With four recent additions, the Yankees filled every available spot on their 40-man roster as the baseball calendar heads towards the winter meetings. While Yankees fans hold out hope that deals with DJ LeMahieu and maybe others could happen, space would have to be cleared on the roster before anyone can be brought in. As the baseball offseason heads towards the mid-December MLB winter meetings. So which players are most vulnerable to the 40-man roster crunch this offseason?
The Yankees acquired Albert Abreu from the Houston prior to the 2017 season as part of the trade for Brian McCann. The strong-armed righty possessed elite velocity and a wipeout curveball that had scouts placing a very high ceiling on his potential. He was added to the Yankees’ 40-man roster after the 2017 season.
Abreu battled inconsistent results and injuries during his first two seasons on the 40-man. peaking at the Double-A level. In 2020, he finally made his MLB debut, but was unable to carve out a role in the Yankees’ bullpen. His two appearances resulted in just 1 1/3 innings and three earned runs.
A former top-100 prospect according to multiple prospect-ranking outlets, Abreu has seen his stock fall over recent years. as control of his strong arsenal of pitches has continued to elude him. With no minor league options remaining, he is a strong candidate for the Yankees to trade, designate for assignment, or release.
There was no doubt that Thairo Estrada would be added to the Yankees’ 40-man following his .301/.353/.392 batting line as a 20-year old with Double-A Trenton in 2017. Since then, Estrada has struggled to get consistent playing time at any level for a variety of reasons.
Prior to 2018, he was shot during a robbery attempt in his native Venezuela and then battled injuries in his brief attempt to play during that season (an achievement on its own, considering the circumstances). In 2019 though, the injuries to the Yankees roster saw Estrada promoted before the end of April, but he did not receive regular playing time while moving up and down from the minors. He played just 95 games combined between MLB and Triple-A.
2020 offered its unique set of challenges, but — depending on how one looks at it — the expanded roster worked to either the Yankees or Estrada’s benefit. He did not spend the required 20 days at the alternate training site that would have triggered his last option year. Estrada maintains his last minor league option, giving the Yankees a level of flexibility with him in the future.
Estrada’s performance in 2020 is what makes his 40-man roster spot so precarious. He produced just a 29 OPS+ while striking out in 36.5% of his plate appearances. The Yankees also did not seem to trust Estrada at shortstop this past year, granting him just five innings at the position in 2020. He is primarily a second or third baseman at the moment, sapping his utility value.
Another player on the bubble is relief pitcher Ben Heller. Heller came to the Yankees as part of the Andrew Miller trade, which was headlined by a package that included Clint Frazier. He has seen limited action with the Yankees since making his MLB debut in 2016. He was sidetracked by Tommy John surgery immediately following spring training in 2017, and after a setback during his rehab assignments, he lost almost all of 2018 as well.
Heller has maintained a minor league option year, as he was added to the major league injured list and pitched through rehab assignments for much of 2017 and 2018, thus not using options in either year. Still, even when the Yankees’ bullpen struggled and suffered through injuries this year, Heller was only given six innings of work prior to finishing the season on the 60-day injured list.
Heller has been unable to carve out a steady role in the Yankees’ bullpen since joining the organization. The Yankees just added three young arms to the 40-man roster, and may feel that they can take the chance of moving Heller off of a valuable 40-man roster spot while attempting to retain him in the minor league.
The Yankees and other teams around baseball will continue to refine their rosters over the coming months. Players moved off the 40-man roster will not necessarily be leaving the organization, as they very well might just be re-signed to minor league deals. However, they will be on the outside looking in for the many benefits that a roster spot provides. As the Yankees engage free agents, they will have a plan to refine their roster and the most vulnerable players on the roster will be hoping to keep their spot.