The New York Yankees’ battle for the final bench spots is still not over, but it’s about to become a little clearer in the next few days. Veteran Jay Bruce’s opt-out decision is due tomorrow, and the Bombers are likely to go into the season with a four-man bench.
Backup catcher Kyle Higashioka and outfielder Brett Gardner will be on the Opening Day roster, no questions asked. That would leave a couple of spots left for Jay Bruce, Derek Dietrich, Mike Tauchman, and Tyler Wade.
If we consider the fact that Bruce is currently in a 2-for-21 funk at the plate after starting the Grapefruit League 4-for-6, it’s safe to say his chances of making the New York Yankees have decreased. However, they are still very much alive since spring training stats won’t matter as much as track record and overall health/form at the time of selecting the last few players for the bench. If you don’t believe me, take it from the Yankees’ skipper himself:
Aaron Boone was asked about the competition between Bruce/Dietrich/etc...— Max Goodman (@MaxTGoodman) March 17, 2021
He said when he's evaluating who will get the final few roster spots, it's less about their numbers this spring but more what they've done in the past and if they're healthy right now.
Assuming that’s the case, then it’s safe to assume that everybody from the aforementioned group is still in contention.
So far, Bruce is at .207/.258/.448 with a couple of home runs in spring training, though he does have the track record that Boone is referring to. He would likely only face righties, and slugged .538 with a 109 wRC+ against them in 2020. For his career, the slugger has a .245/.314/.469 line with 318 homers and a 106 wRC+.
Dietrich hasn’t been much better in the Grapefruit League, but at least he has a very nice .394 OBP. He, too, has a good track record of success, with a career 108 wRC+, as well as the ability to at least fake it at several positions in the infield and outfield.
Speaking of defensive contributors, that’s where Mike Tauchman has the edge. His numbers with the glove in 2020 (0 DRS, or Defensive Runs Saved, and 1 OAA, or Outs Above Average) seem fluky, and I prefer to look at his much larger 2019 sample: 9 OAA, 19 DRS. Tauchman is a plus fielder who happens to be heating up at the plate in spring training, as he homered yesterday for the third time and got his line all the way up to .269/.345/.615 with a .960 OPS.
The Yankees probably shouldn’t move on from Tauchman that easily. Even though he was very bad last season, it was a tiny sample, and there is talent in both his bat and, obviously, in his glove. He represents a nice insurance policy for the injury-prone stars in the Yankees’ outfield. They can’t demote Tauchman, so if they’re not carrying him, they’ll have to trade or release him. Given the questionable medical histories of the Yankees’ other outfielders, it might be a self-inflicted blow to ditch Tauchman so casually.
Wade is also a good defender, but his bat is suspect. Working in his favor is the fact that he is the most realistic (and capable) option to back up shortstop and second base, and the Yanks shouldn’t go into the season without a bona fide backup infielder. Even though the Gio Urshela-at-short brief experiment reportedly went fine — though really, what else did you expect to hear — the last time he played the position was in 2018.
If Bruce opts out tomorrow, the Yankees would have two days to add him to the roster. Andy Martino of SNY suggested that during that hypothetical window, the Bombers could shop Tauchman if they want to go into the season with Wade or Dietrich. Again, it would be a mistake to just give Tauchman away, but it remains a possibility.
There is also the slight chance the Yankees just choose Dietrich over Bruce. The difference in their bats might be near-negligible at this point in their careers, and the former is more defensively versatile. Of course, neither player is particularly known for his glove.
Despite the recent struggles at the plate, Bruce still has a chance to crack the Opening Day roster given his reputation, and he makes some sense as a left-handed masher off the bench. A high batting average was never in the cards for him anyway, though he is facing strong competition. Tauchman is making a strong case, Dietrich adds a semblance of versatility, and Wade is able to cover the middle infield positions. I’d say everybody has a realistic chance, but Tauchman and Wade are emerging as the favorites.