One look at the Yankees starting lineup on Wednesday tells you that things are not going to plan for the New York Yankees early in 2021. The Yankees have struggled to get their offense going and players such as Jay Bruce and Rougned Odor are getting regular at-bats. Their presence in the lineup displays that the Yankees do not trust their internal options and begs the question as to why some of those options were protected through the winter. What has changed to cause the Yankees to sour so badly on their 40-man roster options that they protected at the cost of other well-regarded prospects in the system?
As recently as last October, the Yankees displayed their faith in Mike Ford by choosing to carry him on the postseason roster despite not offering any significant defensive or base running value. After a season where he struggled mightily at the plate, the Yankees still chose to pinch-hit Ford late in a key playoff game. The result in October was bad, but did one at-bat destroy the Yankees’ trust in a player who as recently as 2019 was an offensive force?
Luke Voit’s injury should have opened the door for Ford to receive regular playing time at the major league level, but it has not worked out that way. Instead, the Yankees have seemingly looked for every reason to avoid using Ford by running out veteran outfielder Jay Bruce. Heading into play yesterday before another 0-for-4 performance, Bruce’s last 180 major league plate appearances have resulted in a 45 wRC+.
Similarly, the Yankees decided that Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada were not acceptable options for 2021 after trusting them as their on-and-off utility men for a few years. Wade again produced below average offensive numbers in 2020, while Estrada struggled and struck out 36 percent of the time last season.
In addition, the Yankees traded two prospects for Rougned Odor, a player who has been a below average offensive player for four straight seasons, while also seeing his defensive numbers decline in recent years. He is what he is at this point — a replacement player — yet after the Yankees determined over the winter that they needed to carry both Wade and Estrada on a full 40-man roster, Odor managed to slide ahead of both of them.
The Yankees designated Estrada for assignment just days into the 2021 season, eventually trading him to the San Francisco Giants for cash considerations. What changed in the Yankees evaluation of Estrada during spring training? Just last season the Yankees carefully managed Estrada’s days at the alternate training site so that he missed burning his last minor league option by one day. This spring, Estrada controlled his strikeouts and even hit for a little power, smacking three home runs in his last nine at-bats.
Jay Bruce and Rougned Odor were not in high demand when the Yankees acquired them. Both have struggled for extended periods of time in the major leagues with little hope of a Gio Urshela-type turn around. If any team knows that the injury bug is coming, it is the Yankees. They built a roster around depth players that they have little to no confidence in. Being the landing spot for veterans on their way out of the league due to performance is not desirable, and to make matters worse, while the Yankees were carrying a roster of players they now don’t trust other players were being plucked from the system.
Long before the Yankees were able to give Jay Bruce a minor league contract for spring training they had some tough decisions to make in mid-November. With a packed 40-man roster the team needed to protect its next wave of prospects ahead of the Rule 5 Draft. The Yankees protected several players that should play a big role in the teams future but bypassed others.
One of the players the Yankees chose to by-pass was Garrett Whitlock. Whitlock steadily rose through the Yankees system before succumbing to Tommy John surgery in July 2019 while pitching for Double-A Trenton. With the 2020 minor league season wiped out the Yankees had far more information on Whitlock than any other team in the majors. They still chose to leave him exposed in the Rule 5 draft where he was selected by the division rival Red Sox.
Whitlock has impressed everyone in Boston so far with a strong spring and has yet to surrender a run in 6.1 regular season innings. The Yankees’ internal assessments did not value Whitlock — or fellow former Yankees pitching prospect Trevor Stephan, who is currently pitching for Cleveland under the Rule 5 provisions. Both Whitlock and Stephan could be returned to the Yankees before the end of this season, but the early returns have been promising.
The Yankees have shown a lack of faith in their internal options so far in 2021. What did the Yankees miss in their offseason internal assessments that had them building a roster around depth players that they now seemingly have no intention of using? As Jay Bruce and Rougned Odor continue their trends of poor production, is it time for the Yankees to look inward to see how they are evaluating some of their own?