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Among the many challenging items facing evaluators this season is determining what to extract from last year’s 60-game season. A little. A lot. Nothing.
Yet, for the Yankees, one of their most important real-time decisions involves a 60-game subset from the 162-game 2019 season. The 60 games from July 4 of that year until Sept. 8, coincided with when Mike Tauchman played regularly and brilliantly until he injured his calf and was lost for the season.
If the Yankees believe in that Tauchman — and both Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone said Tauchman is way more like that performer than the guy who struggled in 2020 — then he is an easy pick over Jay Bruce for the final positional roster spot.
For players such as Bruce are available regularly, including often Bruce. He was traded every year from 2016-19. He did not sign this year until mid-February and then on a minor league pact. His best asset for the Yankees is his lefty power. But if the Yanks believe in the 2019 Tauchman, they get lefty power for their righty-saturated roster, plus plate discipline, defense at three outfield spots (notably center) that Boone called “elite,” plus four years of club control. Players who have that bundle are not easy to find.
We will learn this week what the Yanks really think about Tauchman. Without injury, the Yankees have one positional roster spot available. Bruce, Tauchman and theoretically Derek Dietrich are vying for it. Clarity is a few days away. If the Yanks do not put Bruce on the 40-man roster Wednesday, his contract allows him to request they make him available to the other 29 clubs, any of which have 48 hours to agree to put him on the major league roster. That would turn his minor league deal to a major league one and guarantee him the $1.5 million he agreed to be paid if he made the Yankees.
If no team does that by March 27 — five days before the opener — every veteran with at least six years of major league service on a minor league contract (such as Bruce) must be offered a $100,000 retention fee, which if given obligates the player to accept a minor league designation until June 1 (unless the player has contractual outs before then). Often, though, teams will release the player with the understanding that they will sign him back to a minor league deal but bypass paying the $100,000 extra.
So the Yankees can go with Tauchman and try to retain Bruce for a period with the understanding that if there are any injuries in the outfield, first or DH, he will be summoned. But the Yanks probably have to assume that Bruce has shown enough in performance and conditioning this spring to entice another team. With no DH in the NL, for example, clubs could be looking for a veteran pinch-hit type who can provide depth at first or the corner outfield, or maybe even start.
Tauchman is out of options, so if the Yanks don’t put him on the Opening Day roster they would almost certainly lose him through waivers. So if Tauchman does not make the Yanks, he will be traded. An AL executive said, “Tauchman has been shopped around. They are asking back something of significance and I don’t think anyone would buy him that way.” That jibes with what Cashman told me: “There are definitely teams interested in him. Trading him is not the issue, though. Trading him for better value than he provides us is.”
That suggests Cashman is currently valuing Tauchman as close to the 2019 player, not the one who amassed a .648 OPS last year with no homers. Tauchman revealed a 2019 shoulder injury this spring that messed with his bat path and ability to pull the ball and catch up with fastballs. Cashman said Tauchman hid the discomfort in a shortened season and that the clock worked against him getting healthy. Cashman said the pull power was back in batting practice and games from the outset this year.
Does that unlock 2019? In those two eye-opening months, Tauchman played 48 games and generated a slash line of .325/.403/.584 for a .987 OPS. He had nine homers, went 5-for-5 in steals and defended at a high level before the strained left calf ended his season. Cashman said he “daydreams” of Tauchman staying healthy and if that would have enabled the Yanks to beat the Astros in the ALCS.
For those two months, Tauchman was one of the majors’ best players. In the same window, for example, the top three AL MVP finishers in Mike Trout, Alex Bregman and Marcus Semien also excelled. But so did Aristides Aquino, Jake Cave and Mitch Garver, who all collapsed last year. One other name that starred in that period stands out: Gio Urshela. He validated his 2019 Yankees breakout with excellence last year. Those 60 games were not just a small, deceiving sample.
So is Tauchman like Urshela — just needing an extended, healthy chance? The issue is not without importance. Tauchman played in 2019 because Stanton was out the entire window, and Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge all went on the injured list. All remain physical red flags. Gardner is the fourth outfielder with Clint Frazier starting in left. So do the Yanks value Tauchman as a fifth outfielder who may be able to replace Gardner after this season? Or would they rather have Bruce’s power quotient and perhaps superior first base defense to Luke Voit?
“We have a difficult decision ahead,” Boone said. “A lot of factors go into that decision.”
The biggest one: How much do you believe in Tauchman’s 60 games of 2019 excellence?
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