Hard to believe it, but spring training is here already and baseball is returning. On the eve of the first exhibition game, the Yankees’ roster looks pretty much set from an external additions standpoint. That being said, there are still decisions to be made in assigning player roles, and the performances of a handful of non-roster invitees may impact how the final roster shakes out come April 1st.
Last week, Tom introduced the group of NRI position players who will duke it out for a roster spot this spring. Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich will battle for a bench spot, Robinson Chirinos and Rob Brantly hope to snag the third-string catcher, while Ryan LaMarre and Socrates Brito saw their chances as a backup outfielder plummet with Brett Gardner’s re-signing.
Today I would like to make the case for Bruce as the most qualified candidate for the final bench spot. The Yankees will presumably carry four bench players as they did for the majority of last season. Three of those spots are locked up between Kyle Higashioka, Tyler Wade, and Gardner, so let’s look at the ideal player profile for that final bench player.
Higashioka is backup catcher so we can check that off the list. Wade is the backup shortstop, a late-inning infield defensive substitution, and pinch runner. The Yankees signing Gardner to a major league deal all but guarantees he becomes the fourth outfielder, possibly relegating Mike Tauchman to fifth outfielder and DFA purgatory. That leaves only a backup first baseman and power-hitting pinch hitter as the only need to be filled. That is exactly what Bruce is, which makes him a better fit for this roster than the likes of Tauchman and Dietrich.
Bruce was once one of the premier power hitters in the game who has seen his production cool off over the last three years. The player himself attributed this downturn in form to a handful of injuries.
“Last year I had a couple soft tissue injuries, the year before I had kind of a freak elbow deal,” Bruce told reporters yesterday. “If I’m healthy and I’m on the field, I think that my numbers and my track record show I am a viable option and I can help any team out there.”
Bruce brings the lefty power that many have been clamoring for, but more importantly he brings a track record of success and a wealth of experience he can draw upon in those high-leverage, pinch-hitting scenarios. The Yankees sure could have used an effective bat off the bench, as their primary pinch-hitter, Mike Ford, converted only one hit in ten pinch-hitting plate appearances last season, and memorably went O-fer in his postseason pinch-hitting cameos.
It is not a forgone conclusion that Bruce will be handed the final bench spot out of camp, and his main competition for the position is likely Dietrich. The two players profile very similarly over the last four years. Both are left-handed bats with decent power and questionable defensive capabilities. Bruce just edges Dietrich in the walk (8.8 percent vs 7.3 percent walk rate) and power (.241 vs. .192 ISO) departments while Dietrich holds the slight upper hand in on-base percentage (.332 vs. .301) and wRC+ (106 vs. 103).
The two areas that separate Bruce in my mind are his discipline in pinch-hitting scenarios and his batted ball quality in general. Bruce’s walk rate actually increases when batting as a pinch-hitter (11 percent) relative to all other scenarios (nine percent) showing perhaps an increase in focus as a pinch hitter.
Bruce also hits the ball harder and with much more consistency than Dietrich. His 89.1 mph average exit velocity, 9.6 percent barrel rate, and 38.5 percent hard hit rate eclipse Dietrich’s corresponding marks (86.5 mph, 7.2 percent, 33.9 percent respectively), giving me greater confidence that Bruce will do more damage when impacting the ball.
To be fair, I would be happy with either of Bruce or Dietrich as the designated pinch-hitter and final bench player. It is Bruce’s more convincing track record and superior quality of contact that give him the edge in my eyes. Assuming he is fully healthy and can turn heads during spring training, he could prove to be a valuable member of the team coming off the bench this season.