As we all know, Thursday was Opening Day. Opening Day is always special, but this year it was a little more special – with a limited number of fans welcome at all stadiums, it in many ways was the first day of “normal baseball” since the pandemic started. Personally, it was my first day back at Yankee Stadium since October 15, 2019, when I watched then-Astro Gerrit Cole best Luis Severino and the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS. It’s been a long time, friends.
In a lot of respects, Thursday was a typical day at the ballpark, like many that we all experienced before COVID took over the world. However, there were definitely some experiential differences, and I wanted to take this opportunity to walk through this first step into relative baseball normalcy in case any of our readership are weighing their own returns to the ballpark.
In Seattle, Washington, the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club is a community-based organization whose goal is to “promote understanding, goodwill, and world peace.” Their mission statement reads: “to change lives in our local and world communities through service and financial support.” Their values are inclusivity, coming together in the name of service and ethics, and positively impacting others’ lives.
On February 5, 2021, Kevin Mather, former President of the Seattle Mariners, led a program entitled “Seattle Mariners – Sea Change!” At first glance, this looks like an exciting talk that falls right in line with the Rotary Club’s ethos. The actual presentation did everything to undermine Bellevue’s vision while pulling the curtain back on a damning systemic failure within Major League Baseball.
For those unaware of Mather’s scintillating performance in front of the Rotary Club last week, you can read the transcript here and view some of the videos here. The most troubling comments center around Mariners’ top prospect Julio Rodríguez and former Mariners’ pitcher and current special assignment coach, Hisashi Iwakuma. Rodríguez is Dominican. Iwakuma is Japanese.
When a Bellevue member asked Mather about Rodríguez, Mather replied (emphasis mine), “Julio Rodríguez has a personality bigger than all of you combined. He is loud. His English is not tremendous.” Rodríguez is arguably Seattle’s top prospect. He’s dynamic. He has an absurd upside. By all accounts, he’s a great kid and teammate. Despite all of this, Mather’s first instinct was to use coded descriptors to answer the question. Being “loud” isn’t a flaw or defect. It describes volume. In this case, Mather meant this as a character trait. How do I know this? Beyond saying “he is,” Black and Brown people have constantly heard this phrasing in a derogatory manner. It is dismissive. In fairness, if being loud is the worst thing Mather could say about Rodríguez, you could shake your head and move on.
Yesterday, the Yankees reportedly inked veteran Jay Bruce to a minor league contract with an invitation to Major League Spring Training. Let’s talk abou the roster implications.
Before getting into that, I’ll say I like the move. Jay Bruce has been a personal favorite for a long time. I remember seeing him in 2008 when the Reds visited Yankee Stadium for an interleague series having heard all the hype about him. His career has been solid and it’s hard not to like this as a minor league deal, even if his fielding days are long gone. Onto the thoughts…
Bruce vs. Gardner vs. Tauchman vs. Allen vs. Ford
An early thought on Yankee minds when the news broke of the Bruce signing was “How does this affect Brett Gardner?” Given that this is a minor league deal and Gardner is likely to get a major league deal, my first thought was that it wouldn’t affect Gardner too much.
Gardner still has an advantage over Bruce in that he can actually play the outfield. And even though Greg Allen or Mike Tauchman are still around, they’re downgrades compared to Gardner. They may have steps on him in the outfield at this point, but Gardner is no slouch and can actually hit.
Bruce also doesn’t seem like a threat to Gardner or the outfielders currently on the roster. No one in their right minds would have Jay Bruce in 2021 as a backup outfielder expected to actually play out there in non-emergency situations. The one whose spot he’s likely to take is Mike Ford’s. Bruce has had some time at first base and is much more accomplished than Ford; his story in making the ML roster last Opening Day was great, but the results aren’t there and the upside is limited. Bruce is the better option.
But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if this does mean Gardner is gone. If you want to squeeze him and Bruce onto the roster–which I’m fine with–that would mean getting rid of both Tauchman and Allen, who are both option-less. The Yankees seem to love Tacuhman and valued Allen enough that they traded an actual player for him. Given those apparent realities, they might not be so willing to make room for a veteran like Gardner, who’ll push their luxury tax line to its absolute limit. It’s possible that the gap between Tauchman/Allen and Gardner isn’t that wide when it comes to a back up role. Of course, I think I’d rather Gardner step in in case of an injury than either Tauchman or Allen. But with the Yankees penchant for cost control, this may be the end of the line for Gardner.
If it is (and the Yankees make no other moves), the bench will likely be Kyle Higashioka, Tyler Wade, Jay Bruce, and Tauchman/Allen. Gardner instead of the last two probably makes the bench a touch better, but is that gonna happen? It’s looking increasingly less likely.
Maybe a reliever instead?
According to this by Ken Rosenthal, it appears the Yankees are looking to reunite with lefty Justin Wilson. When keeping the luxury tax stuff in mind, it’s presumable that signing a reliever would definitely seal the deal on Gardner’s exit. With the Yankees still looking to the fill the Tommy Kahnle sized hole in their bullpen, this move might make more sense and have more impact than bringing back Gardner.
After the Darren O’Day signing, the Yankees have a full roster. Signing Wilson would require a 40-man move right away. Presumably they’d shed another pitcher and I assume it’d be Albert Abreu. He’s out of options and has done little to prove himself. His arm is strong, though, so maybe there’s a trade out there.
Even though I’ve already penciled in Bruce to a bench spot, his deal means the Yankees can wait till the end of Spring Training to make the necessary 40 man move, if they do, indeed, add him.
This move may create some difficult questions for the Yankees, but it’s worth it. Bruce fills the role of left-handed masher off the bench (even in a down year, he had a 109 wRC+ against RHP and a .321 ISO) as well a backup first baseman and emergency outfielder. This is a low-risk signing that could reap big returns.
Pitcher and catchers report to Tampa next week, but the Yankees still have a few loose ends to tie in the coming days. Let’s not waste any time and get right into the team’s to do list.
Clear a 40-man roster spot for Darren O’Day
It’s been nearly two weeks since the Yankees struck a deal with O’Day, but the move still hasn’t been made official. This isn’t the first time the Yankees have moved slowly announcing a free agent signing, of course. It took a few weeks for the DJ LeMahieu and Corey Kluber moves to be made official too.
Similar to the LeMahieu and Kluber situations, the impediment to announcing O’Day is a full 40-man roster. The front office is almost certainly working the phones and trying to swing a minor trade in order to make space. Better that than just DFAing someone.
The Yankees have a few candidates who could get the boot off the roster. I think Ben Heller is most likely to go, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike Ford, Greg Allen, or Albert Abreu got sent packing.
With the signings of DJ LeMahieu and Corey Kluber, the main thrust of the Yankee roster is more or less filled out. At the very least, the lineup seems set:
Kyle Higashioka and Tyler Wade are assuredly two of the four bench spots, with new addition Greg Allen and holdovers Mike Ford, Miguel Andujar, Thairo Estrada, and Mike Tauchman up for the final two spots. Tauchman and Allen are both out of options, so we can presume–for now–that the fourth outfield spot will be a battle between those two.
The rotation also looks more set with Kluber joining Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, and some combination of Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt, Domingo German, and, eventually, Luis Severino. Honorable mention to Mike King. The bullpen, though untouched by these acquisitions, seems set as well: Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green, Adam Ottavino, Luis Cessa, Joanthan Loaisiga, Nick Nelson, Albert Abreu (presumably, since he’sout of options) with the still optionable Ben Heller, Brooks Kriske, and Miguel Yajure in reserve.
All in all, this a roster I feel mostly confident in. The lineup is obviously fantastic and the bullpen’s top-three is as good as any in the Majors. The bench may not be sparkling, but the players there are likely good for their roles. At the least, the rotation has one of the best pitchers in baseball and serious upside.
But if we look closely, we can see some rough edges to this team. If a middle infielder goes down, they could be in trouble, same with an outfielder. The bullpen looks strong, but Ottavino is on shaky ground, which helps tire out Green and Britton as bridges to Chapman, which we’ve seen bite the Yankees in the playoffs of late. And that rotation has a lot of question marks beyond Cole.
In order of need, I’d say the Yankees need another starter, another infielder, and another reliever. I’m not wild about either Allen or Tauchman as backups, but I think there’s enough glove for both of them to make it work, considering the strength of the rest of the outfield. Do I think they could do better at 4th/5th OF? Yeah, for sure, but it’s lower on the list than the other items.
Getting any one of those–starter, IF, RP–would be tough given where the Yankees are in terms of their self-imposed budget. After the Kluber signing, they have just under $6 million to play with. If they’re going to stick to Plan 210, any signing(s) they make would be for depth, not impact. I’m of two minds on this.
The first mind says that, given the roster and even the title of this post, depth is what they could use right now. The roster is strong as it stands, could easily win the division, and make noise in the playoffs.
But the second mind says ‘yikes’ to that rotation. As good as Corey Kluber is, he’s pitched all of, uh, basically nothing since 2018. Deivi is still (mostly) unproven. Domingo German is a complete mystery and relying on a TJS recovery version of Luis Severino is not comforting. Something more than depth or a lottery ticket is needed to make me feel better about the rotation. But is it out there?
The team doesn’t seem to want to bring Masahiro Tanaka back, which saddens me deeply, and I doubt they go big splash with Trevor Bauer. It’s possible that the amount they spent on Kluber means they’ll blow past $210M–or maybe surpass it in the season–but they could just as easily close up the free agent shop, so to speak.
Given the budget constraints–however self-imposed–and the 40 man roster crunch–Kluber and DJLM make 42–it’s likely that the improvements I’d want for the Yankees would have to come by trade. Luis Castillo, maybe? That could be pie in the sky and I’m terrible at coming up with trade scenarios, so we’ll leave it there.
Regardless of my two minds, the Yankees have a great roster and only need to round out the edges. Whether they do that ‘roughly’ by just adding depth or ‘smoothly’ by getting someone to make a big impact, this team is going to win lots of games. Probably.