Friday, March 21, 2014

2014 Season Preview: What We Know And What We Don't Know (The Bench)

(Courtesy of the AP)

I know I've said this multiple times already, but I still can't get over how little the Yankees did to address their bench this offseason.  I know they had visions of Kelly Johnson being their super sub and Robbie Cano going to Seattle threw a wrench into that, but it still doesn't sit right with me that they'd spend all the money they did to upgrade the rest of the roster and then not go the extra step of bringing in some higher quality bench depth to back up their older/injury riskier players.  That's not to say there isn't a chance that the bench will surprise us this season and provide solid production, but it's not something I'm banking on.  Before they even get to that point, the Yankees have a lot of questions to answer regarding the makeup and playing time distribution of their 4 bench spots.

What We Know- Backup Catcher Is Not A Concern

One question that need not even be asked is the one about Brian McCann's backup.  The Yanks had multiple options heading into spring camp and since ST games have started you could make the argument that Francisco Cervelli has been their best player.  He smacked his team-leading 4th ST home run last night and he's hitting .484/.515/.968 with 2 more XBH and 7 RBI in 12 games.  He's also looked very good behind the plate, meshing well with Masahiro Tanaka and throwing out multiple attempted base stealers.  He may have played himself into prime trade bait territory, but for now he's put a stranglehold on whatever competition there was for the backup catcher job.

What We Don't Know- If The Kids Will Get A Chance To Best Their 2013 Debuts (Or If They Will Do It In A Yankee Uniform)

If there is one thing that could change the backup situation, it's most likely to be injuries.  Cervelli has a rough history in that department and it was his broken hand and subsequent setbacks last season that opened the door for Austin Romine and John Ryan Murphy.  Neither had especially great MLB debuts, Romine hitting a .247 wOBA and Murphy a .171, but both have drawn positive reports for their defense and they're both young and inexperienced enough to stay projectable going forward.  If Cervelli goes down, one of them will get another shot to show what he learned from last year.  If he doesn't, it could be Romine or Murphy who gets moved to another club.  Playing time is going to be an issue with McCann entrenched and Gary Sanchez behind them in Trenton.  The best chance for Romine or Murphy to make an impact at the MLB level in 2014 could be in another uniform

What We Know- Brendan Ryan Is Here To Spell Derek Jeter

At least he's supposed to be if his back issues ever clear up.  The Yankee decision makers saw the value in a good defensive shortstop when they nabbed Ryan from Seattle late last year.  They then made the decision to lock Ryan up for the next few seasons to at least give themselves a defensive safety net at the position as Jeter plays out his final season.  Between Jeter's age and his ankle, he's looking at more rest and DH days than he's ever had in his career.  With Ryan backing him up, Joe can be confident that he's got a capable shortstop ready to step in on those days.

What We Don't Know- How Much He'll Have To Do That

How that rest/DH schedule works out will determine how much PT Ryan gets, and so far there hasn't been much talk about any kind of regular rotation.  Ryan should get 1 game at short per week at the bare minimum, and Joe could maximize the value of his plus-plus defensive skills by using him as a late-game defensive replacement for Jeter as well.  If Jeter ends up on the DL again, Ryan will become the everyday starter at the position because of his defense.  Right now though, the bigger question isn't Jeter's health, it's Ryan's.  Back injuries have a tendency to linger and after yesterday's setback it looks like Ryan might not be ready for the start of the season.  If he's not up to the task of even handling backup duty, Joe will have to go back to the drawing board.

What We Know- Eduardo Nunez Looks Like He's Going To Get The Utility Infielder Spot

I don't know how it keeps happening, but once again Nunez has defied the odds and managed to put himself in a prime position to make the team.  He's seen a lot of time at shortstop, third base, and second base this spring, and even with a few errors he looks like the best bet to fill the role originally intended for Johnson.  While he hasn't hit all that much (9-35), he does have 3 XBH and we already know that Joe loves his speed.  Between him doing just enough to look competent and his major competitors either not performing well (Dean Anna has a .594 OPS and a few errors of his own in 16 games) or not playing much (Scott Sizemore has only 12 ABs and has been out this week with a sore quad), all signs point to another year of Nuney in our lives.

What We Don't Know- How Much PT Ichiro Will Get As The Utility Outfielder

The outfield makeover has left Ichiro Suzuki the odd man out in the mix, and he's admittedly having a hard time adjusting to a much smaller role.  The right field platoon of Beltran and Soriano leaves precious little playing time available for him, and with the way his offensive game has deteriorated over the past 3 seasons, it will be interesting to see how Joe tries to work him in.  There's still value in Ichiro's legs and he's the best defensive option in right of the 3, so he could end up being a late-game pinch runner/defensive replacement more than anything.  Inevitably someone will get hurt too and then he'll get some more action as the 4th outfielder.  But for the most part, there's not much need for Ichiro anywhere in the lineup and he could spend the bulk of his time riding the pine.

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