We're less than 4 weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting, so baseball is officially out there on the horizon. When that Friday comes, baseball will officially be back and a few days later when the rest of the team arrives at the Tampa complex Spring Training 2014 will be fully underway. As usual, there will be a handful of roster battles that will dominate the ST headlines, highlighted by the annual 5th starter competition. A bench job or 2 will be up for grabs, as will some bullpen roles, possibly the closer role if the Yanks do end up signing another veteran late-inning reliever, and the third base platoon jobs.
One spot that won't be up for competition this year is designated hitter. The older and injury risky Yankees have more candidates for the DH spot than ever this season and will most likely be rotating a large cast of veteran characters through it in an attempt to keep everybody as well-rested and healthy as possible. How that rotation is going to work and what players get the most time in the DH spot remains to be seen, and managing that rotation will be among the most daunting tasks on Joe's plate this season.
Assuming the team breaks camp with their full roster intact, the anticipated starting lineup will have Teix at first base, Derek Jeter at short, Brian McCann behind the plate, and Carlos Beltran in right field. This leaves Alfonso Soriano as the odd man out of the starting outfield and the de facto starting DH as the best and most powerful remaining hitter. All those other players named are going to need regular or at least semi-regular DH days as well, and if the Yanks are playing 5-6 games a week that means a new face in the DH spot almost every game. Joe had a tough task juggling his lineup with a bunch of below-replacement level spare part players last season. How well can he manage it again with a better group?
More importantly, how is he going to set the priority for who gets a DH day when? I expect that Jeter will be the primary right-handed DH when the Yanks are facing a lefty starter, which would bump Soriano into the outfield and either Beltran or Brett Gardner to the bench. But what about McCann in those situations? His trend against southpaws makes him a good candidate to get a day of rest against lefties. Giving him that day off when Beltran is also sitting removes 2 of the best bats from the middle of the lineup, however, and replaces them with Brendan Ryan and Francisco Cervelli. That difference in offensive prowess could be the difference between winning and losing a game and if the Yankees are serious about contending in the AL East they can't afford to give away any games.
And what about the days where Teix needs a turn at DH? Who's playing first base then? The Yankees still don't have a viable option for Teix's backup. If you're thinking it's automatically going to be McCann, be reminded that he's never played a single game at first in his Major League career. Same goes for Beltran. It makes logical sense to use those guys at first as another way to give their bodies a rest from time to time, but playing first base isn't as simple as grabbing a different glove and standing on the bag to catch throws. If Joe is serious about using either McCann or Beltran at first, he needs to give them enough time in camp to get comfortable there. Again, he can't afford to sacrifice wins or winning strategies for the sake of rest any more than he can afford to sacrifice the rest.
Players in their mid-to-late 30s don't stand up to the rigors of a 162-game baseball season as well as their younger counterparts. It's a lesson the Yankees have learned before, a time or 2 too many for my liking. Their roster hasn't gotten any younger this offseason and once again they're going to be challenged to get the most out of it by keeping their older core rested and healthy for the long haul. The DH spot in the lineup can be a great way to do that, but only if the team is prepared to cover the other holes on the roster that come as a result of rotating a handful of position players through the DH. While guys like Soriano and Ryan can plug up some of those holes, there are others that still need to be addressed. If the Yankees can't figure out how to best manage their DH rotation and day-to-day positional coverage depending on who's DHing, it might not matter how fresh they keep everybody.
(Photo courtesy of Richard Walker)