Mar
13

2013 Season Preview: The Right Fielders

By
(Star-Ledger)

(Star-Ledger)

Aside from two years of darkness between Paul O’Neill and Gary Sheffield, the Yankees have had some really productive right fielders over the last 30 years or so. It goes back to Dave Winfield and Jesse Barfield in the 1980s up to Bobby Abreu and Nick Swisher in the late-2000s/early-2010s. All fit the typical Yankee mold of power and patience, but the team completely reversed course this winter and will have a new look in right field this coming season.

The Starter
The Yankees decided a draft pick and financial flexibility was better than Swisher this offseason, so they replaced him with his polar opposite in Ichiro Suzuki. Swisher hits for power, Ichiro doesn’t. Swisher draws walks, Ichiro doesn’t. Swisher doesn’t steal bases, Ichiro does. Swisher swings and misses, Ichiro doesn’t. Swisher plays an average right field, Ichiro is much better. On and on it goes.

Of course, New York originally acquired Ichiro from the Mariners at the trade deadline for little cost because he simply stopped hitting, putting up a .268/.302/.342 batting line in his final 1,144 plate appearances with Seattle. That dates back to Opening Day 2011. His first 140 plate appearances in New York weren’t much better (.271/.297/.398), but he hit .394/.402/.532 in his final 100 plate appearances of the year. Ichiro either a) got comfortable all of a sudden, b) changed something mechanically, or c) just got lucky. Given his (and hitting coach Kevin Long’s) recent comments to Ken Davidoff, we can rule out (b).

(Star-Ledger)

(Star-Ledger)

Regardless of what was responsible for that September success, the Yankees have to hope it continues. They gave the 39-year-old Ichiro the only multi-year contract they handed out this winter (two years), a leap of faith at best and a stunningly poor decision at worst. It seems obvious off-field considerations like marketing and merchandise sales — Ichiro has an outside shot at reaching 3,000 hits late in 2014 — drove the contract while on-field impact was a secondary concern. In fairness, Ichiro is one of the few players with legitimate marquee value that transcends his on-field production. He’s a global star and will generate revenue for the team as long as he wears the uniform. Given Hal Steinbrenner’s admitted focus on the bottom line, this isn’t a surprise.

On the field, the Yankees are getting a contact machine who swings early and often, and will put the ball on the ground and use his speed to beat out infield hits. Yankee Stadium will surely boost Ichiro’s homer output somewhat, but all those ground balls limit his power ceiling. He’s a sterling defender with a lot of range and the best right field arm the Yankees have had since … Raul Mondesi? … but it plays down a bit because his release his slow. Maybe the Yankees will get vintage Ichiro!, the guy who hit .300+ in his sleep, or maybe they’re getting a near-40-year-old replacement level outfielder with name value. The club has to hope it’s the former (or at least someone in-between) because they pushed all their chips to the middle of the table on bet on those last three weeks of September.

The Backup
As I’ve said the last two days, the backup outfielder is still very much undecided. The Yankees signed Ben Francisco to a minor league deal earlier this week and added him to a competition that includes Juan Rivera, Matt Diaz, Ronnie Mustelier, Melky Mesa, Zoilo Almonte, Thomas Neal, and like ten other guys I’m problem forgetting. Curtis Granderson‘s fractured forearm has complicated things, meaning two of those players will make the roster rather than just one. Ichiro doesn’t have much of a platoon split — .283/.307/.342 against lefties the last two years — but the Yankees could use a better right field bat against southpaws. I think they consider him a full-time player, or at least a most-of-the-time player, meaning the backup outfielder — whoever that wins up being — will see most of his action in center and left.

Knocking on the Door
Brian Cashman recently told reporters the club has “future everyday right fielder scouting grades” on 23-year-old Almonte, who hit .278/.322/.488 (120 wRC+) with 21 homers and 15 steals in 450 plate appearances for Double-A Trenton last summer. Assuming he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training — I think it would be surprise given all of the other alternatives — he’ll open the season as the regular right fielder with Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees added Almonte to the 40-man roster after the 2011 season to prevent him from being exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, so calling him up won’t be much of a headache. Even it’s just a cup of coffee in September, Zoilo will undoubtedly make his big league debut in 2013.

(Star-Ledger)

(Star-Ledger)

The Top Prospect
New York has one of the best right field prospects in baseball in 21-year-old Tyler Austin. I ranked him as their third best prospect overall in my preseason top 30 list due in large part to his monstrous offensive performance — Austin hit .322/.400/.559 with 17 homers and 23 steals (in 25 attempts) in 472 plate appearances across four levels in 2012 and .331/.406/.563 in 677 plate appearances since signing for just $130k as the team’s 13th round pick in 2010. He’s a right-handed hitter with a plan at the plate and the ability to drive the ball to all fields, though there are some questions about his long-term power potential because his swing is so level and doesn’t generate much backspin. Either way, Austin is scheduled to start the season with Double-A Trenton and could easily force his way into the big league picture by the end of the season if he keeps hitting like he has.

The Deep Sleeper
The obvious answer here is 21-year-old Yeicok Calderon, who managed a .270/.354/.478 (147 wRC+) line with a league-leading eight homers in 181 plate appearances for the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees last summer. The Yankees signed him for $650k back in 2008, so he’s a little old for a GCL prospect and was repeating the level last year. Regardless, Baseball America says “Calderon’s bat is advanced, he controls the strike zone well and he has above-average power” from the left side. He’s not much of a defender, so his bat is going to have to carry him. Calderon should continue to mash in the low minors and figures to open the season with Low-A Charleston.

* * *

I think it’s pretty clear the Yankees have downgraded in right field this season, but we have to acknowledge that Ichiro isn’t just a great player, he’s a historically great player. Historically great players tend to age differently and frankly, if Ichiro went out and hit .310/.350/.440 this season, it wouldn’t be the most surprisingly thing in the world. I don’t expect it, but it’s not impossible. The Yankees have nice right field depth in both Triple-A and Double-A, so they’re in okay shape in 2013 and beyond.

Other Previews: Catchers, First Basemen, Second Basemen, Shortstops, Third Basemen, Left Fielders, Center Fielders

Categories : Players

29 Comments»

  1. Stephen says:

    John Vander Wal will always be #1

  2. JU says:

    My question is, if it came down to it, would the Yankees actively suppress the promotion of Austin next year because they will still have Ichiro under contract? Obviously, this is contingent on Austin being “ready” – but if he is, will the Yankees keep him in AAA for the sake of Ichiro?

  3. Will there be a DH preview? That would be an interesting read.

  4. Steve (different one) says:

    The Ichiro narrative has become “Ichiro sucked until the last 2 weeks of 2012″, when it was really more like “Ichiro sucked for 2 weeks (July 23 – aug 6), then he was excellent for 3 weeks (aug 7 – aug 31), then be was bad for 2 weeks (sept 1 – sept 15), then he was unstoppable for 2 weeks”

    IOW, it looks a lot better to say Ichiro was excellent as a Yankee for 5/10 weeks vs 2/10 weeks.

    Of course my endpoints are just as arbitrary as Mike’s, but they tell a (slightly) different story.

    Would I have given him 2 years? No, but I do think he will be a better player in 2013 than expected.

    • Gonzo says:

      Yeah, it’s interesting. I looked at the the pitchers in the last 16 games specifically, where he scorched continuously, and I didn’t come away impressed with the competition. A bunch of 4.5+ ERA pitchers or pitchers that got knocked out of the game early.

      I don’t know what to make of it. I hope he shoves it and makes a run at the batting title.

      • Havok9120 says:

        He’s got a 9.0 in that new B-Ref Spring Training competition stat. Supposedly that means his competition has averaged out to AAA levels.

  5. pat says:

    I won’t even be mad if Austin doesn’t turn into a prodigious HR hitter. Gimme a Youk in his prime in RF and I’ll be happy .300+/.390+/.560+ with 25-30 HR and solid defense is plenty good for me.

    • Jersey Joe says:

      That kind of is prodigious HR hitter…

    • jjyank says:

      That seems awfully bullish if you’re implying that the batting line would be a settlement of sorts.

      • pat says:

        Lol yes, I prob should have reigned it back to make my point, but I just meant assuming all goes well I’m fine with a guy who’s not going to be putting up 35-40 HR seasons if he’s getting on base and hitting for a high average with lots of doubles and line drives and whatnot.Probably should have made the range 20 – 25 instead of 25-30, because you’re right 30 HR seems to be the breaking point between plus and plus-plus power.

        • CS Yankee says:

          If you going to wish, make it worth the energy I say….

          .325/.450/.800 with 45 dingers and 140+ ribbi’s

      • Barry says:

        I’d be totally cool with settling on a .950 OPS, sure it’s conservative but I’m willing to accept that. That and Musty settling in at .324/412/459 we’ll be set at the corners.

  6. Eddard says:

    We’re going to be just fine with Ichiro in RF. He’s a superior defender to what we had last year. Better contact hitter. Brings the speed element. The only drop off is in the power. As I mentioned before, the SF Giants were dead last in HRs hit. They won the World Series. Ichiro will help us score runs in other ways.

  7. UncleArgyle says:

    “a leap of faith at best and a stunningly poor decision at worst”

    Ok, I get you hate having Ichiro on the team, but at some point we need to get over the dramatics and hyperbole. Ichiro is taking up about 4% of the overall payroll. And I’m not saying Brian Sabean is Gods Gift, but the Giants, winners of 2 of the last 3 World Series, offered him more money to play right field for them. The Phillies also offered him more money. Meaning that he accepted a below market deal to return to the Yankees. Maybe, just maybe, Sabean, Amaro, and Cashman, have some minor clue about what they’re doing? And even if they didn’t, its 6.5 mil. The Yankees pay that to LOOGYS with blown out shoulders. Paying A-Rod 25+ Mil a year into his 40’s is a stunningly bad decision, paying Ichiro 13 mil over two years is a low cost/low risk move when you’re the New York Yankees.

    • Barry says:

      Who cares what others would pay him? The truth to the argument is that; regardless of what Ichiro did in his short time as a Yankee, his trends have been atrocious the last few years. He’s a downgrade to a switch hitter like Nick Swisher in their current forms. That is why it is a leap of faith(who Ichiro has been in the past)at best and a poor decision at worst(he’s on the wrong end of his career and his trends are not encouraging).

      Everyone here probably knows that no one hate’s A-Rod more than me, but at the time it was a bad contract but not stunningly so. He was still one of the top ten players in the game and had just played an incredible season.

      (puts arsenic in your coolaid)

    • Block says:

      Best comment I’ve read on this site in a while.Great point on the 3 succesful G.M.’s

  8. CG says:

    Yay, a non-negative Ichiro post!

  9. Andrew J. says:

    How many runs a year does his cannon arm prevent? Anyone know? I find his fielding, especially his arm, is constantly underappreciated on this site. Do we have an inkling how many runs he prevents with his arm by keeping runners from advancing the xtra base?
    As was said above, we will do fine with Ichiro. Saw him Monday in Tamps against the Cardinals and he hit one over the right fielders head, ran with speed, made contact and looks ready to start the season.
    AJ

  10. doctorb says:

    They had to give him two years to keep him. They had already decided to let Swisher move on and were intrigued by what he did in the last month of the season, which might well be repeatable in that line-up. That he appeared to decline hitting in Seattle with less than zero support is not particularly relevant in the current context.

    Every year is “win now” for a) an old team and b) especially the Yanks. Two years of an older Ichiro who will potentially lead the league in runs scored, finish top ten in stolen bases, and put the fear of god in the heart of third base coaches is a plus, especially when you don’t have any kids ready to step up into the slot just yet.

    Yanks will still be top five in MLB in total runs without the HR/K guys they let go and Ichiro will likely be a significant contributor, at least in 2013.

  11. Geoffrey Pope says:

    Ichiro in his prime was pound-for-pound as good as anyone going back to, say, Paul Waner. While, certainly, his best days are behind him, the choice was not between him and Nick Swisher for the same number of years and same dollars. Swish, whom I also like, wanted a long-term deal for a lot of money, and BTW he never delivered in the post-season. Unless injured, Ichiro should be a solid contributor in 2013. He may become a platoon guy in 2014. But he’s a consummate pro, and still fun to watch, and still a pretty darn good outfielder who can play all three positions. Look, 3 of our 4 top power guys (A-Rod, Tex, Granderson) are hurt. Last year, we had Swish, Ibanez gave more than we counted on, and Andruw Jones and Russell Martin had nice HR totals for guys hovering around the Mendoza Line. No way that Gardner (very underrated) isn’t an upgrade over Ibanez, but he’s not good for more than maybe 5 HR. But my point is that if you had Grandy hitting 40 HR, Cano 30-35, Teixeira 30 and Alex even 25, we wouldn’t be worrying that Ichiro isn’t a HR hitter. My only knock on Ichiro is that he doesn’t walk enough (and he could since he’s got a good eye; it’s just that his bat control is so amazing that he can put almost anything into play, and his speed used to be such that his OBP was OK without walking much. Now, he needs to walk more. Also, kinda strange given that he’s maybe 165 lbs., he can’t bunt.)

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