New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi has it easy doesn't he? Girardi operates with a roster littered with high-priced players so a postseason berth should be no problem. It is not that simple.
The Yankees indeed have a swollen payroll, but the roster is also one filled with players who are worth far less than the value associated with their salary. This isn't Girardi's doing, but he has to deal with it.
Girardi hears a good deal of crap from fans - he is overly loyal to veterans, he overuses the top arms in the bullpen and he mismanages the offensive side of the roster. I too jump on Girardi from time to time, but I've never gotten to the point others have who deliriously wait for him to make a "mistake" in order to thumb-out the hashtag #FireGirardi.
Why have I refrained from that bandwagon? I believe I see a transformation in Girardi.
All spring Girardi has stressed that the fifth starter role was an open competition; moreover he stated no one had a firm grip on a rotation spot. Not many believe him (myself included), but Girardi knows as well as we do; there is little chance that the Yankees will get through this season without injuries to the rotation. He also understands that his actions now will go a long way toward helping him and the club as the season progresses.
What if Girardi told Ivan Nova - and to a lesser extent Bryan Mitchell - that they had no chance of breaking the rotation? It's defeating them before they even begin. The approach that they can battle for a spot makes more sense than telling them to come to camp, work as a starter but be prepared to go to the bullpen or potentially Triple-A in Mitchell's case regardless. Utilizing the method of fighting for a spot puts a fire under the pitcher; it pushes them to deliver. It also tells the player that their manager believes he can be impactful in the rotation. If he misses out, it's supposedly about performance.
Now this might be a bit of a stretch with CC Sabathia seemingly ready to take that final spot despite a rocky spring. However, Girardi is also smart enough to know that Sabathia was better than Nova at the end of last season, and the veteran southpaw is completely unsuitable for the bullpen. Sticking a torch under Sabathia is not exactly a bad thing either.
In the end, anticipate Girardi to stick with Sabathia because the bullpen situation is something that will be incredibly fluid in 2016. I figure Girardi will give Sabathia good month to begin the regular season to see if he is viable to stick in the rotation. If it is not working out, it will be a tough decision to remove Sabathia, but I feel Girardi is finally in a place to cut bait based on his choice last fall to bench Jacoby Ellsbury for the wild card game last season. Whatever way it falls out, Girardi should get some kudos for being loyal to the veteran, but being ready to pull the plug when necessary.
That leads us into the discussion of how Girardi handles his bullpen. Does he like to march out his top arms in as many games as it takes to win? Yes, and I ask you; should he be doing something else? The Yankees possess three extremely dominant arms in Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. Chasen Shreve should be reliable for most of his appearances as a set up man. The rest of the bullpen will consist of Nova (17 2/3 relief innings in his career), potentially Mitchell (a starter by trade) and one reliever who will go in and out of a revolving door along with his Scranton/Wilkes-Barre teammates.
This is the hand that Girardi was dealt. There are a number of talented young relievers, but they have been wildly inconsistent since the incarnation of the shuttle last season. Girardi understands he has to use - and eventually trust - the front end of the bullpen, but rest assured he hopes he can get length from his starters so he can use a turnstile of sorts with his top four relievers as often as possible.
Some of the uncertainty surrounding the bullpen falls squarely on the club missing Chapman for the first 30 games of the season. This will open up another spot for a young reliever; forcing Girardi to use at least one pitcher in a role that might not feel comfortable. It is not a good spot to be in, but that is what is in front of Girardi. If Girardi can navigate Chapman's suspension without wearing down Betances, Miller and Shreve and find a way to have faith in one or two more relievers along the way, it should earn Girardi some respect for how he handles the bullpen.
It is important for Girardi to handle his offense in much of the same manner in 2016. I sense that Girardi has changed his tune vastly because he sees the shift within his roster courtesy of general manager Brian Cashman. It has become evident to Girardi and anyone paying attention that he has several players who will be unable to play 140+ games and provide peak performance.
Would Girardi rather have a lineup with all of his veteran regulars every day? Of course, what manager wouldn't? Nevertheless, he also realizes that he is going to have a completely competent and productive bench this season, one that can provide rest to the aging players without much (if any) dip in performance.
With Aaron Hicks at the forefront of the bench options, Girardi not only has a young player with offensive upside, but one with extreme defensive versatility. Hicks can slot into any of the outfield positions and provide excellent defense while aiding the club with his bat, especially from the right side of the plate. Girardi has already stated that he would be providing Hicks with "regular" work, meaning he is not simply an injury replacement. Hicks can spell each of the regulars once per week on a regular basis, and this is almost a necessity in my opinion. Hicks also provides the Yankees a way to rest designated hitter Alex Rodriguez, by giving a "half-day" to one of the outfielders.
Girardi will also need to exhibit confidence in his backup catcher behind Brian McCann (Austin Romine, Carlos Corporan and Gary Sanchez are all still options in camp). The same goes for first baseman Mark Teixeira, who has failed to appear in more than 125 games since 2011. Dustin Ackley seems ready for the backup role. Finally, if Rob Refsnyder makes the club as the utility infielder, he can play third base for Chase Headley, who seemed to suffer from overuse in 2015 (team leading 156 games played). Refsnyder can also spell second baseman Starlin Castro either for rest or to shift him over to shortstop in order to give Didi Gregorius a day off.
Girardi does not have the hardest managerial job in baseball, but it is not as simplistic as many suppose. He has to balance a veteran roster ripe with aging bodies, some destined to show signs of regression at varying points throughout the season. He does not have the luxury of a group of 20-somethings at his disposal - at least not as many as needed for complete roster turnover.
However, that transformation is motion, and because of it, Girardi must continue to evolve in how he handles the youth influx delivered to him by Cashman. For Girardi and the club to succeed, he must fully embrace the change of style he started to exhibit last season and if he does, he might finally earn some respect from the fans.