Roster flexibility is on the mind of every major-league general manager as they construct their rosters for the upcoming season. The ability to move players up and down from the minors in order to plug gaps without going outside of the system can make or break a season, just as the Yankees saw last year.
This coming year, the Yankees will have a group of players with one minor league option left who have shown flashes, and in some cases even extended stretches of production, without fully anchoring themselves at the big-league level. The knowledge that these players can be held in reserve with Triple-A Scranton helps Brian Cashman and the front office create layers of depth that will allow the Yankees to build the best 40-man roster possible for 2020.
Minor league options, and how they are applied, can be one of the more esoteric issues pertaining to the major-league game. Last season, for example, Stephen Tarpley was sent down to the minor leagues eight times, yet that only counts as one minor league option. Options are measured by whole seasons, and players are given three option years once they are added to the 40-man roster. In order for a demotion to count as a minor league option, the player must remain in the minors for at least 20 days.
Bullpen arms as part of the “Scranton Shuttle” typically come to mind for Yankees fans when minor league options are mentioned. Jonathan Holder came to the Yankees as a sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft, and made his major-league debut as a September call-up just over two years later in 2016. It was a rapid ascension through the system, but he has not been able to log a full season with the Yankees since.
In 2018, he opened the season by allowing 17 hits and six earned runs in his first 2.2 innings pitched, earning a demotion on April 7th to Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees only kept him in the minors for 14 days, bringing him back by the end of April, and he pitched to a 2.42 ERA, and a 1.01 WHIP in 57 appearances the rest of the way. That was done without burning an option since Holder sat in the minors for fewer than 20 days.
That option now is still available to the Yankees at a time when few players in the bullpen currently have minor league options. Holder will be fighting for a job with the likes of Ben Heller and Stephen Tarpley this spring, but the Yankees know that he can be optioned down to the minors, creating a layer of depth in the bullpen.
Tyler Wade’s versatility makes him a prime candidate to be the Yankees’ 26th man when major-league rosters expand this coming season. He played six defensive positions for the Yankees in 2019 and stole seven bases without getting caught. The biggest positive for Wade was that he also found some traction against major-league pitching, as he hit .289/.347/.533 with a 129 wRC+ in his last 29 games. That offensive production, even in a small sample size, is a drastic step forward for a player who has often been an offensive liability. Should Wade’s bat fail to produce in 2020, then his option will come into play, and the Yankees will find better offensive options to use on the bench while Wade returns to Triple-A Scranton.
With an already crowded outfield heading into 2020, Clint Frazier could find himself once again starting the season with Scranton. Frazier’s defensive struggles threatened to overshadow his quality bat early in 2019. In 53 games, he produced an .853 OPS, but countered it with awful defense that saw him rated as the worst outfielder in the majors by several metrics at the time of his demotion in mid-June.
Also concerning to the Yankees is that Frazier’s offense floundered upon his return to Triple-A, as he was a below-average hitter for the rest of the way with an 85 wRC+ in the International League. The Yankees outfield was hit hard by injuries last season, but with Mike Tauchman out of minor league options for this season, Frazier becomes the one man in the mix who has the ability to be sent down.
The Yankees were able to survive and thrive the 2019 season due to their tremendous organizational depth. The construction of a functional roster must take into account the ability of players to move to and from the minors based on the needs of the team. This season the Yankees have a talented group of players with one option year remaining. This could be a make-or-break season for these Yankees, as they will have to establish their major-league footholds throughout the 2020 season.