The Orioles, Yankees & the Importance of Depth

The New York Yankees have been somewhat unfortunate with injuries over the past six months.  Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera suffered injuries in 2012 that required surgery.  Both players are on track to be ready for Opening Day, but there are certainly questions to how well the veteran players will hold up over a full season.  Alex Rodriguez is lost for most – if not all – of the 2013 season after January hip surgery.  New York’s projected 4th starter, Phil Hughes, has a bulging disc in his back that might force him to the disabled list for the start of the season.  Outfielder Curtis Granderson suffered a broken forearm after being hit in his first Spring Training game back in February and is out until mid-May. The latest Yankee injury news is that Mark Teixeira – who was already thought to be out until the end of May with a wrist strain – actually has a partially torn tendon sheath that could possibly require season ending surgery if the injury does not heal on its own.

The Yankees are no doubt banged up.  One could argue that the injuries are part of the risk they run for fielding such an old team.  Of the ailing Yankees, Jeter and Rodriquez are in their late 30’s (39 and 37, respectively); Teixeira and Granderson in their lower 30’s; and Rivera will play the 2013 season at the age of 43 which is downright ancient by baseball standards.  Only Hughes could be considered a younger play at 27 years old.  It is quite possible that the age of their roster is largely responsible for their injury woes.

Regardless of the reason for the injuries, one thing is for sure – the Yankees have put themselves in a poor position to overcome any sort of injury onslaught.  The Yankees simply lack depth – in both quantity and quality – to deal with injuries relative to other teams.

The injuries to Teixeira and Granderson have left the Yankees scrambling for answers in both leftfield at first base.  New York did have internal options to replace Teixeira and Granderson at the time of their respective injuries.  The organization had the following corner infield and outfield options in their system prior to the start of Spring Training:

Matt Diaz

Juan Rivera

Dan Johnson

Jayson Nix

Thomas Neal

Of those options, 35 year-old Diaz provided the most value although all of that value comes from his ability to hit LHP (.863 career OPS against LHP compared to .675 vs. RHP).  At one time Juan Rivera was an above average hitter.  However, he is coming off three consecutive sub-.725 OPS seasons and is only good – not great – against RHP (.820 career OPS).  Rivera will also be 35 years old in July and is more or less a designated hitter at this stage in his career.  At 25 years old, Thomas Neal has good Minor League numbers (.840 OPS in seven seasons) but has less than 300 PA’s at AAA and very limited time in the Majors.  Nix is a light hitting utility infielder with Johnson is a no-hit first baseman – even if he does have a certain flare for the dramatic.

There are no obvious solutions from that group – a conclusion the Yankees came to as well.  Following the news of Teixeira’s injury, the Yankees reached out to retired players Derek Lee and Chipper Jones, both of whom politely turned down the opportunity to play for New York.  nnSince Granderson hit the disabled list on February 25th, the Yankees have acquired the following outfielders and/or corner infield options.

Ben Francisco

Brennan Boesch

Francisco will be 31 years old and is a career .257/.326/.425 hitter coming off of a season in which he hit .240/.285/.385.  He has no discernable platoon splits.  Boesch is a career .259/.315/.414 hitter coming off of a .240/.286/.372 season as a 27 year old with the Tigers.  Boesch has two options remaining, which made him an attractive pick up for New York.  The Yankees also have a couple of homegrown players who might get a chance to fill in while Granderson is on the shelf.  Ronnier Mustelier is a 28-year old Cuban outfielder.  He hit very well in the minors but never played above AA.   Melky Mesa is a light hitting (.244/.315/.436 career minor league numbers) 26-year old outfielder who has only 3 plate appearances with the parent club.

The Yankees have some options but are lacking in both quantity and quality of depth, which makes today’s decision to release Matt Diaz all the more curious.    As an Article XX(B) free agent, Diaz could have opted out of his deal on March 26th but there was no need to jettison him this early.  The Yankees’ actions would appear to indicate that they don’t place any real value on depth even at a time where they are reeling from injuries on their Major League roster.  The Yankee adage has always been to bring in superstar performers and let them perform.  They are a team that has largely operated successfully without much depth.  It is a philosophy the team has not really come off of, even though it would have benefited them to do so considering their current situation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is where we find Dan Duquette and the Baltimore Orioles.  Under Duquette, Baltimore has made organizational depth the upmost priority.  The Orioles had 52 players pass through Baltimore in 2012 and the team never stopped adding to their talent base even when no there was not a pressing need on the big league club.  The Orioles did not necessarily need Nate McLouth when they signed him in early May.  Nolan Reimold had yet to be lost for the season and the O’s had some other internal options to consider left field.  By August, the Orioles had a need for left fielder but McLouth’s overall numbers in Norfolk were less than impressive.  However, he had played well recently and could opt out of his contract if not with the Major League team by a certain date in August.   Not wanting to lose a potential asset, the Orioles promoted McLouth who became a pivotal driving force in Baltimore’s playoff run, specifically when Nick Markakis was lost of the rest of the season in early September.   Organizations never know when they will have to reach into their reserves – or how far they will have to reach in – so it makes sense to be as prepared as possible.  The Orioles demonstrated that not only through McLouth, but through a host of other players during their 2012 playoff run.

Duquette went right back to work – early and often – in replenishing the reserves this winter.  In fact, Duquette started preparing the 2013 depth supply before the 2012 regular season was over.  With three games left in the 2012 regular season, Duquette claimed Steve Pearce (who had been with the Orioles earlier in the season) off of waivers from the Yankees (more on that later) with the purpose of having Pearce under team control for 2013.  Aside from Pearce, Duquette added Jason Pridie, Conor Jackson, Travis Ishikawa, Danny Valencia, Yamaico Navarro, and Trayvon Robinson – among others – before the calendar even flipped over to 2013.  Others – such as Russ Canzler and Todd Redmond – were added to the team closer towards Spring Training.

The Orioles have been fortunate in avoiding the injury bug (knock on wood) relative to the Yankees so far but it is impossible to argue that they are also far better prepared for any injuries that might occur.  While all depth acquisitions carry question marks – Baltimore is no exception in this regard – the Orioles are certainly well stocked which betters their odds of being able to replace injured/underperforming players with quality replacements.

For example, if Nick Markakis’ recovery from a bulging disc is a little slower than anticipated and he begins the season on the DL, the Orioles likely shift Nolan Reimold into right-field to begin the season and choose from a list of candidates for backup outfielder that includes Pridie, Jackson, Canzler, Pearce, Robinson, Chris Dickerson, and Lew Ford.  Ford, Pearce, and Dickerson finished in the top 7 amongst International League players in OPS in 2012.  Pridie, Canzler, and Pearce were in the #30 to #43 range in that same category.  Given that there are 14 teams in the International League, an equal distribution would have 3 players from each team in the top 42 spots.  The Orioles have six in the top 43 – which is ahead of the curve if nothing else.

For whatever it is worth – and Spring Training statistics might not be worth a whole lot – Pearce, Ford, and Jackson all have an OPS of greater than 1.110 in 31 or more plate appearances thus far this spring.   Pearce, Canzler, and Ishikawa each posted an OPS of .697 of more in 95 or more Major League plate appearances in 2012.  Ford performed around replacement level in 80 Major League plate appearances while Dickerson hit very well for the Yankees in 2012 in less than 30 PA’s.

However you chose to look at it, it is clear that the Orioles are in a much more comfortable position should they lose Markakis to start the season than the Yankees are without Granderson to begin the season.  One could look anywhere on the diamond for both teams and likely reach the same conclusion.  Baltimore is in a much better position than the Yankees to whether a storm of injuries.

Interestingly enough, the Yankees could very easily have had some of the players that the Orioles will now be counting on to provide depth.  As previously mentioned, Pearce was released at the tail end of the 2012 season (to make room for a returning Brett Gardner).  New York claimed Canzler earlier this year only to release him when they added Travis Hafner (strictly a platoon DH).  Dickerson played for the Yankees in 2012, which at the very least opens up the possibility that the Yankees could have retained his services if interested.  Instead, the Yankees have none of those players and have had to scramble to come up with solutions.

There is no telling how the season will play out.  Maybe the Yankees strike gold and get solid production from what depth they do have.  Perhaps the Orioles’ superior depth (on paper) does not positively impact their season.  However, on March 17th it is the Yankees who are feverishly looking for replacements while the Orioles sit comfortably in the knowledge that they have solid depth – at most every position – to handle whatever bumps in the road might come.  It is an advantage and one that should not be underappreciated.  As the Orioles showed in 2012 and the 2013 Yankees are perhaps showing on the other end, the quality and quantity of the reserves can have just as significant of an impact on a season as the quality of the starters.