TAMPA — Brian Cashman will quiz individual members of his staff by, say, asking Aaron Boone how a particular player looks or seeking VP of baseball operations Tim Naehring’s insight into how a specific position battle is materializing.
The longest current serving GM has learned to avoid overthinking his Opening Day roster at this time of year or convening regular meetings to project what the now 26-man group will look like. On this date last year — among other things — Mike Tauchman was a Rockie, Troy Tulowitzki was part of a non-Didi Gregorius shortstop rotation and Luis Severino was heading toward starting Game 1.
The picture is going to change — then change some more.
“I’m going to be a boring interview on this subject,” Cashman said.
He was. He offered little on where matters stand with his roster and if he sees anything valuable about having a 26th man beyond simply protecting an area of weakness.
Cashman is willing to let February become March and St. Patrick’s Day ebb closer before assembling his braintrust at one place at one time to decide. Smart. Because when I asked Cashman about the roster, Giancarlo Stanton had yet to even participate in the defensive drill that would lead to a calf strain that likely will keep him out until April.
And that pretty much sealed the 13-man positional group for the Yankees’ March 26 opener in Baltimore. Of course, this assumes Aaron Judge will eventually play after shoulder discomfort, no other positional piece will need the injured list (and let’s face it, health has not been a Yankees strength since the beginning of last season) and that Cashman doesn’t strike in a trade for another under-the-radar Tom, Dick or Tauchman in the next four weeks.
The 13 for now: Judge, Tauchman, Miguel Andujar, Mike Ford, Clint Frazier, Brett Gardner, Kyle Higashioka, DJ LeMahieu, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela, Luke Voit and Tyler Wade. So what are the key factors in divvying up playing time?
1. Boone loves outfield defense. So expect an alignment left to right of Tauchman, Gardner and Judge quite a bit.
2. Boone knows he must protect Gardner. He did so last year, and Gardner broke a familiar fade down the stretch pattern and actually was better in the second half than the first. Gardner, 36, is five years older than any other of the position players projected for the roster. Until Aaron Hicks returns after Tommy John surgery — perhaps midseason — Boone will not want to overplay Gardner in center and lose his legs. So Tauchman will get a fair amount of center field time.
3. Question of the day: If given 500 plate appearances, who would have a better offensive year, Andujar or Frazier? They are going to get left field at-bats — with Andujar dabbling at first and third as well.
Another leg injury for Stanton means all those thoughts about the mammoth slugger playing left field with some frequency is as likely as Roy White doing it. The leg injuries, in particular, have mounted for Stanton. When he returns, he again will be largely a DH.
So when Tauchman doesn’t play left who does? Both Andujar and Frazier have questions about defense and both have options, so the loser could end up back at Triple-A trying to build up trade value to get some place where they can play regularly.
4. Is Higashioka a major league backup catcher? Austin Romine might have been the best of that genre in the majors. And the Yankees let him and his leadership go to Detroit. The Yankees’ analytic folks think Higashioka’s framing skills on defense and power on offense are valuable. But Chris Iannetta and Erik Kratz loom for a role made more important because of Sanchez’s inability to stay healthy.
5. The Yanks’ 2019 season was saved by unexpected production. Their 2020 campaign can be undone if multiple players from that group turn out to be flukes. Ford, Tauchman and Urshela were revelations, and before injuries devastated his second half, Voit continued in the pleasant-surprise genre. Tauchman, Urshela and Voit are starters now and, especially with Stanton out, Ford will get at-bats because the Yanks hunger for some lefty diversity in the lineup.
6. Wade is looking at his best chance yet to stick in the majors. The 26th roster spot is built for him, which is why I give him the nod to make it over Thairo Estrada. Wade hits lefty, which is particularly valuable for this team. He can run, so is a pinch option late for the first basemen and catchers. He not only can play all the infield positions, but is a more than capable outfielder.
Of all of these areas, he is going to have to show he can handle shortstop on the occasions when Boone wants to rest Torres (who, by the way, is going to have to show he is up for a full major league season at short). Boone is leaning toward giving Urshela time at short during spring training to see if the manager could turn there if necessary.
Shortstop Kyle Holder, the Yanks’ 2015 first-round pick, is not on the 40-man roster, so it would require multiple injuries for him to get a season-opening chance. But his fielding is exceptional, so if the Yankees’ offense is as strong as expected and they ultimately just need a glove, he could become a factor.
Of course, the offense is projected to be strong based on health for Judge and Stanton, the 2019 wonders doing it again in 2020, the bats of Andujar and Frazier being real and Gardner not suddenly getting old.