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Yankees should focus on bench bats this winter

With some free spots on the bench, some savvy pick-ups could go a long way toward decreasing the likelihood of another second half slump caused by fatigue.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Bird. Luis Severino. Rob Refsnyder. John Ryan Murphy. Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott. Didi Gregorius. Nathan Eovaldi. Dellin Betances.

These youngins burst into the bigs this year and last. Together with Aaron Judge, they represent the future core of a Yankees team that has been missing an identity for years. 2015 was a great year for the Bombers from a player development standpoint. Most of the young players look like competent big leaguers. Some, particularly Bird, Severino and Judge, have a chance to become much more than that. For an organization that has failed to produce its own stars for the better part of two decades, 2015 offered hope for the future. The kids are alright.

However, playing time next season is not going to be handed to any of them. Well, except for Severino, who pitched more than well enough to earn a spot in the rotation; but he's the outlier. Even Bird, who hit .261/.343/.529 with 11 homers in 46 games, is likely bound for Scranton, Wilkes-barring injury of course (see what I did there?).

The Yankees of 2016 are shaping up to look an awful lot like the Yankees of 2015. Lest we forget, this team did, in fact, make the playoffs.

At this point, seven, possibly eight, of last year's regulars are good bets to reprise their roles. Brian McCann will be behind the plate. Mark Teixeira, when healthy, will play first. Gregorius and Chase Headley will compose the left side of the infield, and as long as Alex Rodriguez remains healthy and productive at DH, Carlos Beltran will be in right field, flanking Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury. Beltran playing the field again is not ideal, but he's coming off a quality offensive season and his bat must remain in the lineup. Beltran earned future playing time by batting .276/.337/.471 with 19 homers and 34 doubles. As for second base, it's probably safe to assume the team will be moving on from Stephen Drew, and the platoon of Dustin Ackley and Rob Refsnyder worked well enough down the stretch that I'd be surprised if the Yankees didn't entertain giving it another shot in 2016.

The Yankees were good last season. They played meaningful games in October. They crossed the plate 764 times, the second-most in baseball. However, they could have been better. The team faltered heavily down the stretch. While the pitching wasn't blameless, the real problem with the Yanks was offensive lethargy.

Gregorius, at 25 years of age, was the team's only regular younger than 31. With such an old team, it's hardly a surprise that they ran out of steam during the final two months. Sure, Skipper Joe gave the veterans plenty of days off. Some would argue that he gave them too many. If the Yankees are to contend again in 2016 though, they're going to need bats that can step in and fill these lineup holes left by older players who are injured, fatigued, slumping, or any combination thereof. The Yanks lost roughly 130 games worth of production from Beltran, Teixeira, and Ellsbury due to injuries and fatigue. I'd be surprised if that number isn't higher next year.

That's why my preference would be for the Yankees to load up on bench bats this winter. From all indications, next year's starting lineup is going to look very similar to last year's. Perhaps Gardner gets dealt (unlikely), or the team splurges on an established second baseman like Ben Zobrist or Howie Kendrick (also unlikely given their recent skittishness at signing older players). But Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner don't need to rely exclusively on free agency anymore. Their farm system finally has both depth and breadth. While of course I'm opposed to dealing any of the primary three prospects (Bird, Judge, Severino), lesser pieces like Refsnyder, Gary Sanchez, or Jorge Mateo could fetch some interesting complementary players on the trade market.

The 24-year-old John Ryan Murphy hit .277/.327/.406, certainly high enough to earn the neophyte another season as McCann's backup. Likewise, Ackley was acquired with an eye towards his two years of team control. He will be back in the Bronx in 2016. That leaves two bench spots for the team to fill and they would be wise to plug them with the best talent they can find.

Former Yankee Martin Prado would make a great fit for one of them. The Yanks dealt Prado to Miami last winter in the trade for Nathan Eovaldi, and the 31-year-old slashed .288/.338/.394 with nine home runs while playing both second and third base for the Fish. He's an older player but he's proven he can still be productive. And he thrived in the Bronx in 2014, batting .316 in 37 games with the Pinstripers. What's more, Prado has played both infield and outfield extensively during his career, and is comfortable shifting around the diamond on a daily basis. Obviously, that's incredibly valuable for a team with old players at nearly every position.

Prado is owed $11 million next year, which is significant. However, seeing as he is a member of the frugal Marlins, it makes him available. It probably won't take much in terms of prospects to reacquire the Venezuelan if the team is willing to eat salary, and with the emergence of Derek Dietrich last season, Prado is expendable for Miami.

In addition to another infielder, the Yankees would be wise to add a right-handed hitting outfielder that can supplement Gardner and Ellsbury against tough lefties and give Beltran days off in right. Chris Young did yeoman's work in 2015, batting .252/.320/.453 and mashing 14 longballs. But Young, 31 years old himself, provided most of his production during the summer months and much like the rest of the Yankees hitters, hit quite poorly when it mattered most. There's also the possibility that another team might offer him a starting role.

Atlanta's Cameron Maybin would be an intriguing fit for the Yankees. The journeyman played in 141 games last season, the second most in his career, and did well for himself, hitting .267/.327/.370 with 10 dingers and 23 steals. The speedy centerfielder would provide a different look than Young, and would give the Yankees, a team increasingly focused on defense, another good glove for the outfield. Maybin is in line for a payday of $9 million next year, but I imagine the Yankees could acquire him by agreeing to pay his salary. I'm not convinced that Maybin is necessarily a better player than Young, but with the offense tanking the way it did, it might be beneficial to introduce a couple of new faces next year (see Pentland, Jeff).

Another option, who admittedly would be tougher to acquire, is third-year Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna. The 24-year-old Dominican dealt with a controversial mid-season demotion, which caused him to miss 40 games. When up with the big club, though, Ozuna slashed .259/.308/.383 with 10 homers. His strikeout to walk ratio was terrible (110 to 30) but Ozuna showed gobs of promise during his first two seasons. In 2014, Ozuna hit .269 with 23 home runs. He's clearly a talented player, but considering Dietrich's good season, along with Giancarlo Stanton returning from his broken hand and Christian Yelich's return to health and production, Ozuna might be attainable for the right price. It would probably take a package built around a young player like Sanchez, Murphy, or Jorge Mateo to pique Miami's interest in dealing Ozuna. Much like when they acquired Gregorius last offseason, Ozuna is a piece the Yanks should consider parting with part of their major league roster for.

Finally, in case those fellows don't do it for ya, here's an Altherr-native. Aaron Altherr, to be specific. The 24-year-old has notched just 142 big league plate appearances thus far but he's big (6'5", 215 lbs.), athletic, and has lots of potential. After joining the Phillies in late-August, Altherr produced at a .241/.338/.489 clip while clubbing five homers, stealing six bases, and playing all three outfield positions. In fact, he was Philadelphia's No. 3 hitter for much of that span. Like being named the best cook in England, it's a modest compliment, but it shows the way Philly values him. He's a good prospect, though not untouchable, and between Odubel Herrera, Darnell Sweeney, and any of the number of youngsters that came over from Texas in the Cole Hamels deal, the Phillies have decent depth in their outfield. For the right return, Altherr is likely attainable. Besides, the Phillies have approximately zero big-league caliber catchers. Sanchez or Murphy would be a reasonable starting point.

The Yankees are on the verge of their largest youth movement in decades. After next year, the team will move on from Beltran and Teixeira. In 2017, the Yanks will say goodbye to CC Sabathia and A-Rod. So understandably, they want to make another playoff run while their hitters are still capable. That being said, they need to continue to think long-term as well. The team has brought in some fantastic young talent over the past couple seasons, and they should use this offseason as an opportunity to add even more. They need to pad their reinforcements in the extremely likely event of an injury to one or more of their key hitters. That's why fortifying the bench is so important, and why it should be the Yankees' top off-season priority.