Why Tyler Wade likely supplants Luke Voit or Greg Bird on the Yankees' roster
Wade's versatility makes the utility man a shrewd bench addition
Looking at Grapefruit League results, one might assume the Yankees are set to carry both Luke Voit and Greg Bird on their Opening Day roster. That, however, would be a false assumption.
Alhough both have raked in early exhibitions, only one will trot out to the first-base line on March 28 to a polite applause from the Yankee Stadium crowd (or, in Voit's case, a healthy roar of "Luuuuuuuuke"). Aaron Boone indicated that he'll be choosing between the duo to man first base while leaving the other off the roster.
The Yankees have that luxury as both players have a Minor League option remaining. Bird has gone 8-for-23 with three doubles, a homer and five walks while Voit has been no less prolific, going 5-for-19 with two homers, four walks and a healthy .970 OPS (to Bird's 1.073). Neither Bird nor Voit will lose this competition so much as the other will win it.
Voit has the leg up after thrusting himself onto the scene in 2018, and that's fair; Bird needs to re-prove both his talent and health.
But back to the original question: Why won't the Yankees carry both players if they're hitting this well? It comes down to roster constraints. The team is committed to a 25-man roster with 13 pitchers and 12 position players, leaving just three bench spots. One bench spot is reserved for Austin Romine as backup catcher while D.J. LeMahieu's infield balancing act takes the second spot.
Tyler Wade has all but locked up the last spot.
The Yankees could make do with just their four outfielders (Brett Gardner, Giancarlo Stanton, Aarons Hicks and Judge), but they'll often be in the same lineup with Stanton DH'ing, creating a need for a backup outfielder rather than rolling with non-versatile first baseman with the last roster spot.
Clint Frazier could also lay claim to the last bench role. Considering his prospect promise and injury-plagued 2018, however, he's best served getting regular at-bats in Triple-A until a more substantial role becomes available, or if he forces the issue.
Enter Wade. Though he moved through the low minors as almost exclusively a middle infielder -- primarily shortstop -- by trade, the Yankees enacted a plan a few years ago to mold Wade into a Ben Zobrist-type. He's now started all over the outfield and played third, short and second in the Minors. He's played all those posts but center field this spring.
In an era of three-man benches -- which may be ending as soon as 2020 -- teams are forced to prioritize the fielding versatility of a Wade over the superior hit tools of a Bird or Voit. Wade can play just about anywhere and can do so competently enough to serve as a defensive replacement.
His hit tool, though, is questionable. In both 2017 and 2018, he failed to eclipse a .500 OPS in Major League action, hitting a combined .161/.218/.250 over 133 plate appearances. That's not a large sample size, but it dovetails with how he looked overmatched by MLB pitching. His best opportunity came to start 2018 in a three-week tryout before Gleyber Torres' call-up, and he wasn't up to the task.
Wade has hit for average in the Minors before. He hit .310 over nearly a full season of Triple-A work in 2017, though that could be the outlier in his profile. For what it's worth, he's hit well this spring; the 24-year-old has gone 6-for-21 with four doubles, a home run, two walks and a stolen base.
That lone stolen base hints at Wade's top talent: Speed. In scouting speak, he has 75-80 grade speed. In layman's terms, he's fast as all get out. When given a start, he can wreak havoc if he gets on base, stealing 144 bases over six seasons of pro ball. Off the bench, he becomes a potential pinch runner late in games. Boone has praised his potential as a late-game base stealer, and that's why he made the last two Wild Card Game rosters.
The same roster constraints that created an opportunity for Wade could work against him. Substituting him as a pinch runner shortens the team's bench in a way that may not be feasible some games, leaving him on the bench as a break-in-case-of-emergency option.
Still, the new-age utility man will have a chance to prove his mettle at the MLB level for the third straight year. With elite talent ahead of him at key positions, Wade's breakthrough chances appear small. However, he still provides plenty of value to the team regardless of how he hits, thus why he will likely squeeze Bird or Voit off the 25-man roster.