With the Yankees bringing Brett Gardner back for another trip around the Bronx, the team’s bench picture became a little clearer…at least the first three bench spots.
Without a viable replacement who can actually play shortstop, it’s all but guaranteed Tyler Wade will take the backup infielder’s role. And unless something goes horribly wrong with Kyle Higashioka, the backup catcher spot is all his. Gardner will be the fourth outfielder. That leaves one spot left and with apologies to Mike Tauchman–who could still make the team!–my preferred candidates for this spot are veterans Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich.
Bruce, 33, and Dietrich, 31, both signed Minor League deals with the Yankees and reported to Major League camp. Bruce has an opt out for March 25; as far as we know, Dietrich has no such opt out.
Let’s lay out the case for Bruce first, as he signed first. Bruce had a down year by all accounts in 2020. His batting line was .198/.252/.469. Despite that power (.271 ISO), he only managed a .297 wOBA, good for an 83 wRC+. To quote his former manager, it’s not what you want. He also posted his second lowest career walk rate (6.8%) after a career low in 2019 (5.7%). This isn’t looking great, is it? To make matters slightly worse, the Statcast numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, either. Add in the fact that he doesn’t play the field well at all, and, uh, yeah.
However, it’s unlikely that Bruce would get more than an emergency start in the outfield–especially if Giancarlo Stanton does play some outfield–so he’ll likely be relegated to DH and occasional first base duties if he does make the team. He would also be there just to mash righties.
Even in a down year last year, he managed a 109 wRC+ against right handed pitchers, along with a .321 ISO. He also walked against them at a decent clip (8.2% compared to 0.0 against LHP). If Bruce essentially takes the place of Mike Ford, there’s more of a case to be made than his overall numbers might suggest.
Unlike Bruce, Derek Dietrich is coming off of a strong 2020. In 25 games for the Rangers, he put up what would be a career high wRC+ at 124 thanks to a .351 wOBA, made up from a .197/.347/.459 line. He hit five homers in his 25 games, which is a pace of over 30 over 162 games. These strong numbers–including an impressive .262 ISO–come despite the fact that like Bruce, Dietrich’s batted ball numbers don’t appear anything special at first glance.
His exit velocity–85.4 MPH–is under the league average–88.3 MPH. Even his max exit velocity of 107.3 MPH ranked 298th in the league. Despite those below average marks, there are good signs that Dietrich can not just handle the bat, but put a sting on the ball, too.
He–35%–was essentially average (lg. avg. 34.9%) in terms of hard-hit percentage and managed to find the sweet spot on the bat 47.5% of the time, compared to a league average of 32.8%. Now, that figure is wildly out of line with his career numbers (35.8 total, incl. 2020), but he’s shown to be above the 2020 average consistently throughout his career. His Barrel percentage (12.5) about doubled the league average and this trend stretches back to last year, when he had an 11.2% mark in the category. Basically, Dietrich manages to get good wood on the ball, even if the overall numbers aren’t too flashy.
On the other side of the ball, Dietrich suited up at first, second, and third for the Rangers and has previously played outfield every year dating back to 2015. He’s not a good fielder and that won’t be his calling card. But, he’s better than Bruce–even if that bar is low to clear–and can at least fake it all over the diamond.
When the Yankees signed Jay Bruce, I was sure they had a bench piece ready to go. That still might be the case, but then they signed Derek Dietrich. Given that Dietrich, also lefty, can hit for power himself and has the ability to play the field way more than Bruce does, he should get the last bench spot.