Although the season is not yet one fourth over, it seems clear that if the Yankees do not make the playoffs this year most will attribute this to two things-poor starting pitching and the injury to Mariano Rivera. The starting pitching has indeed been a problem as other than CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda, no starting pitchers have been reliable. Freddy Garcia, for his part, has been terrible and seems to be coming to the end of his tenure in pinstripes. Although Rivera’s injury is very unfortunate, particularly if is means the end of the future Hall of Famer’s career, the Yankee bullpen, led by David Robertson, Corey Wade and Rafael Soriano has, in fact, been a relative strength.
There is nonetheless some truth to this view as the Yankees are currently third in the league in runs scored, but ninth in ERA. Due to the ballpark in which they play, they are probably a slightly better pitching team, and slightly worse hitting team, than reflected in those numbers, but they are nonetheless a team that for whom scoring runs rather than stopping them is the key to success. Despite the strength of the Yankee offense, there are some weaknesses that in a close race could be critical.
Other than Russell Martin, who was not expected to hit, and Mark Teixeira who was, the starting lineup is hitting well. However, as the season has worn on, the weakness of the Yankee bench has become more of a concern. Eric Chavez is having a decent season; and Andruw Jones remains one of the most consistent fourth outfielders in the game, but after that, the bench is very bad. Eduardo Nunez’s defense was sufficiently bad that he got sent down to the minors leaving Jayson Nix, and his career .206/.278/.368 as the only backup infielder. Nix is joined by backup catcher who after a career year in 2011 when he hit a dismal .204/.283/309 has declined to .222/.250/.259 thus far this year. In recent days, Dewayne Wise, a 34 year old with a career OPS+ of 62 has seen increased playing time in the outfield. On days when Nix and Wise are both in the lineup, with either Martin or Stewart behind the plate, the Yankees have essentially a six man lineup.
The Yankees inability to find a backup catcher or utility infielder who can contribute with the bat while fielding decently is baffling because by not finding these kinds of players, who are often available and always inexpensive, the Yankees risk seeing a team with a payroll in excess of $200 million fail to make the playoffs because they were unable to solve problems that would have cost, at most, a few million dollars in salary. Given the age of a number of key players, notably Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees have additional reason to need a strong bench, and should have known this before the season started.
Other than keeping Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez, the Yankees paid almost no attention to their bench during the off-season. During spring training, they replaced Francisco Cervelli with Chris Stewart, a move that was both minor and inexplicable. The Yankees spent most of their off-season energy on their starting rotation, which made sense, while the remaining attention was focused on the bullpen, which made less sense. The Yankees appeared to be considerably more concerned with who the fourth righty out of the bullpen would be than with who the backup catcher, utility infielder or fifth outfielder would be.
In this respect the Yankees are not alone, many teams pay more attention to the back of their bullpen than to their bench, but in an era of 12 man pitching staffs, benches are small, frequently with only four or five players, and thus more important to structure properly. In the case of the Yankees to failure of the team to seek out an backup infielder or catcher with some pop, is more notable because they do not have any real prospects who are ready yet. They therefore rely more heavily on veteran backups with little upside. Jones and Chavez represent the nucleus of a good bench, but after that the Yankees have nothing. Their weak starting rotation is undoubtedly a bigger problem, but it is harder to pick up a good starting pitcher than a useful backup; and in the case of the Yankees either might be the difference between making the post-season or not.