times a week. Walker would help fill in the gaps.
This to me is where the “the Yankees are set up to get a bargain late in the offseason” thing comes into play. Similar to Walker last year, the Yankees can see which players are still looking for work come mid-to-late February, then pick a bench guy. Maybe it’ll be Walker again, or Harrison or Dietrich or someone else entirely. Let the market bring the discounted talented to you, then make a pick. That’s what every team is doing now.
The bench has long been the last thing teams address each offseason. That was true long before teams stop paying free agents too. They’d address their starting lineup, the starting rotation, and the bullpen, then figure out the rest of the roster. Rarely do you see a team sign or make a trade in November for a clear cut bench player. Maybe a waiver claim, which is time sensitive, but that’s really it. The bench always gets pushed aside until everything else is finalized.
We’re probably still a few weeks away from clubs beginning to attack their bench. The Tulowitzki signing gives the Yankees some clarity because now they know they don’t need a backup shortstop on the bench, and that’s kinda huge. It makes non-shortstop capable players like Walker and Dietrich more realistic options. If necessary, the Yankees could put together a viable bench internally. That said, they have an opportunity to go outside the organization for a nice little depth pickup or two in the coming weeks.