The Yankees’ 2023 Opening Day roster featured Franchy Cordero, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Kyle Higashioka, Estevan Florial, and Aaron Hicks/Oswaldo Cabrera on the bench. It might seem crazy, but none of those players are around for what’s about to come. Only Cabrera has a shot at the roster by virtue of still being with the organization, and his presence on the 2024 Opening Day is from certain and will likely depend on many factors including but not limited to spring training performance.
The 2023 Yankees downplayed the importance of depth and a solid bench (or misevaluated a lot of players, and we don’t know which one is worse) and paid the price. This time, there appears to be more of a plan when it comes to reserve/part-time contributors. The names, at least, inspire more confidence.
If the season started today, the Yanks’ bench would probably feature Austin Wells, Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza, and Trent Grisham. There will be times in which, if everybody is healthy, Giancarlo Stanton or Alex Verdugo will ride the pine, particularly when Jasson Domínguez is ready to play.
That bench is not perfect, but offers more than the one the Yankees fielded to open last season at first glance. That’s good, because if the 2024 Yanks want to make a deep playoff run, the bench options need to start contributing more than just defense and versatility.
Last year, the Yankees decided to trust their “projects” a little too much (Cordero, Billy McKinney, Jake Bauers, etc.). They didn’t build an efficient support system that ensured quality options should injuries or slumps prop up, and boy did they. As a result, these players ended up being in the lineup more than the Yanks would have wanted, and more than they could bear. That aforementioned trio combined for nearly 500 plate appearances, with their production hovering around replacement level.
A good, versatile bench is made even more vital by the fact that Yankees’ have a relatively injury-prone starting lineup. Let’s face it, with Stanton, DJ LeMahieu and to a lesser extent Anthony Rizzo and Aaron Judge in the lineup, injuries will happen. The Yankees have mitigated some injury risk by bringing in younger players like Juan Soto, Grisham, and Alex Verdugo, but are still likely to go for stretches without some of their top starters.
Wells might not be the best defensive catcher, but he is much, much closer to being a league average bat than José Treviño and might even play more than him in 2024. Grisham has a career 96 wRC+, has some power and speed and also boasts an excellent glove in center field. He may even be slightly qualified as a fourth outfielder, but he shouldn’t have an issue finding playing time, filling in when injuries arise, starting against lefties, and coming in late in games as a defensive replacement.
Barring any incorporations or a surprise player winning a spot on the roster after spring training (Ben Rice? Josh VanMeter? Kevin Smith? Everson Pereira?), Cabrera and Peraza will occupy two spots on the Yankees’ bench. The quality of the Yankees’ reserves unit will likely hinge on their performance. Both of them are quality defensive players: Peraza has a plus glove at shortstop and third base, while Cabrera’s arm makes him an asset in the outfield, and he can also play the infield. They will need to offer something offensively, though, and pressure is going to be on them to carve out some kind of role in the majors.
Chances are they will be required to take at least semi-regular at-bats at some point, and the organization needs them to resemble the players they were in the minor leagues and, in the specific case of Cabrera, in his short, late-season 2022 stint. Cabrera projects for a 92 wRC+ currently, and Peraza a 97 wRC+; both of those figures would be improvements on last year, and would represent good-enough production from both given competent defense.
If both youngsters develop and become average hitters, well, the Yankees bench will be excellent. If they fall far short, the floor starts to drop a bit. Just where these young players, and the rest of the Yankee bench, falls on their range of outcomes will have a significant impact on how this 2024 season plays out. In any event, the reserves the team has on hand now look better positioned to contribute than last year’s.