In today’s day and age, the bench on an American League team just isn’t very important. What traditionally hindered bench usefulness in the junior circuit was the advent of the designated hitter, but the more recent emphasis on the bullpen has become a factor too. Over the last decade or so, we’ve gone from teams typically fielding eleven pitchers to now including up to a baker’s dozen. It’s pretty clear the Yankees will carry thirteen pitchers, meaning that there are only three bench jobs to go around. One obviously needs to go to a reserve catcher, while the other two spots are a tad more flexible.
The venerable backup catcher
It seems like people either love or loathe Austin Romine. Many of those in the former category prefer him to Gary Sanchez because they’re irrational. Those who don’t like Romine have been hoping for a different backup for years, even though he’s perfectly fine in his role. Sure, it would be nice to have a better hitter behind Sanchez, but that would be a luxury, not a necessity.
Romine had his best offensive season last year, setting career highs across the board. His first half was particularly strong (122 wRC+), but he reverted back to his usual self to finish the year. It would be dandy if he’s anything remotely near his first half performance this year. That said, his historical performance would also be tolerable. It only becomes untenable if Sanchez needs to miss significant time.
The 30 year-old backstop shines in areas that casual observers can’t easily glean. Advanced metrics peg him as an above average defender, which also includes solid pitch framing. It seems like he has a good rapport with the coaching staff and pitchers, too. Those things are valuable even if they’re not as easy to read as a batter’s triple-slash. Hence the Yankees sticking with him as a reserve the past few years.
Understandably, the projections are underwhelming. PECOTA (83 DRC+), ZiPS (77 wRC+), and Steamer (76 wRC+) all foresee a poor offensive output. But if you keep in mind that the typical catcher posted a 84 wRC+ last season, it’s really not so bad. Once you layer on Romine’s value as a receiver and his bond with the pitchers, it’s clear that he makes for a respectable backup.
The hopeful super-utility player
2019 will be Tyler Wade’s second chance to secure a roster spot in the big leagues. After making the opening day roster last season, he faltered. His -25 wRC+ last April got him demoted to Triple-A for most of the season, before returning for a July cameo and September call ups. Wade still has options, so this year isn’t necessarily a make or break season, but there’s going to be some pressure on him to show he can at least be a tolerable bat in the majors.
It’s one thing to be speedy and have a solid glove, which are Wade’s calling cards. But no matter how good anyone is with those skills, they won’t be rostered for long if they post a .161/.218/.250 batting line (those are Wade’s career marks). The challenge for Wade will be making the most of sporadic plate appearances. With guys like DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres having versatility in the infield, Wade probably won’t get too many starts. Wade has been working out in the outfield for a couple of years now, including some time in center this spring because of Aaron Hicks’s injury, but again, he’s low on the depth chart to play frequently out there.
Perhaps Wade starts once a week, but most of his time will come as a pinch runner or defensive replacement. Thanks to his versatility, Aaron Boone can be pretty aggressive with Wade in high leverage situations. He could pinch run for just about anyone and have a spot in the field in the next half inning. Or, he could substitute defensively for either Miguel Andujar or Luke Voit/Greg Bird late in games. That would allow LeMahieu to take the corner infield spot while Wade slides to second.
This spring, Wade has a .907 OPS in Grapefruit League play. Not that spring training stats are meaningful or predictive, but I’d rather see that than a lackluster March performance. There’s no way he’ll hit that well in the regular season, but if he can be Romine-like (think 75 – 80 wRC+), he’d be just fine. He may not get more than 150 plate appearances all season, which is difficult for someone who’s used to playing daily in the minors. It’s a learning experience to become a solid role player, but that’s what Wade will have to prove. Fortunately for him, the team’s offense is so good that his bat won’t necessarily be needed. He just can’t be equivalent to a pitcher at the dish.
The likely to change 25th man
Injuries have clouded who will take the final bench spot. It could be Greg Bird, though we already previewed him. Maybe it’ll be Jacoby Ellsbury, but certainly not immediately. Maybe a non-roster invitee will sneak on to start the year. What we do know for sure is that it’ll be a fluid situation depending on who’s healthy. Clint Frazier, who we’ve yet to preview, will probably spend some time filling in on the bench, especially if Hicks’s back woes linger or Brett Gardner struggles.
Frazier is probably bound for Scranton once spring training ends. He’s had a rough go of it in game action this month, but that’s not surprising for someone who missed significant time last season. Some time in the minors will allow him to get back up to speed. The most important thing is that he’s free and clear of the concussion problems that plagued him last season. As he shakes the rust off, 2019 will be a chance for him to carve out a role with the Yankees.
If the 24 year-old outfielder hits anything like he did in limited time with Scranton last year (170 wRC+ in 216 plate appearances), the Yankees won’t be able to keep him down for long. There’s a balance that the club must strike when they decide promote him. Riding the pine in the majors would be wasteful. However, he can’t just usurp playing time without an opening.
Most projections have Frazier as a slightly above average big league hitter already (i.e. ZiPS and Steamer), though the one pessimistic outlier is PECOTA (89 DRC+). I’m on the optimistic side, personally. I expect Frazier to carve out some sort of hybrid bench/starter role by the season’s end.