Yankees beef up their benchEmergence of Duncan, Giambi's return, gives Torre options
After going into the season with a crew of reserves that could probably have been considered average at best, the Yankees have been able to beef up their backups through a variety of means. Heck, one of them is usually in the starting lineup every night, so I hesitate to even call someone like Wilson Betemit a legit bench player. With Jason Giambi quickly returning to full-time form, one of the Yankees' current regulars will probably be pushed into a reserve role; the smart money is on Andy Phillips.
Johnny Damon would be another logical candidate, but when Damon is at full strength his offense at the top of the order is too valuable to lose regularly. Giambi could take his starting spot at first base and Phillips could easily spell him in the late innings. Plus, the versatile Phillips can play either first, second, or third if one of the other infielders needs a day off. The rehabbing Doug Mientkiewicz could throw a wrench into things, but we'll leave him to the side for now.
With Giambi still in and out of the lineup, he sometimes joins Shelley Duncan on the bench in games. Duncan seems to have gotten much more media coverage for his forearm smashes and high energy celebrations than his few at-bats lately, but there's no denying this: the 27-year-old never gets cheated on swings. One thing that needs to be explored is whether or not Duncan can excel in a pinch-hitting role. Prior to coming up to the majors, he was used to playing every day at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Some players are not able to come off the bench cold and be effective; that was a knock on Bernie Williams towards the end of his tenure.
Through Wednesday's action, Duncan only had 13 at-bats since Aug. 4. If there's a chance that he might serve that role in meaningful late September games, perhaps in October too, he'll need some more trips to the plate. The infrequent playing time doesn't seem to bother him much though.
"I think the guys who are on the bench every day are having fun with it now," Duncan said in a recent interview with MLB.com's Caleb Breakey. "I think at some point in the year people can sort of be upset about not playing, but now, looking at the lineup every day, everybody can say, 'Whoa, this is a bench. We're a part of it.'"
Like Duncan, Betemit and Jose Molina joined the Yankees in the middle of the season. Both were acquired through trades, with the Betemit deal being a year in the making. At the 2006 trading deadline, the Yankees targeted him when he was playing with the Atlanta Braves, but he was eventually traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They finally got their man last month in a simple one-for-one swap that sent Scott Proctor back to L.A. four years to the day that the Dodgers dealt him to the Yankees.
The bullpen hasn't missed a beat, while Betemit has made key contributions out of multiple positions. As a backup catcher, Molina doesn't see as much playing time as the utility man, but it can be argued that his role is the most important of all the reserves: helping regular catcher Jorge Posada stay fresh.
"He's enormously important," Joe Torre said to MLB.com's David Briggs following Molina's first career four-hit game, which came against the Indians on Aug. 11 in Cleveland. "Backup catchers are so tough to come by. We're lucky that we had an opportunity to get Jose."
Two players who could wind up being key reserves down the stretch have been on the roster year long, Damon and Giambi. Circumstances like the emergence of Melky Cabrera and Phillips have pushed them into specialized roles when they are probably good enough to be starting on most Major League clubs. When not starting at designated hitter, Giambi gives Torre an excellent power threat off the bench in the late innings.
As for Damon, he's a potent hitter too, and the rest that bench time provides him should allow him to be a fantastic pinch-runner. It's not every day that two players with resumes like theirs find themselves in back-up roles, but Betemit knows the value of their presence on the bench.
"Great players on the bench," Betemit said. "I mean, these guys can do anything. That's why we're here. If they need me or one of these guys to do a job, we're ready to do it. That's part of the team."