The Yankee bench has been incredibly productive this year. We’ve all seen Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez, and Raul Ibanez hit as well or better than anyone could have expected of them. Nix, Wise, and Stewart haven’t been as good, but no one is complaining as long as the Yankees are in first place. During the regular season, its important to have versatile (on defense) guys like the latter three to play 9 innings at a position once or twice a week, and rest tired veterans. Once September hits, and the rosters expand, you can start to bring up more niche players. Into the playoffs, you can hold fewer versatile defensive guys and really hone in on guys who can hit.
Triple-A Empire State has two such players: Russell Branyan and Jack Cust. Both are aging former major league sluggers who can hit far above replacement level. Branyan is hitting .311/.444/.656 in 122 at bats, with 12 home runs, although he’s been sidelined with a pair of nagging injuries. Cust is hitting a slightly more modest, but still robust, .260/.401/.501 in 308 at bats, and has been healthy. Both left-handed hitters are big and slow, and both have accomplished track records at the major league level. And I think they could be secret weapons for the Yankees.
Branyan and Cust are horrible defensive players. Branyan is stuck at 1st base – where the Yankees are already filled up – and Cust may be worse than Raul Ibanez in left field. Given how useful the Yankee bench has been, it doesn’t make sense to keep them on the 25-man roster when Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez are handling the opportunities quite well. But if Brett Gardner does not return for the playoffs, and the Yankees don’t make any more moves, I think that there could be room on the postseason bench for one of the two.
The Yankees have their seven original position players. Assuming Brett Gardner stays out, that means you have two spots in the playoff lineup for two of Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and Eric Chavez. Nix (or, I guess, Nunez) and Stewart (or, I guess, Romine) will almost definitely round out the bench, leaving the Yankees with some flexibility for the remaining spots. That current group represents 12 position players, and your typical playoff roster will have 13 or 14. The Yankees might want to include one pinch runner type, and one hitter. Although it would be nice to have a right-handed bench bat, Branyan and Cust are about as good as it gets for replacement bats.
In fact, the Yankees really should consider if they are better options than Raul Ibanez as a primary left-handed bat. For now, the Yankees need Ibanez in left field, even if he’s terrible out there. If Gardner returns, Ibanez would become a primary DH again. Despite the dramatic home runs, Ibanez is hitting just .242/.303/.463 on the season. I wouldn’t be shocked if either Cust – who is still an OBP machine – or Branyan – who can still hit for huge power – would be better hitters at this point. The Yankees shouldn’t mistake Ibanez’s clutch home runs for real value. Ibanez hurts them in very real ways by not getting on base, even if he makes up for it quite a bit with power.
To me, the biggest take away from this post is that the Yankees don’t need to add a bench bat at the trade deadline. I could see some justification for a Jayson Nix replacement, but with a 10 game lead, it probably isn’t worth giving up something significant for one. It still might be worth it to acquire a permanent option at left field, but only if its someone who will start most games against right-handed pitchers. Or they could just cross their fingers and hope Brett Gardner returns.
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