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What is Derek Dietrich’s path to the Opening Day roster?

Derek Dietrich is one of several players fighting for a spot on the Yankees’ bench — why might he be the best for the job?

MLB: MAR 01 Spring Training - Tigers at Yankees Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, when the Yankees’ non-roster invitees were announced, one name came as a surprise to many — that of infielder Derek Dietrich — primarily because he had not been linked at all to the Yankees over the course of the winter. Despite this, Dietrich has one of the easiest paths to breaking camp on the Major League roster, particularly among those without a spot on the 40-man roster.

Originally drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, Dietrich made his Major League debut as a member of the Miami Marlins as a second baseman back in 2013. After playing in Miami for six seasons, during which time he played 61 games at first base, 192 at second, 145 at third, and 156 in the left field, he spent the 2019 season with Cincinnati, playing in 113 games. During the 2020 season, he played 25 games with the Texas Rangers.

In many ways, Dietrich is the prototypical Yankees bench bat. He does not hit for average at all — his average over the last two years is .189 — but he walks a lot (9.2% walk rate in 2019, 12% in 2020) and generates a lot of hard contact (11.2% and 12.5% barrel rate in each of the last two years). For reference, that walk rate is higher than Aaron Judge’s (8.8%) and DJ LeMahieu’s (8.3%) in 2020, and his barrel percentage is comparable to Judge’s (11.6%) and Clint Frazier’s (12.6%). Furthermore, as a long-time member of the National League, he has plenty of experience as a pinch hitter, and his slash line in those situations — .198/.326/.422 — is not too far off from his career .245/.335/.428.

The biggest knock against Dietrich, however, is his defense. Although he can play a number of positions, he does not play any of them particularly well. As an outfielder, Dietrich has been atrocious, posting a -29 DRS and -13 OAA in the outfield (-18 UZR/150) over his career. To put it another way, he is almost as bad in the outfield as Hanley Ramírez was, and he posted a -14 DRS and -21.7 UZR/150 in just one season! He’s been better in the infield, but has not been all that good there, either, accruing 0 DRS and -6 OAA at first base (2.0 UZR/150), -11 DRS and 2 OAA at second base (-3.7 UZR/150), and -10 DRS and -10 OAA at third base (-5.7 UZR/150).

Even ignoring the fact that Dietrich cannot play shortstop, with the Yankees’ using bench pieces for late-game defensive substitutions fairly frequently — Tyler Wade did that 20 times last season — Dietrich simply does not fit the model of a typical Yankees utility defender. Wade’s position is safe — from Dietrich, at least.

At the moment, the three guaranteed bench spots belong to Kyle Higashioka as the backup catcher, Brett Gardner as the fourth outfielder, and Tyler Wade as the backup shortstop. Dietrich cannot replace any of these three on the roster, and will instead be fighting with Mike Tauchman, Jay Bruce, Mike Ford, and Miguel Andújar. Ultimately, which one will make the roster depends entirely on what the Yankees want to do with the roster spot. Do they want another outfielder capable of playing center field? Tauchman is their man. Corner outfield depth who can play first base? Bruce, step on down. Do they want to bet that former rookie-of-the-year runner-up can bounce back from two lost seasons? Andújar gets the nod. Is a lefty power bat the most important thing, and they don’t want to free up a spot on the 40-man roster? It’s Ford’s time.

In that sense, what can Dietrich do that his competition can’t? In short, his presence would relegate Wade and his career 56 OPS+ to purely a defensive substitution role and backup shortstop, as Dietrich would be able to serve as the primary backup at the other three infield positions. Will that be enough to get him the nod? Only time will tell.