2013 Season Preview: The Left Fielders

Spring Training Game Thread: Jeter back at DH
Yankees sign Ben Francisco to minor league deal

As recently as 15 days ago, the Yankees were planning to improve their defense by moving Curtis Granderson to left field with Brett Gardner taking over in center. Then J.A. Happ broke Granderson’s forearm with an errant pitch and the experiment was over. The team’s incumbent center fielder will be out until early-May, and the Yankees decided he wasn’t going to have enough time to learn the new position while on his rehab assignment. The priority will be getting Granderson’s bat back in the lineup as soon as possible, understandably.

With the outfield plan abandoned, Gardner will return to left field after filling in at center for the first few weeks of the campaign. A collection of cast-offs and kinda sorta prospects are battling it out for reserve roles with no candidate standing out from the pack, either on paper or on the field in Spring Training.

The Starter
The 29-year-old Gardner is returning from a lost season, as an elbow injury and numerous setbacks (and eventually surgery) kept him on the shelf from early-April through late-September. The Yankees lacked speed without him and it was painfully obvious at times. Their outfield defense also took a major hit, although Raul Ibanez‘s effort was admirable. Admirable, but often ugly.

Replacing Ibanez and miscellaneous other fill-in left fielders with Gardner figures to be the biggest upgrade the club made in the offseason. Last year’s left fielders gave the team a power-heavy 92 OPS+ with no speed and poor defense, but that has been traded for Gardner’s on-base heavy career 93 OPS+ with high-end speed and defense. The Yankees will get fewer homers but much better all-around production. It’s a big upgrade even though he doesn’t fit the typical profile for the position.

The most important thing will be actually keeping Gardner on the field this year. He’s battled numerous injuries in recent years and nearly all of them can be considered flukes — fractured thumb on a stolen base (2009), wrist surgery following a hit-by-pitch (2010), elbow surgery following a sliding catch (2012) — but injuries are injuries and they’ve added up. Gardner will be an upgrade over Ibanez & Co. only if he stays healthy, which has been a challenge. Given the injuries to Granderson and Teixeira, it’s not a stretch to call him the team’s second most important player for the early-season.


The Backup
This was an unanswered question even before Granderson got hurt — the Yankees were going to sort through the likes of Matt Diaz, Juan Rivera, Melky Mesa and others for the right-handed hitting outfielder’s role. Now those guys are competing for a starting job and as of today, there is no obvious favorite. Mesa has been solid in camp and so has Zoilo Almonte, but they are hardly guaranteed the job. Diaz and Rivera have been fine at the plate (considering it’s early-March) but less so in the field (particularly Rivera). Two of these guys — we shouldn’t forget Thomas Neal and Ronnie Mustelier either — are going to make the team and play regularly while Granderson is shelved. Ichiro Suzuki is always an option to fill-in at left as well.

Knocking on the Door
This ties in with the previous section, but the Yankees are expected to have an all-prospect outfield at Triple-A Scranton this summer. Mesa, Almonte, and Mustelier are the obvious candidates, but one or more could wind up making the big league team. It’s a very fluid situation at the moment. Regardless of what happens, a few of these outfield candidates will inevitably wind up in Northeast Pennsylvania and wait their turn in the Bronx.

The Top Prospect
Left field isn’t a true prospect position, it’s a last report position. Guys wind up there if they can’t cut it in center or right, or even third or first bases at times. With Tyler Austin projected as right fielder and both Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott looking like no-doubt center fielders, the team’s most obvious future left fielder is Ramon Flores. I aggressively ranked him fifth in my preseason top 30 prospects list. The soon-to-be 21-year-old hit .302/.370/.420 (126 wRC+) with six homers and 24 steals in 583 plate appearances for High-A Tampa this season, and he owns arguably the best plate discipline and approach in the organization. The Yankees added Flores to the 40-man roster after the season to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft and will start him at Double-A Trenton, but he’s not going to be a big league factor in 2013. The 2014 season could be another matter entirely.

The Deep Sleeper
We have to reach a little because there aren’t many prospects in the lower minors who project as long-term left fielders — kids that far down usually haven’t grown out of center field yet — but Nathan Mikolas makes sense year. Last summer’s third rounder didn’t hit a lick after signing for $400k, producing a .149/.295/.184 (62 wRC+) line with 35 strikeouts in 105 plate appearances (33.3 K%) for the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate. He didn’t make my preseason top 30 list. The 19-year-old has a “balanced left-handed swing and quality bat speed that give him the potential to become a plus hitter with average power” according to Baseball America (subs. req’d), who also notes “his athleticism, speed, arm and defensive ability are all below-average.” That’s where the whole left field thing comes into play. Mikolas will be held back in Extended Spring Training to open the season before re-joining one of the two GCL squads at midseason. If he shakes off the rough pro debut and starts showing off some of those hitting skills, he’ll quickly become an interesting prospect to follow.

* * *

The Yankees dominated the late-1990s despite a revolving door in left field, but that position is much more important to the current team. New York’s best player at something — speed and defense (Gardner) or power (Granderson) — was going to hold down the position one way or the other, whether they went through with the position switch or not. Someone like Mesa or Rivera or Diaz will have to hold down the left field fort for at least 4-5 weeks while Granderson is on the shelf, which is not exactly ideal.

Other Previews: Catchers, First Basemen, Second Basemen, Shortstops, Third Basemen

Spring Training Game Thread: Jeter back at DH
Yankees sign Ben Francisco to minor league deal
  • John C

    why Mikolas and not Taylor Dugas? Dugas had a very good season in Short season ball last year

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      He’s 23 already.

  • BK2ATL

    Wow, Gardner’s already 29?????

    Wonder when the declining speed player narrative will start coming up about him. He’s arb-eligible in 2 seasons and a FA in 3.

    • Havok9120

      “Start coming up?” We hear it all the time as the reasoning behind not extending him.

      It makes sense, too. Almost all of his value is tied up in his speed, and that doesn’t stick around forever.

  • Eddard

    Gardner should be playing center, Granderson in left. It just makes no sense do to the opposite. The superior defender who can cover more ground should be in center and your worst OF defender with the weakest arm in LF. Gardner will be playing CF next year anyway so might as well make the change now.

    • trr

      agree, but as you’ve read here, apparently the team is concerned with Granderson’s comfort level upon his return in May. Myself, I believe that an experienced professional should be able to rehab/return and deal with this type of position change at the same time….Anyway, here’s hoping Gardy stays healthy this year, we’re gonna need him!

      • Jim Is Bored

        In theory I agree, but the angles in CF and LF are pretty different. And Granderson wouldn’t have spring training to get used to it; and it’s not the same when you’re in the minors.

        I do wish they’d work towards making the change, but I don’t think forcing it after injury is a great plan.

        • keithK

          Here’s what I don’t get. If LF are generally failed center and right fielders then that implies that everyone who plays LF has had to learn it on the fly at some point. Lots of guys shift down to LF – it’s near the bottom of the defensive spectrum. I don’t see why Granderson “learning” LF is such a big deal. Yes, the angles are different. But he’s a professional outfielder. He should be able to make the switch to an easier position without much of a big deal.

          The real issue is just wanting to keep Granderson happy.

          • Eddard

            Then management is spineless. Granderson is a professional who should accept a move to LF to help the ballclub. He will not be back next year anyway. If the intent is to re-sign Robbie and get under $189 million Granderson will not be brought back.

  • dasani

    Lets just see if Lou Pinella and Tino Martinez are willing to come out of retirement ad all our problems would be solved.

  • dasani

    Lets see if Bernie and Tino would come out of retirement and all our problems would be sloved

  • Ken

    Is Grady Sizemore totally out of the question for the Yankees?

    • Ally

      I heard that he wont sign with a team until he is healthy and that wont be til midseason.

  • I am Jack’s Blog

    Apparently Ben Francisco was just signed by our very own Yankees to a minor league deal. Implications?

    • Jersey Joe