(It's a Swiss Eduarmy Knife. Courtesy of The AP)
We've reached the final piece of the 25-man puzzle for the 2012 Yankees, the bench. The Yankees tried to build a mix of young internal pieces and cheap veterans last season and it worked out pretty well for them. So as much as I was against holding out to spend less money on guys like Eric Chavez and his spotty health history again, and would have rather rolled with the young bucks in house, I can't really argue with the plan when it's worked for them before. The 2012 bench will be comprised of mostly familiar faces, with one new surprise entrant included after yesterday's surprising catching moves. There's flexibility in this group, and that's really the most important thing for the Yankees, as they aren't looking for consistent day in/day out production from anybody on their bench, but rather the ability to plug guys into spots for a day or 2 and keep their older veterans rested and fresh.
The first member of the bench is also the newest member. For some reason the Yankees decided they weren't comfortable with Francisco Cervelli as their backup, even though he's held the role for the past 2 seasons, and so they brought in former MiL farmhand Chris Stewart. Stewart is a defensive-only catcher and proved that last season in his first major chunk of Major League work, posting a .204/.283/.309 line, .259 wOBA, and 60 wRC+ in 183 plate appearances with the Giants. He can take a pitch here and there but anything the Yankees get from him with the stick is gravy. As a defense-only catcher, however, he is a very good one. He threw out 28 of 72 attempted base stealers last season, good for 38.9%, and was ranked as the 15th best defensive catcher out of 114 last season by Beyond The Boxscore. For all his offensive shortcomings, Stewart did rack up 1.2 fWAR last year in his limited work, and if he can quickly learn how to work with the Yankees' pitching staff he should be fine for the purposes of giving Martin a rest every now and then.
More after the jump
Moving from behind the plate to the infield, Eric Chavez will once again be the corner infield backup. He got off to a good start last season, but didn't show much power at the plate and had even less after coming back from his broken foot. All in all he totaled a .294 wOBA and 0.6 fWAR in 175 PA, but the Yankees thought enough of him to bring him back for 2012. He's made it through Spring Training healthy, and has looked decent at the plate with 12 hits in 43 ABs, but Chavez is always a huge injury risk and it will be critical for him to not have to play too much consecutively in order to stay healthy throughout the course of the season. Chavez has a reputation as having a good eye at the plate and being solid in the field, and he displayed enough of that last year for the Yankees to be confident in him. There's not much pop left in his bat, but the Yankees always like to go with what they consider a reliable veteran option over their unproven young kids and that's exactly what Chavez represents.
Going from the corners to the middle infield, Eduardo Nunez will once again be the guy to back up Jeter and Cano, and the Yankees could be looking to expand his role by working him into the outfield rotation a bit in camp. Nunez has plenty of tools- makes a lot of contact, has some pop in his bat, strong throwing arm, great speed- but never really put them all together in his first season of real Major League action. It probably didn't help that he was forced into everyday duty because of the injuries to Jeter and The Horse, but it became a learning experience for Nunez and he should be able to improve on his weaknesses from last year. If he can develop a little more patience at the plate and refine his swing mechanics, Nunez can be a good hitter at the Major League level, and it will be interesting to see if his ST success at the plate carries over into the regular season. He's not a viable option over Jeter or A-Rod or Cano as an everyday player, but Nunez is incredibly valuable as a guy who can give people a rest and as a late-game pinch running option.
In the outfield, the Yankees brought Andruw Jones back for another go after he filled the "Marcus Thames Memorial Lefty Masher" role admirably in 2011. He should get more than the 222 PAs he had last year as part of the L/R DH platoon with Raul Ibanez, and could push for more time in the outfield subbing for Brett Gardner after having knee surgery and getting into better shape before this season. Jones is no longer the MVP-caliber player he was in his prime but he's a damn fine 4th OF that fits the Yankees' needs perfectly. He hits for power (13 HR, .247 ISO in 2011), he draws walks (13.1 BB%), he still plays above-average corner OF defense (9.4 UZR/150), and as previously mentioned, he murders left-handed pitching (.923 OPS, .400 wOBA vs. LHP). If Jones can avoid getting dinged up during the year and his knee surgery allows him to keep his leg strength, he could surprise people with a little bit of a comeback season.
Those are the 4 that will open the season on the 25-man roster, but as with the bullpen the bench names are always subject to change. Thanks to some MiL depth signings throughout the offseason and ST, the Yankees are flush with capable replacement-level reinforcements. They've got Cervelli as a 3rd catcher, Jack Cust as lefty DH option, Ramiro Pena, Brandon Laird, and Doug Bernier for the infield, and Dewayne Wise, Colin Curtis, and Jayson Nix in the outfield. As long as these guys are being used as backups and not forced into the everyday lineup, the Yankee bench should be just fine in 2012.