Thursday, February 16, 2006

Question 12: Is the Bench Deep Enough?

To begin describing the Yankees bench, I’ll paraphrase Randy Quaid. “You’re old Mother Hubbard, and only Cairo’s in the cupboard.” Ouch. Okay, so the guys riding the pine don’t look too promising. But since when have they? Actually, it was 2003, the last time we rode the train late into October, and before that it was 2000, the last time we won it. I won’t even launch into that intolerable “coincidence?” cliché. You all know what I mean.

In order to have a successful team, one needs solid utility help. Solid utility help usually consists of one guy who can lay into a pitch surrounded by guys who won’t kill you. It’s that simple. One guy who can get his slugging percentage over .450 and not strike out a ton surrounded by guys who can get their OBP above .310. Yet, the Yankees haven’t been able to muster up such forces in the recent past.

Take 2005 for example. The bench was absolutely horrendous. Not only did they lack a big bat off the bench, but they couldn’t even find guys who won’t kill them. Check out the top four guys off the Yankees bench in terms of at bats:

Tony Womack: .249/.276/.280
Ruben Sierra: .229/.265/.371
John Flaherty: .165/.206/.252
Bubba Crosby: .276/.304/.327

Note also that Bubba’s decent batting average was boosted during September, a month in which he started many games. So the among the first four guys off the Yankees bench, they couldn’t get a slugging percentage over .375 and barely had an OBP over .300. Just typing the preceding paragraph makes me want to hurtle my printer through a bay window. But I’m going back for more. The first four guys off the Royals bench:

Joe McEwing: .239/.263/.294
Chip Ambres: .241/.323/.379
Aaron Guiel: .294/.355/.450
Alberto Castillo: .210/.292/.310

Yes, ladies and gents, baseball’s worst Kansas City Royals had a better bench in 2005 than the Yankees. Obviously, that was an issue that needed some addressing this off-season, and since we all love Cashman so much, we should all just figure that he’ll get on that right away.

Let me take this transitory time to explain the importance of a bench. To paraphrase Major League once again, “over the course of a 162 game season, even the toughest guys get bruises and sprains.” That’s a lot of games to be playing, 162, and even guys like Derek Jeter appreciate a day off here and there.

(On a side note, the next time Jeter DHs, listen to the commentators. Fifty bux says they mention something about how he hates DHing because all he does is eat. Just watch.)

Not only are they necessary to spell the starters, but there are always pinch-hitting and running situations that play critical roles in games. Plenty of games are won and lost because of the quality of situational personnel. World Series teams don’t lose too many games this way.

So the bullpen was an issue facing the team, so Cashman turned around and signed Kyle Farnsworth, Octavio Dotel, and Mike Myers, traded for Ron Villone, and even exercised the option on Tanyon Sturtze’s contract. A job well done, Cashman, I must say. It may not be a flawless bullpen, but it certainly will be an improvement over last year’s swiss cheese crew.

The bench, however, doesn’t look as optimistic. Sure, anyone – especially Miguel Cairo – is an improvement over Tony Woemack/Blowmack. But look at where else the Yankees have made bench tweaks. Ruben’s role will be divvied up between Bubba and Bernie, and since Bernie is the DH, it will be mostly Bubba. Sure, he came on at the end of last year, and I even advocated him for starting center fielder when it looked like the options were slim. But coming off the bench, he won’t have a consistent string of at bats that leads to a hot streak, a la September 2005. Given 250 or so at bats, I’m thinking he’ll be a .250/.285/.315 guy.

Kelly Stinnett replaced John Flaherty as backup catcher and captain of the Randy Johnson fan club. Stinnett isn’t all that bad in that he actually possesses the ability to draw a walk. And I surely don’t expect him to put up Flaherty’s abomination of a 2005 line. So I guess that’s a marked improvement. Is it worth an extra win? Eh, maybe.

After May last year, we were all disappointed in Tino’s performance, but really, it wasn’t that bad. Not as bad as Andy Phillips is going to be this year. This statement may confuse many of my close friends, since I was a large advocate of Phillips last year. But I was jaded. My first memory of Phillips was him doubling and homering in a game I attended in April, so I have to like the guy. But there’s a difference between liking a guy and thinking a he’s going to succeed. Phillips honestly looked lost at the plate for most of his tenure with the Yanks. He has the ability to make solid contact, but he looks overwhelmed by the balls flying towards him (heh heh). Cashman may be scouring the minors for a temporary replacement until we are closer to the trade deadline, when he can probably trade for Doug Meintkeiwcz on the cheap.

(If he does scour the minors for a replacement, what about that Kevin Howard character we got in exchange for Womack? I know he’s a second baseman, but he has been widely criticized for lack of range. So stick him at first and see if his bat can do some talking. Now wouldn’t that stick it to former Reds GM Dan O’Brien?)

There is no Glenallen Hill for the 2006 Yankees. There is no Tim Raines or Jim Leyritz. Though, we may have a Luis Sojo in Miguel Cairo, given that it’s 2004 Cairo and not 2005 Cairo. That would be bad. That would be Rey Sanchez/Felix Escalona bad. There is not big bat to build the bench around, and though there are fewer players to kill the team, they still exist.

So what does this ultimately mean for the team? Another rocky start? Another tumultuous middle? Another nail biting end? Quite possibly. Sans a bullpen makeover, the team is pretty much the same as last year. So why think that the same problems won’t exist? I think, however, that I’ll save this evaluation for tomorrow. Sans Stats might have a doozy of a time with this one.

Happy pitchers and catchers day!