Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Whither Johnny Blanchard?

In 1996, the Yankees’ bench featured Jim Leyritz, a resurgent Darryl Strawberry and Charlie Hayes. In 1998, Jorge Posada, Strawberry and valuable pinch-runner Homer Bush rode the pine. In 2007, the bench will likely include Will Nieves (projected VORP: -8.8), Miguel Cairo (-1.1), Andy Phillips (2.6) and Melky Cabrera (8.1!).

Melky aside, this promises to be one of the weakest sets of reserves in baseball. It has become increasingly apparent over the last few years that the current Yankees regime is incapable of building a serviceable bench, despite a payroll hovering near $200 million. The Yankees haven’t had a remotely acceptable backup catcher since Joe Girardi left, and the utility infielder slot has been the stuff of nightmares. (In fact, Enrique Wilson and Mark Bellhorn make semi-regular villainous appearances in my dreams, alongside the rabbit from “Donne Darko” and Skippy from “Family Ties.”)

There are a few possible explanations why the quality of the bench has declined so much recently:

1) Cashman & Co. don’t understand the value of a good bench. Stupefyingly obvious, but plausible. Perhaps the Tampa/New York brain trust simply doesn’t realize how many at-bats bench players get over the course of a season, or how much flexibility a deep roster of helpful players gives a manager.

2) The money ran out. The Yankees’ attitude seems to be “We’re spending $18 million on the crippled DH, and $16 million on the injury-prone 3rd starter, so we can’t afford more than $400,000 for a utility infielder.” If true, the team is picking the wrong area to cut corners.

3) Too many pitchers. Joe Torre loves carrying 12 pitchers, for reasons unknown. This leaves no room for true role players, like pinch runners and pure pinch hitters. The flaw with this argument is that the Yankees can’t even find four decent bench players, so what good would carrying five or six do? However, a bigger bench would provide significantly more flexibility late in games, particularly in interleague games in NL parks.

4) Jorge Posada has been too durable. The Yankees have been incredibly lucky to have a healthy Jorge Posada for the bulk of his career. They have pulled off carrying inept backup catchers, from Todd Greene to a past-his-prime-if-that’s-possible Sal Fasano, without causing too much damage because Posada has never gone down for a significant period of time. With each passing year, and each new ring inside Posada’s trunk, the chance that such a gamble won’t pay off rises exponentially, as does the possibility the Yankees will have to trade a prized prospect or three in-season for a mediocre backup catcher who could have been acquired for nothing in the off-season.

5) Lack of trust in young players. Joe Torre hates kids. And by kids, I mean players under 35. The Yankees have repeatedly allowed potentially useful players (Kevin Thompson, Felix Escalona, Andy Phillips) to languish at Columbus in favor of one dance too many with old favorites like Bernie Williams, or worse, dalliances with utterly worthless veteran never-weres like Terrence Long.

6) Joe Torre doesn’t understand how to use a bench. Well, he can’t figure out a bullpen, so why should a bench be any different? Torre’s biggest blunder involves refusing to DH Posada in games when he doesn’t start at catcher, because if either catcher got hurt, a pitcher would have to bat. Torre doesn’t realize that the potential damage from a pitcher getting one or two at-bats is far, FAR less than an inferior hitter to Posada getting dozens upon dozens of at-bats over the course of a season.

Whether through willful neglect or sheer stupidity, the Yankees have created a vicious cycle with their bench wherein they re-sign the same tired retreads year after year, and replace their incompetent backup catcher annually in the hopes that the devil they don’t know will somehow bring good fortune. The Yankees may put together a murderers' row every season (or, 8/9 of a murderers' row + Minky), but they will never get the most out of their offense until they give their bench the attention it merits, particularly with a team as old and injury-prone as the Yankees.

Only slightly related, check out this Bill James article about the difference between a "fast bench" and a "slow bench."