Friday, March 28, 2014

AB4AR 2014 Season Preview: The Bench

(Not you again!  Courtesy of US Presswire)

So here we are at the final post of the 2014 AB4AR Season Preview Series.  The major storylines have been covered, the knowns and unknowns have been laid out, and all but one roster group has been broken down in anticipation of that magical day next Tuesday.  All in all, I feel pretty good about this team and I feel like I've done a pretty good job promoting those good feelings.  I think the new outfield is going to be super productive, I believe the rotation will end up being one of the 5 best in baseball, and I have no reason not to expect the bullpen to get figured out one way or another because it always does.  I can even muster up a little hope for the infield to be passable.

Here's the thing though.  I have zero faith in the Yankees having a productive bench this season.  None.  I know it's a popular trend to look at guys who have performed well in ST and start imagining them as regular season super subs.  The reality is that none of those guys are really that good.  If the Zelous Wheelers and Yangervis Solartes of the world were really that good, they would already be on a 40-man roster somewhere.  They very well could end up being just as productive as the more familiar faces that are going to open the season on the bench, but that's really not saying much when you look at that projected bench objectively.  The bench is a weakness again and it's something that will have to be addressed at some point if the Yankees are going to be real contenders for the title.

2 years ago, I straight up forgot to include Russell Martin as part of the starting infield and so I had to work him into the bench preview post.  Last year I went ahead and lumped both catches into the bench post because both of them were backup catchers.  This year I went back to the old straight up forgetting method, so allow me to talk about Brian McCann here.  He's a massive, enormous, HYYYUUUUUUUUUUUUUGE upgrade over Chris Stewart as the new starting backstop and he already looks primed to take the torch from Jeter as the new clubhouse leader and unofficial captain starting next season.  He's built a great rapport with the pitching staff already, his game calling and pitch framing skills are as excellent as advertised, and as a lefty-swinging catcher with power he's got a real chance to cross the 30-HR threshold this season.  He's going to be a fixture in the middle of the batting order and the most reliable defensive player in the infield.  Easy preseason pick for team MVP.

His backup this year will be Francisco Cervelli, who may end up being the only above-average hitter the Yankees have on their bench until the trade deadline.  Cervelli has had a crazy good spring camp, like Spring Training MVP-level good.  He's mashed at the plate, he's thrown out half the attempted base stealers against him, and most importantly he's stayed healthy.  When he's that, Cervelli has proven himself to be a perfectly cromulent backup catcher.  With what he showed last year before getting hurt and what he's shown this spring, he could be even better than that.  Having a solid guy familiar with the Yankee staff around to back up McCann has to make Joe feel good about resting McCann whenever he wants.

Venturing out into the rest of the infield, the Yankees are painfully light on hitting.  Brendan Ryan can't hit at all, at least he hasn't since 2009.  The name of his game is defense and even that is starting to look shaky in terms of how much value it will provide with him starting the season on the DL with back problems.  That the team is already considering cortisone shots does not inspire confidence that he's going to be fully healthy anytime soon and that could hurt a lot of Joe's plans for resting Derek Jeter.  Eduardo Nunez can hit a little more than Ryan, but he can't field at all.  He's looking like the odds on favorite to land the utility infielder job and time will tell how often he gets to play and where he'll spend most of his time.  Dean Anna can kinda hit and kinda field, he's just never done it at the Major League level.  He doesn't project to be anything special this year, so it's doubtful he makes up for Ryan's lost value no matter how much or little he plays.

In the outfield, the Yankees can say they have a HOF-caliber player and not be lying.  They just don't have that HOF-caliber player at anything close to his HOF-caliber peak.  Ichiro Suzuki is back for his final year in pinstripes, this time as the 5th outfielder, and he's looking at a severely diminished role if there aren't too many injury problems amongst the starting 4.  With the kind of offensive production he provides these days, that's probably for the best.  Ichiro is perfectly fine as a bench guy in that he can play solid D anywhere in the outfield and maybe steal you a base every now and then.  If he gets a start here and there and goes 1-4, you'll take it.  Once he becomes a part of the everyday lineup, however, his diminished hitting tools start to show.  He doesn't get on base, he doesn't hit for power, and without those things it really doesn't matter what his average is.  He's a $6.5 million spare part and one the Yanks don't even really want or need.

As the old saying goes, anything can happen.  Maybe Ichiro hits enough to be league average, maybe Nunez finally does put everything together to become a reliable bench player, and maybe Ryan's back issues won't linger or get worse as the season progresses.  There are also guys like Solarte, Wheeler, Zoilo Almonte, John Ryan Murphy, and Scott Sizemore who could get called up and contribute.  What there's not is a reason to expect any of that to happen.  There simply aren't a lot of tools in the Yankee bench tool kit and the ceiling on this group is low because of that.  If there's one area of the roster that looks like it will need the most attention at the deadline, it's the bench.  As long as these guys stay limited to bench duty, the Yanks will be OK.  If more than 1 of them has to play every day, there are going to be some bad days that remind us of the 2013 low points.

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