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The Yankees should maximize the 26-man roster with defense

With an expanded roster for the 2020 season, the Yankees should consider carrying a defensive specialist.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Several new rules will be introduced to Major League Baseball for the 2020 season. The addition of the 26th roster spot is sure to have general managers looking for the best way to utilize this extra player. The rule limits teams to 13 pitchers, something that the Yankees have generally done over the last two seasons.

This limitation means that they will have an extra position player on the bench throughout the season, with many qualified candidates to fill the role. It may be easy to say that the spot should go to the best available bat, like Mike Ford or Clint Frazier, or the most versatile player like Tyler Wade, but the Yankees should seriously explore the value of adding a defensive specialist to shore up the infield defense late in games.

Inside the system, the Yankees may have the perfect candidate to serve as a defensive specialist in Kyle Holder. Once the 30th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Holder has yet to force his way onto the 40-man roster. He is projected to start the 2020 season with Triple-A Scranton.

At the time Holder was drafted, he was considered the best defensive player available that in that year’s draft class. MLB Pipeline’s scouting report listed him as “the best defensive shortstop to come out of college baseball in years.

The praise for his glove work has continued as Holder has worked through the minors. Prior to the most recent spring training Yankees Vice President and Director of Scouting, Damon Oppenheimer raved about Holder: “He can flat-[out] play defense. That part ought to be exciting.”

For all the praise of his defense Holder’s bat has never caught up to or even approached his glove. While he is coming off the best offensive season of his career with Double-A Trenton, his bat is still considered well below the major-league level. The value, however, is in that glove.

The construction of the Yankees’ bullpen, and especially Aaron Boone’s favorite eight-inning option, lends itself to a strong infield defense. Zack Britton produced groundballs at a 77.2% rate last season. Working with the lead late in the game, he would benefit tremendously from any improvement to the infield defense. Britton pitched 55.1 of his 60.1 innings on the season in the eighth inning or later. Using a defensive specialist very late in the game to aid an extreme-groundball pitcher like Britton is more feasible when the offensive liability can be hidden.

The Yankees have not been shy about using a defensive specialist in the past. In 2018 they acquired Adeiny Hechavarria late in the season. In an elimination game with the Yankees holding a 2-0 lead, they pulled Miguel Andujar to get Hechavarria’s far superior glove into the game. Not long after he made a leaping play on a hard line-drive to rob what could have been an extra-base hit down the line. The 2020 version of the Yankees has the ability to flex Gleyber Torres and especially DJ LeMahieu around the infield; they absolutely should find the best defensive alignment and use it to close out late leads.

The defensive specialist may not be the full-time role of the Yankees 26th man, but it is one they should strongly consider. Around the Yankees’ infield on any given day are below-average fielders like Luke Voit, Mike Ford, and Andujar. The Houston Astros led the American League in Defensive Runs Saved last season, and made numerous big defensive plays in the ALCS as they eliminated the Yankees. Cashman is fond of saying that the Yankees were “only a few plays away” from winning that series. It is very possible that some of those plays could be made by an improved defensive roster.