As the Yankees’ Injured List grew in the early season, you could practically hear the collective groan on Twitter when each replacement was announced. Low level prospects and career journeymen like Gio Urshela, Thairo Estrada, and Cameron Maybin have been charged with the tall task of replacing the veritable all-star line up that currently sits on the shelf.
But that initial dread has quickly been transformed to excitement as this motley crew has continued to grind out wins and helped propel the team to a 9-1 record in its last 10 games. There was a collective gasp at Oracle Park today when Urshela, anonymous to Yankee fans this time last month, had to leave the game after being hit on the hand by a pitch. With hustle, grit, and an impressive quality of play, these players have done justice to the pinstripes they wear and begun to win over the fanbase with their hard nose play.
As fun as this run has been, many of these fill-ins will soon be forced back into anonymity with the return of the regular squad. If all (hopefully) continues to go according to plan, fans can expect to see Miguel Andujar, Troy Tulowitzki, Aaron Hicks, and Clint Frazier back with the team in coming weeks.
My colleague Tom touched upon the tough decision the front office will have with Urshela once Andujar rejoins the active roster. Today I want to take a more comprehensive look at the current active roster, and determine which players are expendable and which may have staying power with the team even as the starters return to health.
There are certain players that make for the most obvious first roster casualties because they are inexperienced at the big league level and have minor league options remaining. Falling into this category are Thairo Estrada and Mike Ford, who have less than 50 career PAs between the two of them and who both have multiple minor league option years remaining.
There are legitimate cases to be made for both of these players staying on the roster. Estrada continues to linger on the Yankees Top 30 prospect list (via MLB Prospect Pipeline) and has always been an intriguing utility alternative to the anti-Tyler Wade crowd. He’s posted respectable offensive numbers throughout his minor league career thanks to a low strikeout rate and a consistently good batting average. Though he leaves something to be desired in terms of pop and patience, his ability to play solid defense at any infield position has allowed the front office to dream on his flexibility (which we know they love).
On almost the polar opposite end of the spectrum is Ford, who has nothing in the way of flexibility or defensive prowess but provides a coveted lefty bat with pop and a solid approach at the plate. While Ford is tethered to first, he posted a career high 15 HR in AAA last year and has produced impressive offensive numbers driven by his power throughout his time in the minors.
But the hard reality of roster construction is that these guys are the easiest to demote when players need to be removed from the roster. Estrada is the inexperienced and less defensively talented version of Wade, and Ford is replaceable as the backup 1B thanks to LeMahieu. We have already seen Estrada ride the Scranton Shuttle a couple times this season, and don’t be surprised if he and Ford are the first two cuts when Andujar and Tulowitzki return.
I’ll admit, for a long time I was a Tyler Wade truther. I believed he’d figure out the offensive component and become a quality 2.0 WAR utility man for this Yankees team. But now, three seasons and nearly 200 PAs into his young career, I feel fairly confident that we know who Wade is.
Let me begin by conceding that there is no doubt value in being able to play more than five positions at a serviceable defensive level. While advance metrics don’t love him as much as the scouts do, Wade has been a roughly league average defender across 2B, SS, 3B, LF, and RF in his brief MLB experience. That is nothing to be scoffed at, and certainly makes the case for why Wade is a better roster component than a guy like Mike Ford.
But the offensive performance is just not there for a guy like Wade to justify his spot on the 25 man roster when guys are healthy. He is a career .182/.254/.248 (36 wRC+) hitter and there’s nothing in the underlying data to show that’s a fluke. He sports a 31.9 K%, .067 ISO, and 18.5 Hard%. According to Statcast, his career xwOBA is just .229, a pathetic number directly in line with his true career wOBA which also sits at .229.
With two minor league options remaining, and having already started the year in AAA, Wade has no business being on this Yankees team when guys get healthy. Given that the current roster features only three true outfielders, I expect Wade to be the guy sent down when either Hicks or Frazier return from their IL stints.
The Yankees, and the projections systems, clearly see something in Mike Tauchman that I just don’t see. He won the opening day roster spot over Tyler Wade after an 11th hour trade despite an abysmal showing last year in Colorado. The projections somehow like him for roughly 1.7 WAR per year the next three seasons though he has a -0.7 WAR in his big league career to date.
Whatever the rationale, I hope and believe that Tauchman will be the roster casualty when the second of Hicks and Frazier come back from the IL. Unlike Maybin, Tauchman still has one option year remaining and he has no established track record as a successful big leaguer.
This year, Tauchman has played in 20 games to the tune of a .186/.294/.407 (86 wRC+) line. He has struggled with strikeouts (30.9 K%) and making high quality contact (.278 xwOBA) much like our good friend Tyler Wade. And while his ability to play center is a virtue especially in the absence of Hicks, Maybin also serves that function and has better advanced metrics as well as a longer track record.
While Maybin is hardly an exciting addition to the team, it’s clear to me that he is a better big league option than Tauchman as the Yankees wait on the return of the true stars Stanton and Judge. With Tauchman still relatively young and with an option year remaining, it makes more sense to stash him in AAA and let him earn another shot than lose Maybin for nothing so soon after acquiring him.
This one is cut and dry. Maybin will stick around up to the day that the Yankees have four regular outfielders healthy and ready to play. As soon as that day comes, he is expendable, especially with Tauchman stashed in the minors and Wade another option in case of further injury.
That being said, Maybin might not be a total net zero in his stint as the replacement outfielder with the Bombers. He comes with an ability to play all three outfield positions well, with a combined 8 DRS and 1.6 UZR/150 across left, center, and right the past two seasons.
His base-running has gone from arguably his biggest asset to a roughly average tool, and he posted a respectable 88 wRC+ and .309 xwOBA across the last two years as well. While fans won’t be blown away by anything he does, he’s a solid big leaguer who can do a more than serviceable job filling in.
But when his day comes, the Yankees will have no trouble axing the career journeyman in favor of their in-house options. While he might outlast Estrada, Ford, Wade, and Tauchman on the MLB roster, he certainly won’t outlast their stays in the Yankees organization. Get well soon Giancarlo and Aaron!
Last but certainly not least, we come to the curious case of Gio Urshela. Moreso than any other player listed above, Urshela has capitalized on his Yankees opportunity with actual, tangible production on the field that has benefited the team greatly. His 0.6 WAR over 20 games is currently the third highest of any position player on the roster, and exceeds the combined contributions of the other five guys discussed here. Whereas with Wade or Tauchman you have to squint your eyes to see a big league player, there is no ambiguity with Urshela. While unspectacular, he has justified every day he has spent with the active roster.
But with Andujar returning and no minor league options remaining, he also has the most uncertain future. Urshela, historically valued for his solid defense at third base, has hardly any experience at the other infield positions. He has emerged offensively in a surprising and pleasant way this year, currently touting a .351/.415/.509 (148 wRC+) slash line and strong peripherals like a 13.8 K%, 7.7 BB%, and .383 xwOBA. But no matter how well he hits, there is no possibility he will unseat Andujar as the starter as long as they’re both healthy.
So what to do with a solid player that has no short term path to playing time, but is also the best option to replace the starter who may well go down again due to injury? With no minor league options remaining, it is clear to me that Urshela should be kept on the active roster until forced out by a fully healthy roster (a problem I can only pray the Yankees will one day have). With uncertainty swirling around Andujar’s shoulder and the flexibility of the Yankees other infielders, Urshela should be able to find at bats and provide value even when not starting every game at 3B.
While the Yankees could just as easily cut ties with him in favor of a more defensively flexible piece, I hope he’s allowed the opportunity to prove himself as the backup infielder. His offensive approach is unmatched among the other utility options, and his 3B skills should translate naturally to 2B at a bare minimum. Hopefully Cashman and the front office will see this and not make a rash decisions to cut ties with a grinder who has been nothing but excellent in his short time in pinstripes.
To conclude, here is my list of expected transactions in order of expected return date of the current injured starter.
While of course it will be exciting to get the stars back, I’ll be sad to see some of these guys go. Though at times it’s been ugly, these guys have consistently battled for wins and it’s clear that none of them take their big league chance for granted. As the season progresses, it’s entirely possible that some will emerge as key pieces as we move toward the postseason and the quest for the 28th championship.