Taking Stock Of The Open Roster Spots
By Andy Singer
George M. Steinbrenner Field
A common refrain among Yankee fans I’ve spoken to this offseason is that the roster is mostly settled, and the impression persists that there really aren’t any camp battles worth watching other than the 5th starter competition. To be honest, even I had implicitly absorbed this idea as truth until I sat down to think about it. In plotting it out, I only definitively penciled in 21 roster spots on the Opening Day roster for the Yankees, leaving 5 roster spots effectively up for grabs. That’s more than I expected to find, and I think it’s important for Yankee fans to see the variability that exists at the back-end of the Yankee roster to begin the season. Now is a perfect time to discuss these openings before the first Spring Training game is played.
*** A quick housekeeping note: players who are non-roster invitees to Spring Training are identified as (NRI). Please keep that in mind when reading below. ***
This section won’t come as a surprise, as we’ve spent the entire offseason discussing the rotation, but I’ll run through it quickly. As we all know, there is competition for the 5th starter’s spot, and that pitcher is hopefully keeping the seat warm for Luis Severino later in the year. The known entities are as follows:
The list of names fighting for the final spot in the rotation is short, but talented. It would look even better if consensus top-3 prospect Clarke Schmidt hadn’t hurt his elbow in his first bullpen session of the Spring, but here we are. While the rotation will be high on talent, it will be short on durability and innings, so I would not be at all surprised to see one of the guys who loses out on the 5th starter’s spot in the bullpen to begin the year. Without further ado, here are the names competing for the final spot in the rotation:
Jhoulys Chacin (NRI)
Garcia is a nearly-consensus top-3 prospect in the Yankees’ farm system who got a cup of coffee in 2020, and acquitted himself admirably considering the fact that he probably could have used additional innings in AAA in 2020. Garcia has a fastball that lives in the low-90s (but peaks higher), but jumps up on hitters due to his deceptive delivery and good spin rate; a true 12-6 curveball that is a thing of beauty with 15+ MPH of separation off of his fastball; an emerging slider that provides a different look; and a change-up that flashes plus. Most of us would love to see Garcia break-out in 2021, and he seems primed to do that at some point in 2021.
Mike King does not display the stuff that other prospects in the Yankee system have, though like his peers in the Yankee farm system, King has displayed a velocity bump in the last year. Unfortunately, that velocity bump didn’t lead to success at the big league level in 2020, as King got batted around to the tune of a 7.76 ERA in 26.2 Innings Pitched. King doesn’t have a put away pitch in his arsenal, and big league hitters have not struggled to hit his sinker, fastball, or change-up. King is still young enough to hopefully figure it out, though I’ll note that I’ve never been as big a King fan as others at SSTN and elsewhere around the Yankee blogosphere.
I really don’t want to discuss German any more than we have already over the last couple of weeks. From a baseball perspective, German lives in the mid-90s with his fastball with a wipeout breaking ball, but struggles with control and command, and hasn’t pitched since 2019. The cons are obvious, as is the talent, but he does bring more MLB starting experience than either of the aforementioned prospects.
Jhoulys Chacin lives in the low-90s with his fastball, and has a history as a pretty successful starter from 2015-2018 before the wheels came off in 2019, and it didn’t go much better in a short cameo in 2020. Chacin has a pretty standard 4-pitch mix, aside from an odd two-plane curveball (some would call it a slurve) that he spins at an above-average level. Chacin brings real big league experience to the mix, which is a plus, and there is little risk as a non-roster invitee.
Right now, I see 5 locks for the Opening Day Bullpen:
If that list seems short, that’s because I listed two assumed arms in the “probable” category:
Cessa and Loaisiga are both capable of throwing more than 1-inning, which immediately makes them valuable on a team with a rotation that isn’t likely to eat a ton of innings. People who have been reading SSTN (and even earlier at It’s About The Money) know that I have long believed that if it didn’t work as a starter, that Loaisiga could be a stunningly good reliever. I am thrilled that the Yankees finally took starting out of the equation for Loaisiga this offseason, allowing him to train only as a reliever, which hopefully bodes well for his ability to perform consistently out of the ‘pen in 2021. I also feel similarly about Cessa (though I hardly think that Cessa can be as good as Loaisiga).
In the long-run, I think that both will make the Yankee bullpen, but it wouldn’t shock me if one of the two was bumped at the start of the season (more likely Cessa). I’m tentatively penciling both guys in. So, if we buy into reports that the Yankees will carry a 13-man pitching staff in 2021 (which passes the sniff test), that leaves one more spot available in the bullpen assuming that one of the guys competing for the last starter spot doesn’t grab a spot in the bullpen. The list of guys competing for this roster spot is long:
Tyler Lyons (NRI)
Kyle Barraclough (NRI)
Nick Goody (NRI)
Addison Russ (NRI)
Adam Warren (NRI)
Nelson and Abreu are both guys who have started throughout their minor league careers, though both are likely relievers moving forward, with both appearing out of the Yankee ‘pen in 2020. Abreu is out of options, and would need to be exposed to waivers if he doesn’t make the roster. Abreu has a tantalizing combination of a hard fastball and a devastating slider, but he has struggled with control and injuries throughout his career. On the surface, Nelson struggled in 2020, but the truth is that one miserable outing early in the year skewed his numbers. Nelson finished 2020 strong, and combines power pitching with durability and the potential to throw multiple innings in relief. Personally, I like both guys, but given the choice, I’m betting on a bullpen breakout by Nelson in 2021.
Brooks Kriske is a reliever-only prospect who got a look in 2020. Kriske throws hard with a good splitter and natural cut on all of his throws, but hitters seem to pick up the ball easily out of hand, so I worry that his results will never match his stuff at the big league level. He also has options remaining, which hurts his chances as the Opening Day roster.
Tyler Lyons was more interesting as another lefty out of the ‘pen until the signing of Justin Wilson. I’m not sure I could justify a lefty specialist now that a better version exists in the Yankee bullpen already, but the Yankees have liked Lyons in the past, so we can’t ignore him.
Kyle Barraclough was a good bullpen arm for the Marlins from 2015-2017, but he fell off in 2018-2019. Barraclough pitched really well in an 8 inning cameo with San Francisco in 2020, though there’s nothing in his profile to distinguish him stuff-wise from other pitchers competing for the final bullpen spot.
Nick Goody was a former farmhand drafted by the Yankees out of LSU in the 6th round of the 2012 draft. Many of us (myself included) hoped Goody would turn into a pitcher similar to David Robertson, but that never quite panned out. After leaving the Yanks in 2017, Goody put together a couple of good campaigns with Cleveland, but he’s struggled with consistency more recently. Goody still lives by the almighty strikeout, but he’s been hittable in recent seasons.
The final two legitimate non-roster competitors are Addison Russ and Adam Warren, who I’ll group together because both actually have minor league deals with the Yanks. Russ has yet to appear in the Majors, and was acquired in the deal that sent David Hale to the Phillies last year. Russ lives in the mid-90s with a power splitter that will remind many Yankee fans of early-career Tanaka. He has had a lot of success in the minors and anecdotally, Bryce Harper helped Russ lose a significant tell on his splitter in camp last year, so there’s that. Russ is an actual prospect who projects to make a big league bullpen in 2021. Warren is familiar to Yankee fans far and wide. Warren had Tommy John Surgery late in 2019, and is ready to compete to show that he still has the stuff that made him a valuable part of multiple Yankee bullpens over the last decade.
The Position Players
While it’s true that the starting lineup seems pretty set, the bench still has an open spot. Here are the locks:
Gary Sanchez, C
Luke Voit, 1B
DJ LeMahieu, 2B
Gio Urshela, 3B
Gleyber Torres, SS
Clint Frazier, OF
Aaron Hicks, OF
Aaron Judge, OF
Giancarlo Stanton, DH/OF
Brett Gardner, BENCH-OF
Kyle Higashioka, BENCH-C
Tyler Wade, BENCH-UTIL
I know some of you may be surprised to see me list Wade as a lock. I really like Thairo Estrada, I do, but I really think the Yanks are going to give Wade one more shot to prove he can be the primary infielder off the bench. That leaves one more spot on the bench. If it were up to me, I’d want another lefty bat off the bench, but that’s just me. Here are the realistic competitors:
Mike Ford, 1B/DH
Mike Tauchman, OF
Thairo Estrada, UTIL
Miguel Andujar, 3B/1B/OF
Jay Bruce, DH/1B/OF (NRI)
Socrates Brito, OF (NRI)
Derek Dietrich, UTIL (NRI)
Robinson Chirinos, C (NRI)
Many fans have written off Mike Ford, but I think that would be a mistake. He has truly elite plate discipline, the ability to see a lot of pitches, and power from the left side. If Stanton can really play the outfield occasionally this season, there will be ways to squeeze Ford into the lineup on occasion to get better lineup balance. Ford, for his part, appears to be in the best shape I’ve ever seen him in as a Yankee (in fact, I didn’t recognize him at first when I saw him in some of the Yankees’ promotional material on social media), and looks ready to prove that 2020 was an anomaly.
Mike Tauchman is a good defensive outfielder with a murky projection offensively. The Yankees clearly like him, but with Gardy slated to begin the year as the 4th outfielder, I’m not sure Tauchman is the best fit for the last bench spot.
Thairo Estrada is a good young player who needs to get some reps, and that won’t come in the Majors in any real quantities. It makes sense for Estrada to go down to AAA and force his way back up.
Miguel Andujar has been so thoroughly derailed the last two years, that it’s really hard to project who he can be still. I still believe in the bat, but I think he needs reps to prove it. If there is room for an occasional DH who spells a few other positions, maybe Andujar can be that guy, but I want to see him gain some confidence by raking at AAA to begin the year while getting comfortable at multiple positions defensively.
Jay Bruce is a lefty bat with pop and not much else. He doesn’t make contact, walk, and most importantly, he’s an outfielder in name only at this point who doesn’t move well enough to patrol the outfield with regularity. I really don’t understand the hype he’s getting from some segments of the Yankee fanbase.
Socrates Brito is a lefty bat and a good defender, but I put him well behind other potential bench pieces. I listed him because he gets surprisingly rosy projections from multiple outlets, primarily due to his defensive capabilities. Consider Brito Tauchman-Lite.
Derek Dietrich is a lefty bat who has provided reliable platoon at-bats throughout his career while playing all over the diamond, albeit without excelling at any position particularly. Over the last two seasons, Dietrich has pretty much stopped making contact, but he still draws a lot of walks and shows plenty of pop against right-handed pitching. With his defensive versatility, and a bat that isn’t zero, he’s the greatest threat to Tyler Wade among the guys fighting for a spot.
Despite all of the hype surrounding the fact that Robinson Chirinos was Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher in Houston, his ability to make the roster doesn’t quite pass the sniff test, though I will tell you that he’s far better competition for the Yankees’ catchers than Chris Iannetta was in 2020. Prior to falling off a cliff in 2020, Chirinos has been an average (or slightly better) offensive catcher on a part-time basis throughout his career. The issue is that both the metrics and the eye test say that he has always been at least a below-average defensive catcher, and worse in recent seasons. Unless you believe that Gary Sanchez is in trouble of losing his spot right out of the gate in 2021 (it’s not happening), Chirinos does not make sense as Gary’s backup as an offense-first catcher.
I was surprised to see how many names I could come up with legitimate claims to a roster spot. In truth, this could go a lot of different ways, so I don’t think I can really make a prediction here. I can only say what I would do if I were making this decision for the Yankees. If it were up to me, 4 of those final roster spots would go to:
I really believe that Garcia, Loaisiga, and Nelson are primed for breakouts. I think Cessa is a safety blanket for Boone, and I really don’t see anyone who will beat him out as a multi-inning arm, unless the Yankees choose to carry German or Chacin.
For the fifth and final spot, I’m torn between Mike Ford, Miguel Andujar, and Derek Dietrich. I think it’s best for Andujar to prove he needs a spot in the minors to start the year, but I love his bat so much…but I’d rather play it smart, and use the fact that he has options to my advantage. Dietrich has versatility on his side, while Ford has offensive upside. If forced to choose, I’d go Ford, because I still believe in his bat, but it would not shock me to see Dietrich force his way onto the roster.
This is the fun of Spring Training – we’ll see how it all shakes out! Let’s just hope injuries don’t cause unforeseen roster spots to open up.