Updated: Mar 30
Approximately two and a half weeks have transpired since Spring Training began last month, and that usually means three things.
the luster of half the games have worn off for many,
Opening Day can’t come fast enough, but
There somehow still remain about six possible permutations to fill out the roster.
The general skeleton of the team is clear to everyone and has been for a while since the Jameson Taillon trade pulled through, marking the final major offseason acquisition for the New York Yankees. Since then, however, uncertainty has arisen about which players will round out the final few spots on the team as we head into the regular season. With a commitment being made by Aaron Boone to a roster that will hold at least thirteen pitchers (which would mean, correspondingly, thirteen position players), there is debate about who will break camp for both the last spot on the bench and the last spot(s) on the pitching staff.
As for the former, the competition seems to lie between Jay Bruce, Tyler Wade, and Derek Dietrich, and Mike Tauchman, with Brett Gardner, Kyle Higashioka having pretty much guaranteed themselves backup roles. While the bullpen is more or less going to be eternally rotating, the starting rotation should be more concrete. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Corey Kluber, and Jordan Montgomery are all locks to make the starting five, with the last spot up for grabs between Deivi Garcia and Domingo Germán among others.
While a reasonable first instinct may be to compare how the players have been doing this spring, Boone has previously stated he’ll be looking at their past performances and their physicals in order to determine who gets the nod for New York on April 1. Let’s take a look, for now, at the competition for the two bench spots; who gets the final call?
Jay Bruce, Mike Tauchman, Tyler Wade, Derek Dietrich; pick two out of four. Recency bias says Bruce and Dietrich should get the nod. Preservationist instinct says to go with Wade and Tauchman. Where’s the middle ground?
The case for Bruce and Dietrich seems to rely on the premise of lefty-power-bat-in-Yankee-Stadium-equals-cha-ching, but it’s not entirely unfounded. Bruce, while having had a significant down year in 2020 and not having posted a single season with more than a 100 wRC+ since 2017, has in his favor an appreciable ISO of .289 over the last two seasons, although his walk-to-strikeout ratio leaves much to be desired. Dietrich has a similar profile, although he did in fact post the best season of his career in an abbreviated 2020, posting a .351 wOBA with a 124 wRC+. Those numbers, however, could mean next to nothing, as he played in only 25 games last year. His last full season came with Miami in 2018, where he hit .265/.330/.421 with a .326 wOBA, which for a backup infielder is more than enough, or at least more than his direct competitor…
The argument for the duo of Wade and Tauchman centers itself around the fact that there is more to baseball than hitting, which is entirely fair. Unless Gio Urshela can be the backup shortstop, running with Dietrich over Wade leaves nobody on the depth chart behind Gleyber Torres at short. Wade, at least defensively and on the base paths, also provides value that is becoming rarer in today’s MLB, with an RngR and a UZR of 1.4 and 1.3; which is to say, he’s far above average in terms of range and total runs saved. Much less needs to be said about his speed, however, the fact remains that neither Tyler Wade—nor any other player in baseball—can steal first base. He’s going to have to up his batting line, which sits at a paltry .170/.288/.307 with a 68 wRC+. Tauchman vs Bruce also presents a similar dilemma, although Tauchman is no slouch on offense (barring a down year in 2020), and had a 6.3 (!) UZR in 2019, which puts him among the Top 10 qualified outfielders in that category.
As for what would we at RAR go for? I think it might be beneficial to break the dichotomy here and put up Dietrich and Tauchman as starters. One thing previously not noted about Tauchman is that he’s out of minor-league options, and his ceiling as a fourth outfielder is just too high to let him go, especially compared to Bruce, who for all his power, is an aging asset and in possession of a skillset which is found in abundance in the Yankees already. As for why I’d pick Dietrich over Wade, the answer lies simply in their respective skillset. Both Wade’s speed and fielding are replaceable, and the pinch-runner/fielder role can be assumed by Gardner, Tauchman, etc. The potential oomph that Dietrich provides off the bench, is not. Regardless, there is still a long way to go between now and the lineups that will be put on display when the lights are brightest. If either one of the pairs doesn’t work out, there’d be ample time to swap out a piece and pull in another one.
We’re excited to see how this plays out, and we’re excited to have meaningful baseball once again, no matter who’s in the pinstripes come April 1.