Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge are doubtful to start the season, and the Yankees have only three true outfielders on the prospective 26-man roster. While Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman, and Clint Frazier are a perfectly serviceable outfield trio, an injury to any one of those three would leave the Yankees outfield situation in a precarious spot. Luckily for the Bombers, a reinforcement to the depleted depth could already be sitting in their spring training camp.
Last week I advocated for Tyler Wade as the twenty-sixth man. The looming absences of Judge and Stanton may bump him up to the 24 or 25 slot. That being said, Rosell Herrera has emerged as competition for the Yankees go-to utility glove. He and Wade bear a striking resemblance, both versatile fielders whose bats never quite translated to the big league level. However, while Wade’s bat has stagnated thus far in spring, Herrera has done nothing but rake.
So far, Herrera has gone 9-for-16 with four extra-base hits, good for an eye-opening 1.214 OPS. The fact that he has done this against legitimate big league pitchers, and has hit to all fields from both sides of the plate, deserves recognition. This is not to say his spring performance is necessarily indicative of major league staying power. Herrera’s career slash line of .225/.286/.314, and accompanying 64 OPS+ and 63 wRC+, do not inspire confidence. However, his story is an eerie déjà vu to a player who emerged last spring training.
Like Herrera, Gio Urshela was a non-roster invitee to spring training last year. His prior performance in the majors mirrors that of Herrera. He exploded in that spring training, going 9-for-28 with six XBH, good for a 1.023 OPS. That outbreak in addition to Miguel Andujar’s injury ultimately won Urshela the starting third base job, and he has not looked back since. Herrera is in position to do the same.
Herrera’s primary value to the Yankees lies with the fact that he is truly a jack-of-all-trades. Across a small sample size, he grades out as about league-average at every outfield position and every infield position except first. During the WFAN broadcast of the Yankees game against the Tigers last Saturday, Aaron Boone reaffirmed Herrera’s versatility, suggesting he could get a tryout at shortstop at some point in spring training. Intriguingly, Boone mentioned he and Marcus Thames held a discussion regarding Herrera before spring training began about aspects of his swing they felt they could improve.
Herrera has already made one step in the right direction, optimizing his launch angle from 2.2 degrees in 2018 to 11.2 degrees in 2019. This improvement in his peripherals resembles those seen in Tauchman and Urshela after joining the organization. The New York hitting instructors also managed to extract at least five miles per hour more in exit velocity out of Urshela and Tauchman. Can they do the same for Herrera?
Spring training performances are by no means promises of future performance. The Yankees have plenty of recent experience with players who light the spring on fire, and then have their bats go dormant during the regular season (see: Greg Bird and Wade for two).
Also of concern are the 40-man roster issues that arise with adding another player. The Yankees still only have two catchers on the 40-man and are almost guaranteed to use a roster spot on a third. The Yankees also have to make a decision on players like James Paxton and Aaron Hicks, who may become available before the completion of a hypothetical 60-day injured list stint. Finally, the Yankees may be hesitant to designate one of their young pitchers for assignment just to make room for a player like Herrera.
The ability of the Yankees’ batting staff to transform Triple-A reclamation projects and at-or-below-league-average hitters into weapons at the plate is nothing short of amazing. In Herrera, the Yankees may have unearthed another hidden gem thanks to Marcus Thames and the rest of the hitting department. Can a sustained strong showing in spring guarantee him a spot on the roster come March 26th?