That Last Spot on the Bench

yankeesdugout There's plenty of off-season left to shake things up, but at the moment the Yankees roster looks pretty close to set on the position player side.  Assuming Starlin Castro is their starting 2B, the 9 starting spots are filled.  Aaron Hicks, Dustin Ackley, and a back up catcher (Romine or Sanchez, likely) are all but locks on the bench.  If the Yankees carry 12 pitchers, that leaves one bench spot open.

I don't think there's an obvious answer at that spot, but there are a few intriguing possibilities.

(The last bench spot may not seem like the most meaningful topic to discuss, but this could ripple into the starting lineup through more rest for certain players without missing a beat as a team or giving the Yankees a legitimate alternative if someone struggles.)

The Boring (but maybe most likely?) Option 

Let's get this one out of the way first.  The Yankees have been somewhat reluctant to use a starter elsewhere as their primary back-up SS.  We saw it with A-Rod back in 2004 and again with Stephen Drew in 2015.  They have signed what's almost a younger Brendan Ryan to a minor league deal in the form of Pete Kozma.  Kozma is a former 1st rounder and slick fielder who served as the Cardinals' starting SS in 2013, but is considered a AAAA type player because he can't hit at all, he's not even a platoon option: career 53 wRC+ against LHP and 61 wRC+ against RHP.  (Of course, defense is still fairly hard to quantify so maybe the Yankees believe Kozma is more valuable that us fans do.)

Role:  Giving Pete Kozma a bench spot would not be a sexy choice.  He's not a guy you actively seek to get into the line-up, but rather a guy who can give an IF a blow when he needs it.  He'd likely serve as the primary back-up at SS and 3B, and be third in line at 2B behind Castro and Ackley.  Of course, the Yankees might be better off using Castro to spell Didi or Headley, while Ackley spells Castro (at least they would be better off offensively).  Kozma might start a game or two a week and be an occasional late inning defensive replacement.

Impact on Others:  One benefit of choosing Kozma is that more promising long-term assets could be playing every day in AAA.  Otherwise, he seems like a great depth piece to stash in AAA and nothing more.  Not really going to add a new facet to the MLB roster or keep starters rested.  However, "blehmann" pointed out yesterday that the Yankees might prefer to play Castro only at 2B rather than asking the recently converted SS to jump around between positions. Kozma would allow Castro to strictly play 2B, for better or worse.

The Thumper

Greg Bird's strong debut was one of the most exciting story lines of the 2015 Yankees season.  We don't have enough of a sample to say for sure that Bird can hit at the MLB level, but we have plenty of evidence that he has the potential to hit very well in MLB.

Role:  Bird is strictly a 1B/DH defensively.  This limits his appeal as a bench player somewhat, so you'd be carrying him largely for offensive reasons and for the ability to rest two particular players throughout the season.   Bird would also add a dangerous pinch hitter to the roster, either filling the role himself or pushing A-Rod/Tex to the role depending on the day.

Impact on Others:  The Yankees have relatively old, injury prone players at both 1B and DH, so Bird could be a nice complement in a three-man rotation of sorts.  Start him two days a week at each position and he's playing four games a week while A-Rod and Tex are playing five games a week.

The Versatile RH Bat

To a lesser degree than Bird, Rob Refsnyder also provided some evidence in 2015 that his bat might play at the MLB level.  The addition of Castro diminished Refs' chances of breaking camp with the Yankees in 2016, but it might not have extinguished them altogether.

Role:  The Yankees have used Refsnyder exclusively at 2B since converting him from RF in his first full pro season (2013).  And there could be some open 2B time against LHP if the Yankees are comfortable using Castro as a back-up SS.  It might not be enough time to justify a roster spot, though.  If the Yankees are going to carry Refsnyder with all their other IFs healthy, it probably means he's playing some OF as well.

Impact on Others:  Refsnyder would free Castro up to play more on the left side of the infield.  Chase Headley has had back issues and struggled in 2015 while Didi struggles about LHP and has a track record that is only one season long so another weapon on the left side of the IF could be a plus.  In the OF, the Yankees have one good RH platoon option, Aaron Hicks, but with three starting OFs and a back-up OF who all hit RHP better than LHP. A second RH OF bat might be a nice addition to the roster.

The 3rd Catcher

Yankees fans are asking ourselves whether the Yankees will include Gary Sanchez OR Austin Romine on the roster in 2016, but they could conceivably include Sanchez AND Romine.  (I don't think they will, but they could.)

Roles:  Romine would primarily be in MLB for his defense, while Sanchez would be up for his bat and to take the next step in his development.

Impact on Others:  This arrangement would allow the Yankees to more aggressively insert Sanchez's bat into the line-up at DH, pinch-hitter, or maybe even 1B.  The downside of doing so with one BUC is that if Sanchez moves from DH to C in-game, you lose the DH for the rest of the game.  I think this could be a legitimate option if the Yankees are willing to play A-Rod in the field if he's still strictly a DH, though, you're probably not using Sanchez in non-C roles enough to justify the redundancy on your roster.  A-Rod is another year removed from hip surgery, but my guess is he's still strictly a DH.

The 6th OF

The Yankees have a number of MLB-ready-ish OFs in AAA:  primarily Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Ben Gamel.  These guys could add some defense, speed, and/or hitting to the roster, but with Hicks and Ackley already backing up the OF and all three of these guys hitting from the left side, I'm not sure it's even worth diving into the details here.  These guys are probably depth and potential trade chips, waiting for a chance once someone gets hurt/traded or Beltran hits free agency after the season.

Cesar Puello is a RH bat, but I think he's more of a depth piece than an opening day bench option.  (Aaron Judge could conceivably force his way onto the roster later in the season.)

Looking Outside the Org

The Yankees could also look outside the organization to fill out their bench.

Any number of trades for a bench piece are possible, so it's tough to even speculate there, but trading a LH OF for either a RH OF or an IF is a realistic option.  So is trading Refsnyder for a more versatile guy who can at least fake 3B if not SS.

It's also tough to pick free agent targets, because you're basically looking for the best possible free agent who can't find a starting job elsewhere or is willing to take a bench role with the Yankees over a starting role somewhere else.

  • There are some RH bats available the Yankees might look at as platoon options in the OF:  Marlon Byrd, Alex Rios, Chris Denorfia, John Mayberry Jr., Jonny Gomes, Delmon Young...   Shane Victorino, even.  Chris Carter could add a RH bat, but I don't see interest on either side since he's basically a DH you can stick at 1B.
  • Clint Barmes is the only guy I see who might be willing to sign up for a back-up UTL role and able to compete with Kozma.  I suppose Paul Janish, too, and Everth Cabrera could do it but I don't see the Yankees adding that big a character risk.  Stephen Drew is still out there. Seriously, he'd be an upgrade over Kozma and maybe Refsnyder if he'll take an end of the bench role.
  • Alberto Callaspo or Juan Uribe would add nice depth at 3B, but are the Yankees adding a 3B only back-up and are those guys signing up to back-up Headley?

My Take

There's no obviously right answer here, but I think I'd take Refsnyder, personally.  I like freeing Castro up for a super-UTL role where he primarily plays 2B, but also plays some SS and 3B (Girardi can even give Tex and A-Rod more time off by sliding Headley to 1B).  And the extra RH bat in the OF could also provide a marginal benefit.  Maybe you're hurting Refsnyder's defensive development at 2B, but learning from MLB 2B and coaches could be beneficial.  His long-term MLB role seems somewhat likely to be on the bench shuffling between 2B and the OF anyway.  Refsnyder hasn't played the OF much as a pro, but as a former NCAA OF he's a prime candidate to make the conversion to part-time OF play.

I'd certainly entertain a three-man rotation of Tex, A-Rod, and Bird at 1B/DH.  I guess I'm indifferent between those two options:  Refsnyder and Bird.

I tend to think the Yankees will go with Kozma.  I don't love it, but it's also not necessarily the wrong choice.  Castro doesn't have to worry about shuffling between positions, while two good young players get to play every day in AAA to continue their development (especially on defense in both cases).

Steamer 2016 Projections

Player

Steamer 2016 wRC+

Steamer 600 2016 WAR

Gary Sanchez

96

3.5

Rob Refsnyder

103

2.5

Juan Uribe

92

2.4

Greg Bird

123

2.3

Aaron Judge

99

1.3

Ben Gamel

87

1.1

Austin Romine

75

1.1

Slade Heathcott

87

1.0

Mason Williams

78

1.0

Cesar Puello

90

0.9

Shane Victorino

82

0.9

Chris Carter

106

0.6

Stephen Drew

78

0.5

Everth Cabrera

71

0.3

Alberto Callaspo

83

0.2

Clint Barmes

60

-0.3

John Mayberry Jr.

81

-0.4

Pete Kozma

64

-0.4

Jonny Gomes

87

-0.4

Alex Rios

77

-0.5

Delmon Young

88

-0.9

Paul Janish

52

-1.2