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What’s more valuable: An extra bench player or bullpen arm?

So far this season, the Yankees haven’t had a whole lot of choice when it comes to their roster moves. Injuries have forced them time and again to throw stopgap players and fill-ins onto the roster to fill out the team. But with Miguel Andujar‘s return this past weekend, Clint Frazier due back Monday, and Aaron Hicks in the midst of a successful start to his rehab stint, the Yankees will soon have the cavalry back.

This raises a question I feel has been little examined in Yankees world…is 13 pitchers and 12 position players really the best construction for the roster?

For several seasons running now, the Yankees have defaulted to using the last roster spot for a pitcher. It was taken as a given this spring when Stephen Tarpley was given a roster spot early, leaving Tyler Wade to miss out to Mike Tauchman. But why was the debate Wade vs. Tauchman when it could have just as easily been Wade vs. Tarpley?

Ostensibly, the Yankees seem to be worried about “running out of pitchers”. In today’s game where starters are only expected to pitch into the 5th or 6th, it is certainly rational to be concerned about the wear and tear on bullpen arms, and the possibility for a bad start leaving the manager in a bind.

And right now, after the latest injury that will see James Paxton moving to the IL for at least a couple weeks, I totally understand the rationale of maintaining eight bullpen arms rather than a fourth bench player. Jonathan Loaisiga, the expected replacement, has been good in the big leagues but has hardly shown a propensity to go deep in games. He has yet to exceed 5.1 IP in a major league start. To protect against fatigue, keeping bullpen arms like Tarpley and Joe Harvey on the roster is a perfectly defensible and rational move.

What happens when the team gets healthier?

But when Paxton returns, and especially once Luis Severino and Dellin Betances (hopefully) come back this season, I believe it is high time for the Yankees to evaluate the marginal benefit of a pitcher holding the last roster spot. Currently, last resort bullpen arms Tarpley, Jake Barrett, and Harvey have accrued just 13.1 IP between them. That’s barely one outing per every three games played.

For the sake of the argument, let’s play out a worst case scenario where the bullpen is forced into significant work on consecutive days and the proverbial last man is out of gas and the bullpen is running on fumes. Barrett, Harvey, Tarpley, and Chance Adams are all on the 40-man roster and have minor league options available. Let’s fire back up the Scranton Shuttle and shift these guys back and forth between AAA and the majors.

The 10-day rule dictating that a player must remain in AAA at least 10 days after being demoted provides a slight hitch. But the probability that all four of these options will be exhausted within a 10 day span is exceedingly low. In that disaster scenario, Domingo Acevedo and Albert Abreu are also on the 40-man roster, and could be used as last resort options.

Depth on the bench

Now we come to the counterfactual, which is the use of a fourth bench player rather than an eighth bullpen arm. Is that fourth player really more valuable than a guy like Tarpley, or Harvey, or Barrett? With a healthy roster, the position player on the bubble is likely Clint Frazier, Gio Urshela, or Wade. I would argue that all three provide significantly more value, even if only used in a part time capacity.

Wade could be employed as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. Ditto for Urshela, who could cover for Andujar late in games or be used to reduce stress on his injured shoulder. And Frazier could be used in rotation with Gardner as well as allowing the big bashers in the outfield to rotate through the DH spot.

No matter how you cut it, I’m frankly disappointed in the Yankees seeming paranoia with the eighth bullpen arm. For a highly analytic organization, this seems like an inefficiency that is not being exploited by their “nerds in the tunnel”. Every team in the AL besides the Houston Astros is currently employing a three man bench. But, on average, the last man in the bullpen has pitched only once in the last week or not at all!

It’s time for the Yankees to break this convention and look to make better use of their final roster spot. If Chad Green can return to form, Dellin Betances gets healthy, and there are absolutely no other injuries in between, then there is a legitimate argument that the last bullpen arm provides more value than the extra bench player.

But until that unlikely day comes, I am a staunch advocate for breaking unspoken AL rules and adding an extra position player to the major league roster. It seems like a no brainer low-risk, high-reward move that could reap dividends over the course of the season.

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