After signing Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees are in a position to put all of their chips in for this year. This is due to the Yankees’ almost assured inability to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold for 2014 and their projection as a team right on the verge of playoff contention. The fifth starter spot is still up for grabs and the bullpen has a bunch of question marks after David Robertson, Shawn Kelley, and Matt Thornton. These areas of the team have thoroughly been discussed. One spot that gets overlooked at times is the bench. The bench is an essential part of most championship teams. Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry for the Yankees in ’98. Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes, and David Ross for the Red Sox last year. The bench was a large reason why the Nationals missed the playoffs last year when they received negative production from Roger Bernadina, Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy, and company. Bench depth matters for both injury insurance (like a serviceable shortstop if Derek Jeter were to go down again) and performance maximization (ensuring there is a pinch runner for when Brian McCann singles to lead off the 9th down a run). This leads to wins.
It has always been hard to build a decent bench because the talented players are usually starting for another team. It is even harder nowadays when teams carry 12 or even 13 pitchers and American League teams are left with only 3 or 4 spots for bench players (and 1 must be a backup catcher). The Yankees bench as currently projected is actually pretty decent. Francisco Cervelli has a recognition of the strike-zone and is at least average behind the dish. Currently, Brendan Ryan would be a bench player if Derek Jeter plays shortstop, Brian Roberts plays second base, and Kelly Johnson is at third. If Jeter DHs for a day then Ryan is at short and either Alfonso Soriano or Carlos Beltran is on the bench. Assuming Jeter is still a shortstop and no preseason trades are conducted, one of Ryan, Jeter, Soriano, and Beltran should be available off the bench. Ichiro Suzuki is the 4th outfielder with a skill-set that can effectively be leveraged by New York (still not worth $6.5M a year, though). He can pinch run for Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann in the later innings. Also, he can come in for defense in right-field for Beltran or Soriano in the later innings of close games. One downside is that he bats lefty and the three Yankees’ starting outfielders (assuming Beltran over Soriano) go lefty, lefty, switch. The fact that Ichiro only plays outfield and is a lefty provides some guidance as to what type of player the team should target for the remaining bench spot.
Jeff Baker would fit in extremely well with the Yankees. He would essentially do what Kelly Johnson was going to do if the Yankees resigned Robinson Cano and/or Alex Rodriguez was not suspended. The 33-year old right-handed hitting Baker came up with the Rockies and has bounced around with the Cubs, Tigers, Braves, and Rangers the past few years. He strikes out a lot (career 24.0% K rate), walks sometimes (career 7.1% BB rate), and has some power (.173 career ISO). His calling card is destroying lefty pitchers (128 wRC+ vs lefties compared to 64 wRC+ vs righties) and playing a bunch of different positions (110 games at 1B, 155 at 2B, 99 at 3B, 35 in LF, and 67 in RF). The positional flexibility would allow Gardner or Ellsbury to get a day off against a tough lefty while Baker plays left. It would allow Baker to play 3rd base if Kelly Johnson needed to slide over to second base if (really, when) Brian Roberts gets hurt. Perhaps most importantly, it provides insurance for Mark Teixeira who is still having ill-effects from wrist surgery.
The Yankees could always just do more “heavy lifting” and sign Stephen Drew. That would push Kelly Johnson into an optimal role as super-sub at 3rd, 2nd, 1st, and corner outfield. However, this is probably unlikely after spending $465 million this offseason already. Jeff Baker is the cost-efficient solution and a better use of a bench spot than Eduardo Nunez assuming the roster will remain as currently constructed (i.e. Gardner or Ichiro isn’t traded and Drew isn’t signed). The Yankees would have a pretty effective bench. Brendan Ryan should play shortstop everyday. That makes Jeter the DH and either Beltran or Soriano is a bat off the bench. Add that to Francisco Cervelli (a decent complement to the left-handed hitting Brian McCann), Ichiro Suzuki (a glorified but still effective 4th outfielder), and Jeff Baker (a lefty-masher who plays many positions) and the Yankees will have a bench with solid pinch-running, pinch-hitting, and defensive replacement options. Now if we could somehow convince them to carry only 11 or even 10 pitchers.