As the regular season draws ever nearer, the Yankees’ roster is nearly locked in. The lineup looks as formidable as ever while starting rotation question marks Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery, and Domingo Germán have all turned in strong spring starts. That said, there are still a handful of decisions that need to be fleshed out.
Chief among those concerns is the logjam on the 40-man roster. Having too many impactful players is a good problem to have, but as with every spring, someone is going to get the short end of the stick when it comes to the final roster. Let’s look at the different avenues the Yankees could take to round out the 40-man squad.
Aaron Boone has stated that he plans to carry 13 hitters and 13 pitchers on the MLB roster, which means four bench players and eight bullpen arms. On the bench, Kyle Higashioka, Tyler Wade, and Brett Gardner are relative locks, leaving one remaining seat. Considering that Gardner and Wade are principally defensive replacements, the Yankees may prioritize an impact bat over someone with more positional versatility.
In the bullpen, we would normally be able to pencil Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green, Darren O’Day, Justin Wilson, and Luis Cessa onto the roster card. But now that Britton is sidelined while recovering from arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip, the Yankees may want another lefty arm to fill his void.
As it stands, there are no empty slots on the 40-man, but that does not mean the current construction is set in stone. Several non-roster invitees have put together eye-opening performances in an attempt to force their way onto the 40-man for the regular season. The two NRIs with the strongest cases — based on their performances and comments from Boone, as well as teammates — are Jay Bruce and Lucas Luetge.
Bruce is a respected veteran bat who provides the left-handed home run pop that seems tailor-made for Yankee Stadium. So far this spring, he has clubbed a pair of homers to go along with a .786 OPS, and has received a ringing endorsement from Aaron Judge:
“Man, that guy is a class act, a true professional. He comes into work and has fun. You see the stuff on the field that he does. He has capabilities to hit the ball all over the park. He can play outfield, play first base. But I’ve been more impressed with how he is in the clubhouse, how he is with the younger guys. He kind of fits in like he’s been with this team for five or six years already, and that’s a testament to what type of person he is and what type of player he is.”
Those are powerful words coming from one of the leaders in the clubhouse. As for Luetge, prior to yesterday’s game — he surrendered two long balls to the Blue Jays, the issue of facing righties in greater sample sizes rearing its ugly head — it appeared the lefty was a near-lock to make the roster. Even with that one-game blemish, Luetge’s numbers on the spring are still impressive, registering a 2.35 ERA and 15 strikeouts in seven outings across 7.2 innings.
Even more impressive than the results are the mechanical improvements that got him there. His slider is hovering around 2,850 rpm, four-seamer in the 2,700s and curveball 2,800s, all of which are vast improvements on his career numbers and would have placed him 90th percentile or better in MLB in 2020. As we know, spin rate stabilizes much more rapidly than counting or rate stats, allowing us to put a little more weight into his rpms than say his ERA or strikeout rate.
Operating under the assumption that Bruce and Luetge are the two most likely NRIs to make the roster, the Yankees need to open up two spots on the 40-man. The simplest solution for one of those spots would be a straight-for-straight swap of Luetge for Britton, with the Yankees placing Britton on the 60-day injured list while he recovers. That leaves one more vacancy needing to be opened, which is where the tricky business begins. The two main routes for freeing up a 40-man spot is via trade or designation for assignment, so let’s review the candidates for a potential move.
Miguel Andújar, Mike Ford, and Thairo Estrada would seem to be the most probable candidates among the position players, especially after Andújar got hurt and the latter two were optioned to Triple-A. However, all three have minimal trade value at this point and it is unlikely any of the trio would be DFA’d for a variety of reasons. Estrada is one of the few players with MLB experience in the Yankees’ minor league system who can play shortstop. The Yankees have stuck by Andújar this long despite his lack of defensive growth, so color me skeptical that they would turn around and dump him now at perhaps his lowest value. As for Ford, Boone still appears to be quite high on the lefty who turned into a surprise masher in 2019 before his dismal 2020.
That brings us to the players who truly are in danger of being moved to make room. Mike Tauchman also burst onto the scene in 2019 as part of the #NextManUp revolution, putting together a 128 wRC+ as well as nine outs above average in the outfield. He promptly fell back to Earth in 2020 as he attempted to play through a shoulder injury, turning in numbers more in line with his Triple-A career prior to donning the pinstripes. When the Yankees brought Brett Gardner back for another year, it likely made Tauchman expendable as the fifth outfielder with an impotent bat.
Tauchman is also out of minor league options, making him the most likely option to be moved off the 40-man roster. A competent outfielder, Tauchman still has value on the trade market, so I do not expect the Yankees to DFA him. That said, I also wouldn’t hold my breath for any significant return in a prospective trade, as the Yankees would most likely target a low-minors prospect with upside.
Brooks Kriske and Albert Abreu stand out as the other most plausible candidates. Abreu has the raw MLB arm talent without the control that would allow him to stick on a major league roster. Kriske has battled with injury and looked overmatched in his 2020 cameo with the major league team. It’s hard to see either being worth much more than a bucket of balls via trade (aside from as a throw-in rather than a primary piece), so a DFA would be the more plausible route of removal from the roster.
Finalizing the 40-man and 26-man rosters is the final major personnel hurdle for the Yankees this spring. This Thursday is the deadline for Jay Bruce to opt out of his minor league contract with the Yankees, so if the Yankees do want to keep him on the team, expect news of his addition to the 40-man roster and a corresponding move in the coming days. If they want to delay deciding on a possible Tauchman trade, they could also transfer Britton to the 60-day for Bruce rather than Luetge. With that taken care of, the Yankees will have right around a week before Opening Day to decide on their final spot.