(No ALCS without this guy. Courtesy of the AP)
With starting pitching always being the top priority every offseason, taking care of internal player contracts second, looking to address the lineup through trades or the free agent market third, and the bullpen fourth, the Yankee bench has been a bit of a forgotten element the last few years. Not forgotten in the sense that the Yankees don't focus on building a quality bench, but in the sense that the strategy to build has become very simple; see what money is left and see what older veteran players out there fit the Yankee hitting formula and need a job. It's a strategy that's served them well, but one that was questioned a bit more before this season, especially by me in my "Known/Unknown" bench preview, as Cash really looked towards some guys who were pretty long in the tooth at the expense of younger internal options.
What We Thought We Knew- The Team Preferred Older Veterans Over Younger Players
The Yankees had players in-house who had contributed before: Eduardo Nunez on the infield, Chris Dickerson in the outfield, Francisco Cervelli behind the plate. They also had a few players in the upper level of their system capable of stepping in and filling a bench role. But that didn't stop them from actively making efforts to bring back Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez for bench roles, and pairing Jones up with 40-year-old Raul Ibanez as the L/R DH platoon. Cervelli got the biggest kick in the ass, getting sent down to Triple-A right before the season when the Yanks traded for SF catcher Chris Stewart. The team has its formula and they followed it to a T this season.
What We Learned- That Preference Was For a Good Reason
And once again, the formula worked almost across the board. Despite being pressed into very regular outfield duty, Ibanez brought great left-handed power to the lineup, and racked up a string of clutch late-season hits so clutch that he's already been admitted into the Aaron Boone Memorial "Random Player Who Will Never Have to Pay for a Meal or Drink In The City Ever Again" Hall of Fame. Chavez, after looking DOA at the end of 2011, bounced back to provide a big offensive boost off the bench and solid D at both infield corners. Jones, despite finishing incredibly poorly, still hit a fair number of HR for a part-time player, and Stewart hit just enough to not be embarrassing and played the solid D he was traded to provide. I didn't agree with the decision to lean so heavily on the old guys, but it's hard to argue with the results.
What We Thought We Knew- Most of The Bench ABs Would Be at DH
Part of the reason to go with the older formula hitters approach in building the 2012 bench was the plan being that almost all of their ABs would come from the DH spot. Sure, A-Rod and Jeter were going to need days there, and other guys too as injuries dictated, but Ibanez and Jones were going to get the bulk of the work at DH as the regulars. And if Joe decided to give an OF a day off and use one of them, Chavez would be an ideal fill-in DH on days when the Yankees were facing a right-handed pitcher. When you've got platoon players whose value is lessened when they have to play defense, it makes the most sense to use them as the primary DHs.
What We Learned- Roster Inflexibility Can Be a Bitch
The problem the Yankees' formula creates comes to light when the starting lineup is compromised by injuries, and that problem came to light in a big way this season. Brett Gardner's elbow injury pressed both Ibanez and Jones into regular outfield duty, minimizing their effectiveness by having them play in unfavorable matchups and minimizing the team's effectiveness by exposing them to Ibanez's and Jones' subpar defense. Chavez was forced into everyday action when A-Rod went down, and he's really only effective against right-handed pitching. To often the Yankees were left with a lineup that was old, unathletic, and with a few spots exposed to bad matchups, but that's what happens when you fill your bench with platoon-type veterans.
What I Thought I Knew- Russell Martin Was a Bench Player*
To bring the stupidity I showcased in March by failing to include Martin as part of the infield and relegating him to the bench full circle, I'll include the talk about Martin and his season in the bench section of this post. Maybe Russ was a little offended by my unintentional slight, because he certainly spent the better part of the season hitting like a bench player. He had plenty of power, but his batting average hovered just below the Mendoza Line for the majority of the season. It's sure starting to look like those Silver Slugger days of LA are long gone and never coming back.
What We Learned- Catcher Is Still a Big Question Mark
Even with the team having to look at replacing their right fielder and dealing with a tricky situation on the left side of their infield, catcher might be the position most in question right now for the organization. Martin's poor offensive 2012 is a big part of that, as he and the Yanks will have to go back and forth on a new deal negotiation this season, and there aren't a lot of other good options out there if they don't bring Martin back. 2012 was basically a lost season for Austin Romine because of his back injuries, and neither Chris Stewart nor Francisco Cervelli are viable everyday options. The next wave of top catching prospects are still years away, so the Yankees have a little work to do to shore up this situation before next season.