A Dearth of Hitters on the 40: Who Will Make the Opening Day Roster?

Does Thomas Neal have a shot at making the Opening Day roster? - USA TODAY Sports

Looking at the Yankees’ 40-man roster this weekend in the wake of the Brennan Boesch signing, I noticed something rather surprising. With Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira bound for the disabled list, Alex Rodriguez already there, and five players recently optioned to the minors (Corban Joseph, David Adams, Zoilo Almonte, Ramon Flores, and Austin Romine), the Yankees have just 11 active position players on the 40-man roster and of those 11, two of them, Boesch and fellow outfielder-with-options Melky Mesa, are not locks to make the Opening Day roster. Assuming the Yankees open the season with 13 position players, which is usually the case, that means that anywhere from two to four of their non-roster hitters are going to make the team.

That’s informative in terms of trying to project the Opening Day roster, but it’s also alarming in that the 40-man roster, which doesn’t include Rodriguez or Michael Pineda, both of whom are already on the 60-day disabled list, is currently full. So, not only will the Yankees add two to four non-roster players, but they’ll have to clear the corresponding number of spots on the 40-man roster. That last actually has a pretty simple solution. Given the news that Mark Teixeira’s wrist injury is torn tendon sheath that could cost him the first two months of the season, the Yankees could open two of those spots by putting Teixeira and lefty reliever Cesar Cabral on the 60-man DL, and could gain another by doing the same with Manny Banuelos, who had Tommy John surgery in October.

The bigger question is who will fill those spots. With the Yankees’ biggest needs being at first base and in the outfield, a result of the injuries to Granderson and Teixeira, the primary candidates are Juan Rivera, Ben Francisco, Thomas Neal, Dan Johnson, Jayson Nix, and Ronnier Mustelier (for those who missed it, Matt Diaz was released on Sunday).

Adding Boesch and Mesa to that group we find just two left-handed hitters, Boesch and Johnson. That’s a significant advantage for those two as a platoon would allow the Yankees to get the most out of left field or first base in the absence of their two injured stars. However, Johnson is just 2-for-29 in camp and Boesch has no experience at first base in the majors or minors. Given that Johnson has hit just .185/.309/.379 in 291 major league plate appearances over the last five seasons, his failure to hit this spring is impossible to ignore. That would seem to make Boesch a lock for the Opening Day roster barring a similarly dismal performance over the final two weeks of camp.

With first baseman Johnson out of the running, the Yankees need to take someone else who can play the position on a daily basis. That would seem to make Rivera, who has been making the bulk of the starts at first base this spring, a lock as well as the only other man on that list who has previous experience at first base is Neal, who played 38 games at the position in A-ball in 2008 and not an inning there since. However, an alternative to Rivera at first base would be Kevin Youkilis, which would open up a spot on the roster for 28-year-old Cuban defector Mustelier, who has been playing a lot of third base this spring and has been the leading hitter in that largely underwhelming bunch, going 7-for-25 (.280) with a triple, a homer, a pair of walks and a pair of steals this Spring.

If the Yankees were to take Boesch, Rivera, and Mustelier, that would give them 12 position players, leaving one more spot for either a right-handed outfielder or utility infielder Nix, who hit .243/.306/.384 in 202 plate appearances for the Yankees last year while playing third, short, second, and a little left field. Having Eduardo Nuñez and Mustelier, who has played third, the outfield corners, and a little bit of second and center in two minor league seasons, would seem to render Nix redundant, however, and Nix has hardly made a case for himself, going 7-for-37 (.189) with a double and four walks.

Based purely on spring performance, the last man on the bench should be the 25-year-old Neal, who was rated a top-100 prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2010 season and is 8-for-31 (.258) with two doubles, a home run, three walks, and three stolen bases in as many attempts this spring. Neal is seven months younger than Mesa, who has hit three home runs and stolen three bases this spring but is hitting just .186 (8-for-46) with 13 strikeouts in 46 plate appearances. Neal can spot in center field and, unlike, the 30-year-old Nix, 31-year-old Francisco, and 33-year-old Johnson, is still on the up-side of the development curve.

That would give the Yankees an Opening Day roster (sans pitchers) that looks like this:

1B – Juan Rivera (R)
2B – Robinson Cano (L)
SS – Derek Jeter (R)
3B – Kevin Youkilis (R)
C – Francisco Cervelli (R)
RF – Brennan Boesch (L)
CF – Brett Gardner (L)
LF – Ichiro Suzuki (L)
DH – Travis Hafner (L)

Bench:

IF – Eduardo Nuñez (R)
3B/OF – Ronnier Mustelier (R)
OF – Thomas Neal (R)
C – Chris Stewart (R)

Granderson’s return could result in Neal or Boesch being optioned to Triple-A, and Teixeira’s return could result in the demotion of the other, Mustelier, or Rivera’s release (if Teixeira is coming off the 60-man he’ll force another 40-man roster move, which, it it’s not Rivera’s release, could turn an option of Neal, Boesch, or Mustelier into an outright or DFA).

None of that is particularly encouraging, but that’s where things stand. We’ll know more on March 26, one week from today, when teams have to make decisions on offering non-roster veterans roster spots or retention bonuses, something the Yankees will have to do with Rivera. That new wrinkle in the Collective Bargaining Agreement could bring a couple of last-minute additions to camp for a one-week tryout, but barring that, the above is the group I expect to head north with the team.

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