The New York Yankees are well into their famous “youth movement,” but still have players that are on the wrong side of 30 making their reserves just as important as starters.
By Christian Kouroupakis
Necessary days off, injuries and fatigue are just few of the many reasons an aging veteran may miss some time. The 2015 New York Yankees experienced their fair share of those problematic situations that ultimately led to a blown division lead.
The Yankees were 57-42 and led the American League East by seven games prior to the trade deadline, then finished the season 30-33 and in the rear view mirror of the Toronto Blue Jays (by six games).
It was the first time in franchise history that they had a cushion that large and failed to finish on top.
The cause? Decline in production. It’s actually a little redundant by now but it’s still on everyone’s “reasons to panic” list.
OK, it’s not as horrifying as those catastrophes, but it will be devastating to the Yankees’ 2016 playoff chances if they do not have the necessary reinforcements in case a production decline occurs again.
Last season, a then 39-year old Alex Rodriguez was enjoying a career renaissance. With many critics questioning his ability to produce, A-Rod answered them with a .250 batting average, .356 on-base percentage, and .486 slugging percentage and led the team in home runs (33).
However, good ol’ Mr. Father Time seemed to get the best of him by seasons end. The former AL Most Valuable Player endowed an end-of-season slump where he slashed .191/.300/.377 in September and October. Imagine how is overall numbers would have been if it weren’t for that mediocre month.
Brett Gardner was enjoying his first All-Star season with a slash line of .302/.377/.484 while snagging 15 bases. It seemed as if he made a turn in his career, but then it was apparent his peak for 2015 was a trip to Cincinnati.
Gardner had a porous .206 batting average and stole only five bases during the second half of 2015 (finished with 20), and many questioned his health throughout his 81-game slump.
He says he doesn’t steal as much in order to avoid getting thrown out in front of the middle of the lineup, but his success rate is near 80% so that’s not the reason. He says he needs to get on base more but his OBP in 2015 was .343 compared to .345 when he stole 49 bases in 2011.
Maybe it was age catching up to him (he’s 33-years old), or maybe he actually was injured, but the bottom line is his production hit a brick wall in the second half making him worthless in the Yankee lineup.
General manager Brian Cashman was well aware of this situation, and how it cause the second half collapse. So he went out of his way to make the Yankee reserves a legitimate threat, and trustworthy, in 2016.
It started with the acquisition of Aaron Hicks from the Minnesota Twins. Although Chris Young was pretty solid as a fourth outfielder in 2015, Hicks is a switch-hitting outfielder who saw an increase in his OPS from .615 (2014) to .721 last season.
At the very least, it seems Hicks is ready to replace Young as the Yankees’ platoon outfielder. If he continues to develop, he could play his way into something greater. He’s only 26-years old and has plenty of upside to provide off the bench if/when Beltran or any of the other fragile outfielders go down.
He’s also tearing it up this spring. In nine games he has a slash line of .280/.308/.480 and has a home run. It’s a short sample size and only spring training, but it’s better than Young’s slash line in 2015 (.252/.320/.453).
New York also saw promise in youngsters like Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams. If you remember correctly, Heathcott hit a dramatic, go-ahead three run home run against the Tampa Bay Rays on September 14th to give the Yankees a must win victory.
Both prospects suffered injuries last season, but having Hicks on the rise, Heathcott containing the clutch gene, and Aaron Judge on the way, manager Joe Girardi can rely on these reserves to come up big in case of an emergency.
In the infield, the Bombers were planning on entering camp with a Rob Refsnyder/Dustin Ackley platoon due to a lack of reinforcements on the bench. Then came the genius trade for Chicago Cubs shortstop turned second baseman, Starlin Castro.
This trade not only gave the Yankees a reliable second baseman, but it also handed Girardi a boat load of options in regards to depth.
Ackley can play in both corner outfield spots, first base, and second base with decent offensive production. He slashed .306/.352/.694 upon his return from a DL stint in September.
Refsnyder played right field in his college days, came up through the farm system as a second baseman, and is excelling at third base in spring training. Scouts also rave about his bat and the Korean native is tearing it up offensively this spring.
Castro has 844 games at shortstop under his belt, and has transitioned to second base quite nicely as he slashed .339/.358/.583 at the position in 2015.
What does this have anything to do with the aging veterans and their inevitable lack of production?
Basically, if Didi Gregorius gets injured, you could slide Castro into his spot, and either Ackley or Refsnyder into Castro’s spot without a worry.
If Castro himself goes down, the original plan of a platoon would be in full effect. If third baseman Chase Headley continues his poor play, or gets hurt, Refsnyder has proven he is serviceable at the hot corner.
If A-Rod ends up slumping like he did in September and October, you could slide anyone from the bench into any spot in the field to give another aging veteran (like Teixiera, Beltran, even Headley) a half day off as a designated hitter.
I do believe, however, if Girardi gives A-Rod plenty of off days, his slump won’t re-occur.
“I think it’s important, too, that those guys get their days off,” Girardi said on Yankees Hot Stove. “ I think our bench has a chance to be deeper and a little bit more experienced with Ackley and Hicks.”
Days off, injuries, and fatigue are reasons why the Yankees went from the lead dog, to a lost puppy a year ago. A solid reserve system makes days off, injuries, and fatigue a non-issue for playoff chances.
Hicks is going to play four or five times a week in the outfield, Ackley is going to get some playing time at first base, Refsnyder will be a Ben Zobrist type, and the 2016 Yankees should constantly remain fresh.
Father time took a shot at New York last year, but they got up and fired one right back by assembling one of the most versatile benches in the league.