A revolving door of backups [2019 Season Review]

(David B. King – CC BY-S.A. 2.0)

As a result of the never-ending injuries at the big league level, the Yankees had to cycle through a number of players from Triple-A and the waiver wire in order to plug holes. Below is a group of players who received sporadic playing time with the Bombers in 2019, though some of them could emerge for a larger role in 2020.

Tyler Wade

The numbers don’t depict a strong season for Wade. He was strong in Triple-A (.296/.352/.425, 99 wRC+), but we already knew he had a handle on that level. In the majors, Wade hit just .245/.330/.362 (88 wRC+) in 108 plate appearances. It certainly was a significant improvement compared to his 24 wRC+ in 133 plate appearances at the big league level entering this season. That said, the start of 2019 looked like more of the same for Tyler, who was recalled on three separate occasions this year:

  1. April 1 – May 3: .204/.316/.204, 0 HR, 5/5 SB, 51 wRC+ in 51 plate appearances
  2. July 30: 1-for-2, home run
  3. August 21 – September 29: .279/.340/.465, 1 HR, 2/2 SB, 112 wRC+ in 47 plate appearances

Clearly, it was a tale of two seasons. First, more of the same in April when he took the injured Miguel Andújar’s roster spot. Then, mired in Triple-A until making the most of one more opportunity late in the campaign.

The Yankees have given Wade numerous opportunities to grab a utility role at the big league level, but it wasn’t until the very end of this season that he looked like it was deserved. Next year, Wade could take on a bigger role from the get go depending on Didi Gregorius’s fate. If Gregorius departs, the Yankees will need another shortstop on the big league roster. Wade could be an option.

Thairo Estrada

Estrada made a nice impression debuting at the major league level this year. He was first up for a couple of days in early April before the Yankees turned to Gio Urshela, but was recalled once more before the end of the month. He hung around until early June by outplaying the just discussed Wade.

From the 21st through June 6th, Estrada received 54 trips to the plate and recorded a strong 118 wRC+. He offered some power, hitting three homers and three doubles during that period. Estrada notched his first hit while on the west coast against the Angels and his first career home run about two weeks later at Yankee Stadium. It was a special one, as it was against his fellow countryman King Felix:

Estrada played less and less as May went on because or Urshela’s emergence. Then, once Gregorius returned, Estrada was shipped back to Scranton.

The Yankees recalled the infielder for a few days around the trade deadline, but he didn’t get into game action before going back down. Later in August, Estrada was recalled for a third time and went hitless in three games before the Bombers put him on the injured list with a hamstring strain. He too wasn’t immune to the injury bug. Thairo made it back for a few chances in September, but nothing to write home about. Overall, he finished with a 91 wRC+ in 69 plate appearances for the Yankees. He had the same mark for Scranton in 60 games.

So, there was a time earlier this season that Estrada leapfrogged Wade on the deth chart. Like Wade, Estrada is capable of filling a utility role as he can cover every position on the diamond. The difference is that Estrada is 23, two years younger than Wade, and has more options remaining. What that may mean is that Wade will get priority next season as a last chance for a reserve role in the Bronx. Plus, Wade did come on strong by the end of the season.

Breyvic Valera

The Yankees grabbed Valera off waivers from the Giants in May and immediately stashed him in Scranton for most of the year. He raked for the Railriders to the tune of a .315/.388/.515 (130 wRC+) in 83 games filling in for Wade and Estrada while they were with the Yankees.

Valera did get a few brief looks in New York, though. He scattered 37 plate appearances across three call-ups, but didn’t hit much (76 wRC+). Eventually, the Yankees designated him for assignment in September and lost him on waivers to Toronto. He could see some time off the bench for the Blue Jays next year.

Kyle Higashioka

For the third straight season, Higashioka served as the Yankees’ third catcher stashed away in Triple-A. He was summoned to the Bronx for a couple of Gary Sánchez’s pre-September injuries and once more for expanded rosters. In his cameos, Higashioka hit three homers in 57 trips to the dish and recorded a .214/.211/.464 (57 wRC+) batting line. Yes, his OBP was lower than his batting average.

Though Higashioka didn’t offer much bat other than occasional power, he raked while in Scranton. The 29 year-old backstop hit 20 dingers in only 270 plate appearances in Triple-A. That ridiculous power output resulted in a 129 wRC+ at the level. This isn’t the first time he’s shown hitting chops in the minors, but he’s yet to capitalize in his limited big league chances.

Next year should be a different story, at least in terms of opportunity. Higgy could take the backup catcher gig from incumbent Austin Romine, who’s a free agent. It’s convenient timing for Higashioka, who has no more minor league options. That means he’d have to clear waivers in order for the Yankees to send him down in 2020. So if Romine returns, there’s a decent chance Higashioka could call a new organization home next season.

Kendrys Morales

This is an experiment that went on too long. The Yankees acquired Morales from Oakland. The A’s had DFA’d the 1B/DH in May after he didn’t hit whatsoever. The Yankees ostensibly bet on Morales catching up to his xwOBA. That never happened.

Morales finished the season with a wOBA underperforming his xwOBA by .100. The Yankees saw his high exit velocity (91.3 MPH average) and 53.1 percent ground ball rate hoping that he could just start lifting the ball. But 19 games and 75 plate appearances in, enough was enough. He hit .177/.320/.242 (63 wRC+) in pinstripes before the Bombers cut him loose.

No team signed the 36 year-old after the Yankees released him, so he’s still in free agency. At this point of his career, it’s hard to envision Morales getting anything more than a minor league deal to start 2020.

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2 Comments

  1. Mungo

    If Higashioka is the back up catcher, then I can see Romine landing on the Red Sox. They just traded their back up catcher, Leon, so they’ll need a replacement. What better replacement than a catcher who knows more about the Yankee pitchers than just about anyone?

  2. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    To me these are the guys that win ballgames, Derek. They don’t always get the accolades but they do just as much to help the club win as Judge, Gleyber and DJ.

    Wade is a winner and needs to be on the roster next year. With the 26th man there’s no reason he shouldn’t be. He can play 2B, 3B, SS, LF, RF. He’s our Brock Holt. He’s fast, he can defend and he can hit. Reminds me of the movie Hook when Pan couldn’t fight, couldn’t fly and couldn’t crow. Wade can do all 3.

    Thairo showed me a lot last year. I think he has a real future here and if a starter were to get hurt we wouldn’t miss a beat because we’d just bring him up. He reminds me a lot of Nuney with the speed and the bat and the glove. Nuney had it all and so does Thairo.

    Breyvic showed me a lot too and I wish we had kept him. There was something wrong with his face though. He looked like he was 60 years old. He’ll be haunting us for decades in Toronto.

    Higgy will play a big part here next season as backup to Romine and Boone might even do a 50/50 playing schedule like he did last year. Having that bat in the lineup will be a luxury with his elite defense.

    Morales was one of the worst signings this organization ever made. When he was signed the narrative was but he hits the ball hard! He was old, he was slow, he did nothing at the plate, but he hits the ball hard! I never once saw him get a hit as a Yankee. Then they compounded the problem by getting Edwin, who was just as bad. Can we get someone under the age of 35 who doesn’t strike out 4 times a game please?

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