(Incoming!! Courtesy of J. Conrad Williams, Jr./Newsday)
The bench has become an increasingly more important part of the Yankee roster in the last 3-5 years as the core of their lineup has aged. Part of what's helped them maintain top contender status has been the bench's ability to step up and contribute in minor and major roles when the situation called for it and at no time was that more apparent than last season. Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez. They all contributed more than their expected share of ABs and it's a fair bet to say the Yankees wouldn't have won the division without them. This year, things aren't shaping up to be so rosy on the bench, as the Yankees have taken their "build the bench on the cheap" method to a whole new level, a lower level. The consistency and overall usefulness of this group in general is questionable across the board, which is not a good thing considering all the issues the Bombers have in their starting lineup.
What We Know- Both Catchers Are Basically Backups
Last year I made the mistake of forgetting to include Russell Martin with the infield group. That's not the case this year. There's no mistake in Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart being left out of that group because even at their best both of these guys are no better than backup catchers. The Yankees made the decision to let Martin walk and now they'll have to live with whatever they get from the Cervelli-Stewart combo. Neither guy is much of a hitter; Cervelli has a slightly higher ceiling thanks to a better BB rate and slightly more power. Stewart was the favorite to win the starting job coming into camp because of his defense, but Cervelli has been very impressive with this throwing and could earn more playing time. Don't get over-excited about anything, though, both of these guys still suck.
What We Don't Know- How Long The Yankees Will Stick With Them
Had he not spent the bulk of last season on the DL with a back injury, this could have been Austin Romine's best chance to establish himself as the starting catcher for at least the near future. The team has always been high on his defensive skills and he has a much higher offensive ceiling than Cervelli or Stewart. His injury severely limited his reps in Triple-A and that's where he'll start this season to make up for lost time. If he shows that he's fully recovered and rebounds from last year's poor performance, it will be interesting to see how long the Yankees decide to keep their underwhelming duo intact as blocks to Romine. They've sent Cervelli down before when they thought he couldn't hack it, and even if he and Stewart don't have options left it's not like losing a below replacement-level catcher is a tragedy.
What We Know- There Aren't Many Tools in the Utility Infielder Belt
Between Derek Jeter's ankle, the expected injury risks at third base with Youkilis and A-Rod, and Mark Teixeira's new knack for getting banged up, the need for a competent and productive utility infielder was going to be greater than ever this season. Unfortunately, as part of the early payroll reduction plans, the Yankees downgraded at this spot too for 2013. They let Chavez walk and really don't have a true backup for first base other than Youkilis. As far as UTIF options go, Jayson Nix can play passable defense at every infield position without being above-average and offers little at the plate. Ronnier Mustelier has gotten a few looks at third and has played some second base before, but the Yankees seem to be leaning towards keeping him in the outfield. And then there's Eduardo Scissorhands...
What We Don't Know- How Much Eduardo Nunez is Going to Play
Somehow, Nunez is at the top of the UTIF depth chart right now and he's not even being used in that role. Despite some early contradicting statements from Joe and Cash on how they were going to utilize Nunez, he's played exclusively at shortstop this spring and it looks like that's where the Yankees' biggest infield need is going to be when the season starts now that Jeter's ankle is acting up. Nunez hasn't done much in camp to give hope that this is the year he puts it all together (9-42 at the plate, 3 errors in the field) and the time has probably passed for the Yanks to trade him. He'll get some burn to start the season because the Yankees don't have anybody else, but if he continues to be a butcher in the field it will probably be time to pull the plug.
What We Know- Quantity Isn't the Problem in the Outfield, But Quality Is
The last major area where the Yankees willingly downgraded this offseason was their outfield bench. They've been good about finding cheap outfield value in years past, but they really put that approach to the test this year and so far don't appear to have come up with much. Matt Diaz has already been cut, Juan Rivera might end up playing more first base than outfield, and Brennan Boesch, for all the tools he has, is coming off an absolutely horrid 2012 season. The group of young guys in camp (Mesa, Neal, Almonte, Mustelier) have shown flashes but are not without their own flaring flaws as well. Put it this way, when signing Ben Francisco to a non-guaranteed deal comes off as a decent move, that tells you everything you need to know about the bench OF situation.
What We Don't Know- How Long the Veterans Will Get Before Joe Goes to the Kids
Part of the reason the Yankees go for the cheap FA stopgap bench route is their preference for veteran players. This year's veterans aren't as appetizing a crop as previous editions, but that doesn't seem like it's stopped New York from sticking to their MO. Boesch looks like the favorite to be the third Opening Day starting outfielder in C-Grand's absence and Francisco will probably take the bench spot. Rivera will make the team as a 1B/OF/righty DH bench piece, and Nunez and the other catcher will round out the lot. There's not a very high ceiling for this group and the Yankees are going to need production. If they think the Mesas, Musteliers, and CoJos of the world can do better, how long will they let the vets play before making a switch? I was surprised to see Diaz get the axe so early, so maybe this is the year the kids finally get to play.