With the recent signings of Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez, the Yankees’ 2012 25-man roster is virtually complete. Bill Hall and Russell Branyan may wage battles in spring training to unseat Chavez and Ibanez, but considering that the latter two have major league deals, you would have to think that they would be the favorites. Presumably, the winner of the Chavez-Hall battle will be the main backup at 3rd base and possibly get some time at 1st, while the winner of the Ibanez-Branyan battle will be the primary DH against right-handed pitchers.
The starting lineup is pretty much set, with Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, A-Rod, Martin, Swisher, Granderson, and Gardner occupying 8 lineup spots, and a platoon of Andruw Jones and Ibanez/Branyan filling the DH at-bats. The bench is still a work in progress because of the above competition, but presumably Francisco Cervelli will be the backup catcher, and Eduardo Nunez will be the primary backup for 2nd base and shortstop, joining Chavez/Hall to cover the infield. This gives a total of 13 roster spots dedicated to postion players.
The rotation is also pretty much set, with the exception of the competition for the 5th starter position between Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia. Assuming that the loser of this competition goes to the bullpen as a long man, that will use 6 roster spots for the starters and long man. Mariano Rivera, Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Corey Wade, and Boone Logan all figure to have guaranteed spots in the bullpen as well, which makes 11 pitchers in total.
This leaves 1 roster spot, which gives the Yankees some options. A strong and deep bullpen combined with a reliable starting rotation means that the Yankees may not necessarily need to add a 7th bullpen arm. Instead, they may choose to keep an extra outfielder such as Chris Dickerson (assuming he resigns) for defense and pinch-running purposes. Considering the Yankees’ 4th outfielder (Andruw Jones) may be spending a fair amount of time at DH, they may want a better defensive option on the bench than Raul Ibanez. A 3rd catcher or extra infielder wouldn’t seem especially helpful given the current roster construction (unless they really want to keep Branyan or Hall for some reason), so it is likely that if the 25th spot is used on a position player, it would be an outfielder.
The more likely possibility is that the 25th spot on the roster will go to a reliever. Given Joe Girardi’s love of mixing and matching, one could see him going with a second lefty. Two such candidates will be in Yankee camp: Clay Rapada, who signed a minor league deal, and Cesar Cabral, a Rule 5 pick from Boston. Although both pitchers are left-handed, they get it done in different ways.
Rapada is your traditional side-arming LOOGY (left-handed one out guy) who is tough on lefties but basically useless against righties. He was better against lefties than Boone Logan last year, though Logan was at least serviceable against opposite-handed batters. Cabral on the other hand brings a little more velocity to the table (sitting in the low-90’s) and adds a good changeup, giving him a weapon against right-handed batters as well. Cabral, who has never pitched in the majors, is very much an unknown quantity at this juncture. If everything goes well, however, Cabral would likely be serviceable against both righties and lefties. Before failing his physical, Hideki Okajima was in this mix as well, but now he is no longer with the team.
Another possibility is a right-handed reliever making the team in the 25th spot. This could be somebody like George Kontos, who put together a strong season in Scranton last year, and didn’t look overmatched when he made his major league debut in September. Kontos doesn’t add a lot beyond what the rest of the bullpen brings, but he would be another right-handed option who can get strikeouts. I’ve been a Kontos fan for years, and have advocated for him to be converted to the bullpen because of the strength of his fastball-slider combination. He has been very successful in that role so far. Kontos did just suffer a minor oblique injury, and while I doubt it keeps him out long, it is worth keeping an eye on.
My gut says that the Yankees will go with Rapada, because he has a proven track record of being able to shut down lefties, and I’m sure Joe Girardi wouldn’t mind having a true lefty specialist in the bullpen. Cabral remains intriguing though, as his stronger repertoire could make him less of a liability against righties. Kontos would also be a good option for depth if Rapada and Cabral fail to impress, though I doubt Kontos would get much outside of blowouts.
While interesting to think about, the 25th-man discussion is a pretty good barometer of how strong the Yankee roster looks going into 2012. Whether it is Rapada or Cabral (or somebody else) that makes the roster, they will likely not need to be used in any sort of high-leverage situation, due to the presence of several other, excellent relievers in the Yankee ‘pen. While I am definitely excited for Spring Training this year (in large part because it means that baseball season is just around the corner), there doesn’t appear to be the potential for much position-battle drama. But I’ll take a boring spring training and a strong roster anyday.