Thursday, January 22, 2015

Is the Yankees' bench better in 2015?

The unsung heroes of a baseball team often live riding the pine, and it might not be different for the 2015 New York Yankees. The assumed regular lineup for the Yankees has some question marks, which makes the bench an important piece of the overall puzzle. Did the club create a bench that is better than the one crafted for 2014?

At the start of the 2014 season the Yankees bench consisted of Ichiro Suzuki, Dean Anna, Yangervis Solarte and Francisco Cervelli. As of now, the 2015 bench has Brendan Ryan, Chris Young, Garrett Jones and most likely John Ryan Murphy. Jose Pirela and Austin Romine have a chance with hot springs to overtake Ryan and Murphy respectively.

Suzuki ended up getting plenty of playing time due to Carlos Beltran’s injury woes. Ichiro slapped his way to a .284/.324/.340 line in 380 plate appearances. He also stole 15 bases. Suzuki, 41, is looking to latch onto another one-year deal as the Yankees decided to part ways.

Anna was never really given much of a chance, garnering just 25 plate appearances. He was claimed off waivers by the Pittsburgh Pirates July 5, 2014.

Solarte was an absolute phenom for the first two months of the season. He snagged the starting third base job from Kelly Johnson and made 47 starts, sparking an anemic offense with a slash line of .299/.369/.466 during the time span. He fell back to Earth (and hard) in June and the early part of July, recording a minuscule .459 OPS. He was traded to the San Diego Padres for Chase Headley July 22, 2014, so the Yanks can thank him for that.

Johnson in the meantime was tried out in many positions hoping to get his bat going but it never took shape. He finished his time in New York with a paltry .219/.304/.373 line in 227 trips to the plate. Johnson was traded to the Boston Red Sox and then to the Baltimore Orioles in time to be a part of their postseason run.

Cervelli had a fine season for the Yankees as the backup catcher for Brian McCann. He posted a .301/.370/.432 line in 162 plate appearances and was very reliable behind the plate. Cervelli is now in Pittsburgh, likely to be their fulltime backstop.

What can we expect of the current crop of bench players?

Ryan, who began 2014 on the disabled list, appeared in 49 games for the Yankees. Anna probably would not have made the team if Ryan was healthy to start the season. Ryan hit just .143 and had an OPS+ of 18 in 124 times at the plate in 2014. That’s not a typo. Ryan, never a hitting threat for opponents is all about the glove. He might be kept on the team simply because he is the only other natural shortstop on the roster besides newly acquired Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew, who the Yankees have penciled in as the starting second baseman.

Pirela surely has a chance to overtake Ryan with an extremely strong spring. But, even if he opens in Triple-A Pirela remains a very versatile piece of the puzzle. He could see significant time if Drew or Gregorius fail early on and he’s hitting the cover off the ball in Triple-A. In 2014, Pirela made a brief cameo in the Bronx after hitting .305/.351/.441 with 21 doubles, 11 triples and 10 homers at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Pirela can play multiple spots on the field which makes him a likely replacement on the bench in case of injury around the diamond.

Ryan might never hit, but he’s not going to hurt in the field. He is not going to do what Solarte did, but he might fall the same fate as Anna. I would not be surprised if Pirela either beats Ryan out in the spring, or if over time the Yankees want Pirela to provide a spark and Ryan is the one sent packing. Again, it’s hard to know exactly what Gregorius or Drew is going to provide the team. If both are succeeding, Ryan will stick around, but if not, it would not be difficult to see the Yankees bring Pirela up.

Young came over to the Yankees in September, after a very disappointing stint with the New York Mets. Young went on a late season tear which prompted the Yanks to sign him to a one-year deal to be the fourth outfielder. Overall in 2014, Young had a .683 OPS, which was bolstered by his brief time with the Yankees in which he produced a .876 OPS (145 OPS+) in 23 games and 79 plate appearances.

If the Yankees can receive that type of production from Young it will be a welcomed difference from the kind of player Ichiro supplied the Yanks. Young has some pop and speed, while playing good defense, all essential qualities for a bench player.

Young can be an upgrade over Ichiro, purely from the need for power off the bench, and the fact that if he hits close to what he did with the Yanks last September, he could be a nice fill-in for days off required by the outfielders when a lefty is on the mound.

Jones came over in a trade this winter along with Nathan Eovaldi. Jones, a lefty hitter with power, will backup first baseman Mark Teixeira and can play right field. Having a true first base backup was something the Yankees missed in 2014 and boasting a lefty with pop on the bench at Yankee Stadium could pay dividends in close games. In 2014, Jones slashed .246/.309/.720 with 33 doubles and 15 homers in 547 plate appearances. Jones owns a career .764 OPS (108 OPS+) in seven seasons.

Having Jones on the roster instead of another middle infielder, works for the Yankees because they have Pirela and Rob Refsnyder waiting in the wings. With the number of injuries Teixeira has suffered of late, it makes sense to have someone experienced at playing first base on the bench. It allows the Yankees to give McCann full days off when needed versus inserting him at first base. Also, it can’t be stressed enough that the Yankees can benefit from having a power hitting lefty on the bench when it can be assumed the club will be in a fair share of close games this season.

Murphy has come on and seemingly leapfrogged Romine on the catching depth chart. In 32 games, 85 plate appearances, Murphy hit .288/.318/.370 and was fine behind the plate in 21 starts. That said, if Murphy falters and Romine excels in spring training, the latter is out of minor league options and could find himself on the opening day roster.

If Murphy makes the opening day roster he is fully capable of pleasing the Yankees coaching staff and can provide very similar numbers to Cervelli’s over the course of the season. There should not be a regression here.

Overall, the current bench composition is arguably better than last season’s. The versatility and power from both sides along with the minor league depth could spark the Yankees at times during the long season. That’s pretty much all a team can ask from its bench players.

Photo of Chris Young courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer and sports media strategist. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.