Matt’s article today highlighted the struggles that Andruw Jones is having with left-handed pitching, and got me thinking about the rest of the Yankee bench, and whether possible replacements exist. Jones’ struggles are a problem because Jones was expected to be the lefty-mashing half of a DH platoon and occasional outfielder (though he has been getting more reps out there due to Brett Gardner‘s injury). After getting off to a hot start and hitting some big home runs, Raul Ibanez has cooled down dramatically. Chris Stewart, brought in to be a glove-first backup catcher, has proved adequate on that front, but his wRC+ of 56 is pretty awful. Jayson Nix, brought in to be a utilityman who was more reliable defensively than Eduardo Nunez, has largely accomplished that goal, and he has been decent offensively (wRC+ of 89, despite a .222 batting average). Eric Chavez has been a capable fill-in at the corners, and his wRC+ of 96 is acceptable. Dewayne Wise‘s anemic wRC+ of 17 is simply unacceptable for an occasional starter, though I don’t think 30 PA’s is a fair sample to evaluate his true ability.
It is true that bench players are not expected to be consistent offensive performers, particularly when the backup catcher or utility infielder is involved. However, With Jones and Ibanez getting playing time as starters at DH and the outfield, the stakes are a little higher with regard to their production. AAA Scranton may have possible replacements for each of the bench roles, so let’s take a look at how these candidates are doing.
Three True Outcome all-stars Jack Cust and Russell Branyan have been doing their thing in AAA so far. Cust has 14 homers and a .906 OPS, while Branyan has 7 homers and a 1.242 OPS in 18 games since coming off the disabled list. They are both drawing a fair amount of walks and striking out at their typically high rate, though Branyan has been better in both areas in his smaller sample of performance.
As replacements for Ibanez, Cust and Branyan profile similarly: mediocre outfield defenders with enough thunder in their bats to be a threat offensively. As lefty batters who tend to hit better against righties, both Cust and Branyan are capable of assuming the Ibanez role. Both players likely have better plate discipline than Ibanez, which could be a potential argument in their favor. As Andruw Jones replacements, both Branyan and Cust would be substantial downgrades defensively, and hit from the wrong side of the plate from the perspective of a platoon. With Brett Gardner still possibly out for a while, I can’t see Jones going anywhere anyway.
Wise should go before Jones or Ibanez, and while Cust and Ibanez would serve drastically different roles, they could be more productive overall. Chris Dickerson is another possible replacement who has enough defensive chops to replace Wise with the possibility of being a non-zero offensively. So far Dickerson is posting an .826 OPS in AAA, and his ability to play all 3 outfield positions should make him a useful fill-in. If Wise continues to struggle and Dickerson keeps hitting well, I suspect the Yankees will consider such a move.
While Chris Stewart’s weak offensive production is frustrating to Yankee fans (especially George Kontos fans), there’s not much help coming. Francisco Cervelli, sent to AAA to make room for Stewart, has not handled the demotion well. He is OPS’ing .660, not exactly a fist-pump worthy figure, and presumably his defense is still inferior to that of Stewart. I don’t see any kind of move being made to bring ‘cisco back unless Stewart falls off a cliff offensively and Cervelli goes on a hot streak offensively. I don’t know if Cervelli’s offensive struggles are due to his frustration with being demoted or a true lack of ability, but in either case it is not what the Yankees would want to see from him.
A similar situation exists regarding a possible Jayson Nix replacement. Eduardo Nunez would be the best candidate there by virtue of his defensive versatility and major league experience, but he is injured (hasn’t played since May 19). Ronnier Mustelier is an intriguing possibility who has raked at every level throughout his career, including an .852 OPS since being promoted to Scranton. Mustelier has the versatility to play outfield as well as 2nd and 3rd base. However, I don’t think he has the range required to handle shortstop, and at Derek Jeter‘s age the Yankees definitely need a real backup who can play short. Matt Antonelli could probably handle 2nd and 3rd as well, but also is not a shortstop, and is currently hitting pretty poorly (.627 OPS), so I don’t think he’s a real option.
At the moment, it appears that the Yankees are likely stuck with the bench they have unless they make an external move. Replacing Wise with Dickerson seems to be the only easy move that doesn’t create another hole, and it could be one that the Yankees make if Wise continues to struggle. However, the Yankees may not want to DFA Wise just yet, and they may be willing to tolerate decreased offensive production to maintain depth with Brett Gardner’s return uncertain. Cervelli and Nunez haven’t done enough to earn a return to the majors, and Stewart and Nix seem to be filling their roles adequately for the moment.
It is probably too soon to consider replacing Ibanez and Jones after what Ibanez did to begin the season, and what Jones did last year. However, if the Yankees are starting to lean in that direction, Branyan and Cust are certainly making the case that they could be legitimate replacements as far as offense is concerned. With Gardner out, the Yankees need their DH’s to play more outfield than they initially intended, and I’m not sure Branyan is up to the task with his back problems. Cust would also be a butcher out there, but as a replacement for Ibanez, it may only be a lateral move.
It’s unlikely that any big moves to shake up the bench will be happening any time soon, but it is nice to know that the Yankees have some internal options should they decide to go in that direction. The trade deadline could bring some other options as well, as non-contenders may trade some useful pieces to save some salary. However questionable the bench looks now, I am pretty confident that come September and October, the Yankees will have made the necessary upgrades.