Discussing some position battles and how they will shape the Yankees bench

With Spring Training approaching, the Yankees’ roster appears to be all but set. The Yankees have their guys now and all that is left to figure out is the configuration in which the team will deploy them. Although most of the team’s starting positions appear to be set, last season gave us an opportunity to get a look at several players who could be a factor for a position on the bench with the big league club to start the season. With the MLB roster limit being 25 players, most teams usually break down this number with either 13 position players and 12 pitchers or vice versa. Most teams barring injuries to the pitching staff will go with 13 position players to allow for a full four man bench consisting of a backup catcher, a fourth outfielder, a backup infielder and a utility guy. Carrying 13 position players would leave them with five starters and seven relief pitchers. This is the model Joe Girardi and the Yankees have gone with the last several years and it is the model I expect them arrive with on Opening Day.
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As I mentioned previously, most of the Yankees’ starting spots appear to be filled. The Yankees official depth chart lists the starting position players as: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury Aaron Judge, Chase Headley, Didi Gregorious, Starlin Castro, Greg Bird, Matt Holiday and Gary Sanchez. Most of those players are established major leaguers who have been around for a while, either here or somewhere else. The notable exception to that is Gary Sanchez and the catcher position, and Greg Bird at first base, who will be competing with Tyler Austin for the starting first base job. As for Sanchez, he should anchor the lineup in the three-hole, and they still have backup Austin Romine in house. There are however a few of these positions that may be left up to training camp competitions to truly determine the starting unit and two major bench roles.  

First base could be one of these positions. Mark Teixeira is now gone and the Yankees did not pursue a big name replacement in free agency. Matt Holiday made his debut at the position this past season but he would be a backup at best. The competition at the position appears to be shaping up between Bird and Tyler Austin. Austin is capable of playing several positions but he played a lot of first down the stretch last season with Teixeira ceding some playing time so that Austin could develop. Bird is coming off a lost season due to a torn labrum so penciling him in as an opening day starter is far from a certainty, especially since he didn’t log much time in the bigs before the injury.

The Yankees like Bird though, with Brian Cashman expressing hope that Bird can claim the position and make it his own earlier this winter in an interview with MLB.com. Bird was one of the higher ranked prospects in the Yankee’s system before his cameo with the team in 2015 and impressed down the stretch that year, hitting 11 home runs in 178 plate appearances. He also posted a .261 batting average, driving in 31 runs and taking 19 walks. 
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Austin, his primary competition, in 90 plate appearances batted .241 with five home runs, 12 RBI and seven walks. Even though it is hard to really get anything from these stat lines because of the small sample size, it seems both of these men feel they are ready to compete for a major role on this year’s roster. They have both had successes in the minors that have gotten them to this point and some success already in the majors. The Yankees’ preference appears to be with Bird but they also seem ready to let these two compete throughout the spring with the second place finisher of that battle likely taking a key role on the bench.
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Another key position battle that will have implications for the bench is right field. Aaron Judge is listed as the starter and the team still has Aaron Hicks as well. I’m sure the Yankees’ ideal scenario would be for Judge to show up and tear the cover off the ball this spring but he did struggle badly for extended stretches after his spectacular arrival last season. Overall he hit .179 with four homers and 10 RBI in 95 plate appearances as well as nine walks and a .263 OBP. Judge obviously has tremendous power and even made some nice plays in the field last season but he must perform better at the plate to receive regular playing time this season. 

Unlike first base, the Yankees have depth in their outfield and if Judge does not perform this spring it is not out of question for him to be sent back down to Triple-A to sort out his issues. An adjustment period is not out of the ordinary no matter how highly regarded a prospect is especially for bigger guys and power hitters like Judge who often struggle with long swings and a lot of strikeouts. In his 95 PAs last season Judge struck out 42 times, which is obviously far too high of a percentage for any player to maintain and still be a consistent hitter. Judge has the talent to be a feared hitter in the majors but if he doesn’t show an improvement over last season he may not find himself in a bench role, he may very well find himself back in Scranton.
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Thanks to some nice work on the trade market last year, the Yankees have insurance for Aaron Judge in the form of Aaron Hicks. Hicks is an athletic switch hitting outfielder with an absolute cannon for an arm. He did struggle for most of this past season at the plate, batting .217 with eight home runs and 31 RBI in 361 plate appearances. Hicks has a lot of talent and is a good player to have around as a fourth outfielder. He is only 27-years-old though and has shown flashes that he could be a consistent everyday player. His defense is outstanding and a switch hitter is always a good thing for a manager to have at his disposal. 
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At the Yankees Winter Warm Up event a few weeks ago, Brian Cashman expressed confidence in Hicks and pointed out that he performed better at the plate when given regular at bats when Carlos Beltran was out due to injury. Beltran’s return forced Hicks back to a limited role and his hitting tailed off but he has shown flashes that make you think maybe he won’t just be a complete give up if he is forced into regular playing time. If Judge shows up and is ready for a significant role, it is safe to assume we will see Hicks in the fourth outfielder role he manned last season.
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With those two major position battles out of the way and two bench spots theoretically filled, that leaves only more slots to be filled with a few possibilities to fill them. With the backup infielder and fourth outfielder slots filled that leaves the backup catcher and the utility man spots open. The Yankees are obviously ready to move forward with Gary Sanchez as the starting catcher with Austin Romine as his backup. 

However, It is not out of the question for the team to consider having an open-competition between Kyle Higashioka and Romine at Spring Training. Higashioka was added to the 40-man roster this past offseason to protect him from being taken in the Rule-5 Draft, and coming off a system high 21 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A, Higashioka could given Romine a run for his money. Romine has been around for a while and I’m sure the Yankees feel comfortable with him but if an injury or something else gives them reason to be unsure in Romine, you could see the 26-year-old catcher Higashioka backing up Sanchez come opening day. 
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The last spot is for a utility man and I believe the two major candidates for that role are Rob Refsnyder and Ronald Torreyes. Refsnyder is a name Yankees fans have become very familiar with over time. He moved quickly through the Yankees system on the strength of his bat. Even though he appeared to be a very seasoned hitter it took him a while to reach the bigs because the Yankees didn’t appear to have much confidence in his defense. He has played in the outfield and at second base in the minors and made appearances at those positions since coming to majors. An added perk for Refsnyder is that he is able to play some first base, although there are far more defensively sound options. Overall Refsnyder batted .250 with no home runs and 12 RBI in 175 plate appearances last season.
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His primary competition Ronald Torreyes batted .258 with one home run and 12 RBI in 169 plate appearances. I wouldn’t expect either of these two to turn into power hitters any time soon (although Refsnyder said he watched plenty of film of Brian Dozier this offseason and would like to add power to his game), but both have the potential to be useful hitters in a regular role off the bench. Both are young with Refsnyder being only 25 and Torreyes being just 24-years-old. What might give Torreyes an advantage over Refsnyder is that Torreyes has the ability to play shortstop, whereas Refsnyder does not. But overall, if they can get used to the inconsistent playing time that comes with a bench role, then both could stick around for a while. 
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In terms of this coming season I think it will boil down to who performs better in camp as well as how the other positions shake out. If the team finds itself needing more outfield help they may go with Refsynder, with Torreyes being the likelier option if they need more infield insurance. If they opt to keep someone else at a position of need and they can only keep one, then you could see one of these two return to Scranton so the team can hold onto both of them. A team usually needs extra utility men throughout the season, so you will almost certainly see them both on the roster at some point.
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Brian Cashman has been hard at work over the last few years making over the Yankees roster from a stable of older veterans to a youthful group of players and prospects. The team finds itself entering this season with most of their starting spots locked in but also with a few spots ripe for the taking. The team would benefit from young veterans like Didi Gregorious and Starlin Castro taking another step forward but overall I believe the success or failure of this season will be measured by the development of their young prospects. We will definitely see some of these young players seize significant roles heading into the season.


No matter what happens, Cashman has given the team a lot of possibilities for shaping their bench. There are  a lot of different combinations they could go with but if the team’s plans play out the way they would like, you should see an opening day bench of Austin Romine, Tyler Austin, Aaron Hicks and likely Ronald Torreyes (though it could be Refsnyder with a strong spring). There is of course a lot of time between now and first pitch so you could see new players enter the discussion and old players fall out, but because of the work Cashman has done recently I feel a lot more comfortable with what the team's bench will be entering this season. 

Article by: Matt Graziano

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