(Melkman 2.0 can't be a worse option than Diaz. Courtesy of Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News)
"Let the kids play." "Give the kids a chance." "Let's see what the kids can do." Those sentiments, and all their similar variations, have been a Yankee fan battle cry for a while and have gotten louder as the Bombers have transitioned to an older team. I myself have been a supporter of the "let the kids play" movement at various times in the last few years, as the strategy to fill out the bench each offseason has become "wait for all the dust to settle and then cherry pick from whatever warm bodies are still without a job." This season, the "let the kids play" cry has gotten even louder early in Spring Training, and more of those kids are getting substantial playing time against Major League competition in the early innings of ST games. There is always going to be the argument for and against giving roster spots and opportunities to unproven MiL players, and for years the Yankees' preference for veteran players made sense. This year, however, the situation is perfect to finally ditch that way of thinking and let the kids play.
The plan to fill the bench with aging veterans always carried some risk with it, risk that increased every year as the rest of the regular Yankee lineup aged too. But it usually worked out for the best for New York and resulted in production that exceeded what a replacement Minor League player likely could have done, like with Andruw Jones in 2011 or Raul Ibanez in 2012. But both of those players are no longer with the club, and the level of talent brought into camp this year is at least a step below them. Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz, bless their hearts, weren't even good enough to get a guaranteed Major League offer from any team, and the fact that they signed MiL deals with the Yanks while there was still time left in the offseason is a sign that even they knew that. Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix are what they are as backup infielders, and each day it looks increasingly likely that a replacement-level backup is all Nunez is going to be.
There's also the health factor to consider. The Yankees were already coming into the season with some injury concerns, and some of the other new Major Leaguers they've added to the mix are even bigger concerns in their own right. While I'm confident they will produce while they're on the field, I have no confidence in either Kevin Youkilis' or Travis Hafner's ability to stay healthy and play the majority of this season, and I doubt you'd find too many folks out there who do. Combining that increased health, older age, and lower backup talent level kicks the door wide open for the Melkys Mesa, Zoilos Almonte, Austins Romine, and Corbans Joseph of the world.
And of course, with the payroll goal for next season looming over everything in Yankeeland, the need for cheap, team-controlled players will be greater than ever next season. The Yankees aren't going to be able to spend as much as they'd like to fill out a roster, so while the opportunity exists now to see what some of their young guys can do, the Yankees owe it to themselves to use that opportunity and get an idea of what young kids can be considered contributors next season and which ones cannot.
For what it's worth, the early performance of some of the young upper-level prospects in ST has been impressive. Melky Mesa and Zoilo Almonte have both flashed power, speed, and plus defensive skills; Austin Romine has looked good behind the plate and at it, and has said multiple times that his back feels great; even Slade Heathcott, who's looking at opening the season in Double-A has turned heads and drawn praise from Cash himself. Small sample size and ST warnings come with those performances, but they are still the best indicators yet that this group of kids on the fringe of breaking into the show can at least hold their own.
This upcoming season is the perfect melding of need and opportunity for the Yankees to finally follow through on the "let the kids play" talking point. They could end up getting better production this season than they expected from their bench as a result, and they'll be getting a headstart on laying the groundwork for next season's payroll-crunched roster. As we get closer to the end of March and the beginning of the regular season, we'll see if the Yankee brass finally decides to go ahead with that option.