2013 Season Preview: The Number Twos

Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Number two starters don’t garner the attention of aces nor generate the same kind of rosterbation as back-end guys, but they’re obviously very important to a team’s success. The Yankees are lucky to have two pitchers who would qualify as a number two in most rotations, though the club figures to slot in a right-hander behind CC Sabathia to break up the lefties.

#HIROK
It’s funny to look back and remember that at this time last year, Hiroki Kuroda was considered a question mark. He was an older pitcher moving from a big park in the NL to a small park in the AL, and that is usually the recipe for a disaster. Instead, the 38-year-old right-hander was the team’s most consistently excellent starter from Opening Day through the postseason, pitching to a 3.32 ERA (3.86 FIP) in a career-high 219.2 innings. Kuroda liked his time in New York so much that he turned down more lucrative offers from other clubs this winter to take a one-year deal worth $15M from the Yankees.

Despite that performance, the combination of age and career-high workload — 236.2 innings between the regular season and postseason — make Kuroda a bit of a question mark going into the season. He battled fatigue last September, so much so that he had to stop throwing his regular between-starts bullpen to stay fresh. Kuroda modified his offseason routine in an effort to stay fresher later into the season, but it remains to be seen how much good that will actually do. Heck, it might even do bad for all we know.

One thing we do know is Kuroda is tough as nails — this story is still mind-blowing — and incredibly savvy on the mound. He battles every time out and his dud starts have nothing to do with a lack of effort of preparation. I do wonder how being away from Russell Martin will impact Kuroda — his worst full season in terms of ground ball and homer rate came the year Martin didn’t catch him, which could just be a coincidence but is obviously something no one wants to repeat — given all the time the two worked together both last year and with the Dodgers. There will have to be some adjustments there on both the pitcher’s and catcher’s part, hopefully a seamless one.

As was the case last summer, the Yankees are going to rely on Kuroda as their number two starter behind Sabathia and will expect the same kind of reliable, consistent performances. He’s a year older with a few more miles on the arm, but he’s not carrying those NL-to-AL, big park-to-small park transition questions. Frankly I think the transition stuff is a greater concern than age, but that’s just me. Kuroda’s smarts and deep arsenal make me feel really good about his chances to repeat last season’s success.

Knocking on the Door
Just like with the ace-caliber guys yesterday, the Yankees won’t have a projected future number two starter in Triple-A this summer. Left-hander Manny Banuelos would have been that guy had he not blown out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery, but he won’t be a factor until 2014 at the earliest. Then again, durability is one of the things keeping from that frontline starter ceiling. I guess that means if he was healthy, Banuelos wouldn’t have projected as a number two, but instead something more. Anyway, the Yankees definitely have some future number twos in the system, but none of them are in the upper minors. Bummer.

(BaseballLife365.com)
(BaseballLife365.com)

The Top Prospect
New York’s top number two starter prospect outside of the injured Banuelos is last summer’s first rounder, righty Ty Hensley. He ranked eighth on my preseason top 30 prospects list. The 19-year-old from Oklahoma has a dominant fastball-curveball mix and the size — listed at 6-foor-4 and 220 lbs. — that suggests future durability, but he lacks command and a third pitch. He needs the latter more than the former to reach his ceiling, both figuring out both in the next few seasons would give him true ace potential. For now he’s someone you close your eyes and see a future number two starter without having to try real hard.

The Deep Sleeper
I’m a big fan of right-hander Gio Gallegos, who didn’t crack my preseason top 30 but did make the not top 30 list as a prospect who could jump into next year’s top 30. His top atrribute is his command and control of a solid fastball-curveball mix, but he needs to work on his third pitch and show he can hold up while starting every five days across a full season. I might be stretching a bit with the “future number two starter” stuff here, but like I said, I’m a big fan of Gallegos. Forgive me for being a little extra optimistic.

* * *

Kuroda is among the best number two starters in the game, a proven veteran with a great package of stuff, savvy, and command. His importance to the Yankees is easy to understate given the bigger names on the roster, but the club needs him to be as strong and reliable as he was a year ago. It’s imperative thanks to the depleted offense. The minor league system offers a few prospects who project as number two type starters down the road, but none at the upper levels of the minors or capable of making an immediate impact.

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2013 Season Preview: The Aces

Our season preview series continues this week with the starting rotation, though the format will change just slightly. Since there’s no clear starter/backup/depth lineage when it comes to starting pitchers, we’ll instead look at each type of pitcher — ace, number two, back-end, etc. — at different levels.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The term “ace” gets thrown around far too liberally these days. Technically every team has an ace in the sense that someone has to start Opening Day, but very few pitchers are true, bonafide number one starters. Those are the guys who provide both quality and quantity — they take the ball every five days and pitch deep into the game. Just as importantly, they do it every single year. It’s possible for a pitcher to have an ace-like year in any given season (coughEstebanLoiazacough), but the guys who do it year after year stand out from the pack. Those are the true aces.

The Horse
CC Sabathia is a true ace. Despite two DL stints — including the first arm injury of his career — the 32-year-old still rattled off his sixth consecutive year of 200+ innings with a sub-3.40 ERA in 2012. The number of other big leaguers who have done that: zero. Raise the bar to a sub-3.60 ERA and it’s still zero. Sabathia was the difference in the ALDS against the Orioles, allowing just three runs in an LDS round record 17.2 innings. That’s an 8.2-inning start in Game One and a complete-game in Game Five. The Yankees and Orioles played five very tight games, but the difference was Sabathia shoving it in the first and last games of the series.

Going into 2013, CC is more of a question mark than he has been at any other point as a Yankee. He had surgery to remove a bone spur from his left elbow in late-October, which slowed his pace in Spring Training ever so slightly. The good news is Sabathia has been throwing with no complications or pain or even unexpected soreness in recent weeks, so he remains on target to start Opening Day. That said, his fastball velocity did drop more than one mile an hour from 2012 to 2013. It’s a concern because of his age and all the mileage on his arm, if nothing else.

(Patrick McDermott/Getty)
(Patrick McDermott/Getty)

Despite the DL stints and reduced fastball, Sabathia was excellent last season — 3.38 ERA and 3.31 FIP — so excellent that his strikeout (8.87 K/9 and 23.7 K%) and walk (1.98 BB/9 and 5.3 BB%) rates were the second best of his career behind his monster 2008 campaign with the Indians and Brewers. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild came to New York with a reputation for increasing strikeout rates and reducing walk rates, and sure enough Sabathia has posted a 8.79 K/9 (23.5 K%) and a 2.16 BB/9 (5.8 BB%) during his two years under Rothschild after managing a 7.59 K/9 (20.6 K%) and 2.71 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) during his first two years in pinstripes. One year is a fluke but two years are a trend, as they say.

The Yankees have internally discussed scaling back Sabathia’s workload going forward in an effort to keep him healthy and just fresher late into the season. That could mean treating him as a 200-inning pitcher rather than a 230-inning pitcher — one fewer inning per start, basically — but that’s much easier said than done. Sabathia is, by his own admission, a rhythm pitcher who is at his best with more work, not less. Finding the balance between lightening the overall workload and remaining super-effective will be difficult.

Either way, Sabathia is a benefit of the doubt guy. I assume he’ll remain a workhorse of the first order and highly effective until he isn’t. The elbow surgery and reduced velocity are red flags, but they have yet to manifest themselves in a meaningful way. I still expect CC to strike out a ton of batters in his 200-something innings while keeping his ERA under 3.50. He’s been doing it nearly a decade now and I’m not going to doubt him. At some point Sabathia will decline, but I don’t expect it to happen just yet.

Knocking on the Door
There are only a handful of minor league prospects who project as future aces — don’t confuse ace stuff with being a projected ace — and the Yankees don’t have any of them, especially not at the Triple-A level. The only pitcher who is slated to open the season in the Triple-A Scranton rotation with ace-caliber stuff is Dellin Betances, who lacks everything else a pitcher needs to be an ace: command, durability, etc. Brian Cashman already acknowledged the club will start the 24-year-old Betances in the Triple-A rotation despite his miserable season a year ago, but this is his final minor league option year and I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to move the big right-hander into the bullpen if he doesn’t show improvement within the first few weeks of the season.

The Top Prospect
The Bombers have a farm system that is top heavy in position players — the top five prospects on my preseason top 30 list were all position players — especially since their best pitching prospects all seem to be coming off injury. The best combination of ace-caliber stuff and command in the system belongs to 22-year-old Manny Banuelos, who will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. His command started to waver in 2011 though, maybe due to the elbow problem.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Right-hander Jose Campos lacks a defined breaking ball while right-hander Ty Hensley lacks command in addition to having basically zero professional experience. Righty Bryan Mitchell has nasty stuff, missing bats with a mid-90s fastballs and a knockout curveball, but he lacks command as well. Perhaps the best current ace package in the system belongs to 23-year-old Jose Ramirez, who is organization’s consistently hardest thrower with a swing-and-miss changeup and a promising slider. That said, he’s battled arm injuries and command throughout his five-year career. The Yankees don’t have a minor league pitcher who clear projects as an ace, but Ramirez is probably the closest. He’s a long way from that ceiling, however. A very long way.

The Deep Sleeper
The Yankees were very, very patient when it came to signing soon-to-be 22-year-old Rafael DePaula. They originally agreed to sign him for $500k back in November 2010, but it wasn’t until March 2012 that the right-hander was approved for a visa and the contract became official. Because he wasn’t allowed to play in actual games while waiting for his visa, DePaula lost a lot of crucial development time these last two years. With command of a mid-90s fastball and low-80s curveball, he’s the best bet in the organization to emerge with the “future ace” label over the next 12 months. DePaula figures to start with High-A Tampa this year, but the Yankees could opt to hold him back with Low-A Charleston given the lack of experience.

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Sabathia is one of the game’s ten best pitchers and pretty clearly the second most important Yankee heading into the 2013 season. He’s truly irreplaceable. The Bombers don’t have any clear-cut ace-caliber pitching prospects in the minors — just a collection of guys with good stuff or good command or good health, but not all three. It’s a problem going going forward given the team’s plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold in 2014 (and beyond), so they’ll have to get creative to pull it off. Either that or hope for good luck.

2013 Season Preview: The Designated Hitters

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees will open 2013 with their fifth different primary DH in the last five seasons, and that is completely by design. Hideki Matsui‘s knees relegated him to almost exclusive DH duty in 2008 and 2009, creating roster and lineup inflexibility. The team dealt with a similar issue in 2010 with Jorge Posada.

Otherwise, New York has tried to use that DH spot as a revolving door, which is a trend spreading throughout the league. Rather than have one set everyday DH, they’ve picked up a low-cost left-handed hitter to platoon with their older players at the position. Brett Gardner‘s injury forced Raul Ibanez — who was signed to be that low-cost left-handed half of the DH platoon — in the outfield more than expected last season, which is why ten different players started games at DH last year. Only one (Alex Rodriguez) started more than 25 games there.

The Starter(s)
This summer’s low-cost left-handed DH is long-time Cleveland Indian Travis Hafner, who signed a one-year contract with a $2M base salary in early-February. The 35-year-old hit .228/.346/.438 (118 wRC+) with 12 homers in 263 plate appearances last season, including .241/.361/.437 (123 wRC+) against righties. Over the last three seasons, Pronk has hit .267/.363/.447 (124 wRC+) overall and .278/.385/.470 (136 wRC+) against right-handers, which is exactly what the Yankees want him to do in 2013. It’s a very simple job, just hit right-handers and take advantage of the short porch.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees have already admitted their plan to use Derek Jeter as their full-time DH against left-handers, at least early in the season. The move has more to do with getting him off his feet following late-October ankle surgery than his ability to mash southpaws — .364/.399/.542 (157 wRC+) in 2012 and .344/.403/.515 (150 wRC+) since 2010 — which is completely understandable. Jeter, 38, could use the regular rest following surgery even if serving as the DH is only a half-day off, so to speak. That will presumably force Eduardo Nunez into the field as shortstop on a fairly regular basis.

There are two concerns with a Hafner-led DH platoon. One, he doesn’t play a position at all. He hasn’t played first base regularly since 2005 or at all since 2007, so unlike Ibanez last year, he won’t be able to fill-in anywhere in case of injury. That’s already a problem in the wake of Mark Teixeira‘s wrist injury. Second, Hafner himself is an injury risk. He had right shoulder surgery in October 2008 and has been on the DL six times in the four years since, including two times in both 2011 and 2012. Ailments have ranged from shoulder soreness to an oblique strain to knee surgery to a bulging disk in his back. Hafner is a very important part of the lineup early in the season with Teixeira and Curtis Granderson hurt, but he’s unlikely to make it through the entire season unscathed himself.

The Backup
No team carries a backup DH. The position doesn’t exist. If and when Hafner gets hurt, the Yankees will do what they did last year. They’ll rotate players in and out of the position to rest them, with a bench player like Nunez or the right-handed hitting outfielder to be named later seeing more playing time in the field. Jeter, Teixeira, Granderson, A-Rod, Kevin Youkilis, Robinson Cano … all of them would see time at DH should anything happen to Hafner.

Knocking on the Door
Again, no team stashes a backup DH in the minors. The obvious answer for the Yankees here would be first baseman Dan Johnson, who looks poised to open the season as Teixeira’s temporary replacement. Outfielders Thomas Neal and Zoilo Almonte, first baseman Luke Murton, and infielders Corban Joseph and David Adams could all be called up if Hafner goes down and see playing time in some capacity. DH depth isn’t clearly defined like it is for other positions, it won’t be one set guy to come off the bench or up from Triple-A if the DH spot becomes suddenly vacant.

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Top Prospect
I didn’t rank a single DH prospect in my preseason top 30 list because DH prospects don’t exist. The closest we’ve seen to one is Jesus Montero, who is being given every opportunity to catch in the big leagues. It’s the ultimate last resort position. I guess Ronnie Mustelier could be considered the team’s top DH prospect given his good bat and poor defense, but he won’t be moving there anytime soon. Below-average defense is better than zero defense in some instances, especially since most hitters see their offensive production decline when serving as the DH. It’s not an easy thing to do, sitting around between at-bats.

The Deep Sleeper
The Yankees don’t have a true DH prospect at all, nevermind in the lower minors. If someone is stuck playing DH semi-regularly in a short season league, they ain’t no prospect. I’ll take Yeicok Calderon, who I mentioned yesterday in the right field write-up. He can hit a little but stinks defensively, so maybe he winds up a DH down the line. Otherwise, nothing to see here.

* * *

The Yankees will rely on Hafner and Jeter at DH this year, especially early in the season. Others like Youkilis and Cano will see some time at the position as well, just to get a day away from the field, and guys like Almonte and Mustelier provide some depth in Triple-A. Hafner is very important to the Yankees though, especially while Teixeira and Granderson are out. It’s not at all a stretch to call him their second best offensive player at the moment.

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

2013 Season Preview: The Right Fielders

(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.

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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

2013 Season Preview: The Center Fielders

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

Had things gone according to plan, Brett Gardner would have been manning center field all year rather than during the first four of five weeks of the season. Curtis Granderson‘s fractured forearm put an end to the position switch experiment before it really even had a chance to start, as Joe Girardi confirmed Granderson will return to his usual center field spot when healthy. Given how much offense the Yankees have lost to free agent defections and injury, getting their top homer hitter back in the lineup as soon as possible will be the priority, not the position switch.

The Starter
It will be Gardner for the first few weeks of the season, but he’ll slide back to use usual spot in left as soon as Granderson is healthy. The soon-to-be 32-year-old is coming off a .232/.319/.492 (116 wRC+) line with a team-best 43 homers in 2012, though his season can be split into two halves: .248/.352/.502 (130 wRC+) with 23 homers and a 25.9% strikeout rate in the first half, then .212/.278/.480 (98 wRC+) with 20 homers and a 31.8% strikeout rate in the second half. His miserable postseason showing — 3-for-30 with 16 strikeouts — was the icing on the cake.

The root cause of Granderson’s second half slide is so unclear the Yankees sent him to an eye doctor after the season. Tests came back showing unusual. His first/second half BABIP split (.282/.233) was propped up by an increase in fly balls (38.3%/51.1%), though pitchers did throw him fewer fastballs (57.2%/53.7%). Not a ridiculous amount though. Whatever happened in the second half, I can’t really explain it. Could be something obvious I’m not seeing or it could be something completely under-the-radar. I’m guessing the latter. Whether it’s correctable is something we won’t know until he actually gets back on the field.

Regardless of why the second half slump happened, the Yankees need Granderson’s power and that’s something he provided even when struggling. He hits homers at home (56 since revamping his swing in August 2010), on the road (41), against righties (64), against lefties (33), with men on-base (42), with the bases empty (55) … pretty much all the time. Granderson is one of the few batters who bats with a man in scoring position all the time — even when the bases are empty — because his ability to go deep at any moment is a game-changer. The Yankees have been known for that kind of offense basically forever, but this season will be different and that makes the Grandyman that much more important.

In addition to all of that, this is Granderson’s walk year. He’ll become a free agent after the season for the first the in his career, and his power production will get him paid regardless. Whether he has a big year like 2011 (145 wRC+) or just a merely above-average year like 2012 (116 wRC+) will determine if he gets Michael Cuddyer money (three years, $31M) or Nick Swisher money (four years, $56M). The Bombers could sure use a nice big contract push from their center fielder, but more importantly, they just need to get him back in the lineup as soon as possible.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Backup
Technically it is Gardner even though he’ll open the year playing center everyday. The Yankees showed last season they’re willing to play Ichiro Suzuki in center on occasion, so he’s a backup option as well. There’s also Melky Mesa, who could open the season with the big league club and is another legitimate center field candidate. Despite losing Granderson, the Bombers have no shortage of capable center fielders at the Major League level.

Knocking on the Door
Before Granderson’s injury, it was likely Mesa was going to open the season as the everyday center fielder with Triple-A Scranton. He is third on the center field depth chart — I do the Yankees would play Melky2.0 out there everyday before Ichiro Suzuki if both Granderson and Gardner got hurt — and is sorta like a poor man’s version of a right-handed Granderson offensively. Mesa has power and speed and contact issues, but he’s a much better defender with a very strong arm. If he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training as Granderson’s replacement, Melky will wait in Triple-A and assuredly resurface in the Bronx at some point this simmer.

The Top Prospect
You can make a very strong case that New York’s two best prospects are both center fielders. Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott ranked second and fourth on my preseason top 30 prospects list, respectively, but not many would argue if I had them one-two in either order. Williams, 21, hit .298/.346/.474 (~125 wRC+) in 397 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa last season before needing season-ending left shoulder surgery — he hurt himself while diving for a ball in the outfield — in late-July. He’s a ballhawk in center with big-time speed and range, though his arm is just okay and his routines need to be refined. Williams signed for $1.45M as the Yankees’ fourth rounder in 2010, but he needs to work on a number of things. The raw tools are as impressive as they come though. He’ll open the season back at High-A Tampa and will hopefully stay healthy and get a ton of at-bats as the leadoff man.

Heathcott is a danger to himself and others. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Heathcott (flying) is a danger to himself and others. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Heathcott, meanwhile, returned from his second left shoulder surgery at midseason to hit .307/.378/.470 (142 wRC+) in 265 plate appearances with High-A Tampa in 2012 before catching some extra at-bats in the Arizona Fall League. The 22-year-old has the best all-around package of tools in the organization, with power and patience from the left side of the plate to go with high-end speed and defense in center. Heathcott can over-swing at times and struggle to make contact, but that should work itself out with more experience. Health is an issue though, in part because he plays all-out all the time and hurts himself by diving for balls and running into walls. Slade has yet to play in more than 76 regular season games since signing for $2.2M as the team’s first round pick in 2009, so staying on the field all year will be priority number one this season. He’ll open the year at Double-A Trenton and since he’s due to be added to the 40-man roster following the season (to avoid exposure to the Rule 5 Draft), there’s a chance we’ll see him as a September call-up.

The Deep Sleeper
Could it be Ravel Santana at this point? The 20-year-old had a miserable season with Short Season Staten Island last summer — .216/.304/.289 (84 wRC+) with three homers and 27.5% strikeouts in 247 plate appearances — after coming back from the devastating ankle injury that ended his 2011 campaign prematurely. Two years ago he was a budding star after dominating the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate, but the injury sapped some athleticism and cost him balance at the plate. If he regains his previous form as he matures and gets further away from surgery, Santana is likely to join the ranks of Williams and Heathcott. If not, he’ll be a non-prospect. I ranked him 28th on my preseason top 30 list and he’ll join Low-A Charleston this year. It’s a weird situation, but there is some breakout potential here.

* * *

Even though Granderson is going to miss the start of the season, the Yankees are in good shape regarding the center field position. Gardner is a more than capable replacement — both short- and long-term — and Ichiro can fill-in no problem if needed. New York will also have legitimate prospects playing center in Triple-A (Mesa), Double-A (Heathcott), High-A (Williams), and Low-A (Santana). That’s exciting. Once Curtis is healthy, center field will join second base as the deepest positions in the organization.

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

2013 Season Preview: The Left Fielders

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

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.

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

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

2013 Season Preview: The Third Basemen

Starting this week and continuing through the end of the Spring Training, we’re going to preview the Yankees position-by-position and on a couple of different levels.

(Star-Ledger)
(Star-Ledger)

For the first time since 2003, the Yankees figure to have someone other than Alex Rodriguez play the majority of their games at third base this season. A-Rod is recovering from a(nother) hip surgery and will be out until midseason, leaving the team without one of its most potent right-handed hitters following an offseason that saw a few too many power bats depart via free agency.

The Starter(s)
It was supposed to be A-Rod, but the surgery will keep him on the sidelines until the All-Star break if not longer. The Yankees replaced him by signed Kevin Youkilis to a one-year deal worth $12M, and suddenly he’s become a very important part of the offense now that Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira will open the year on the DL.

Youkilis, who turns 34 one week from today, put up a .235/.336/.409 (102 wRC+) batting line in 509 plate appearances for the Red Sox and White Sox last summer. He did go deep 19 times and drew his usually high amount of walks (10.0%), but his game has been on a steady decline for years now. Just look at his graphs page on FanGraphs, everything is heading in the wrong direction. Youkilis is hitting more and more ground balls with each passing year, which is a classic symptom of an older player losing bat speed. To his credit, he worked with hitting coach Kevin Long in the offseason to shorten his stride and compensate.

Despite that decline, Youkilis is still a useful player. He absolutely annihilates left-handers, tagging them for a .275/.386/.492 (135 wRC+) line last year and a .323/.436/.598 (174 wRC+) line over the last three seasons. No hitter in baseball has been more productive (by wRC+) against southpaws since 2010. His defense at the hot corner is below-average but not a disaster, plus he can slide over to first base without a problem. Youkilis is injury prone, having visited the DL in each of the last three seasons (thumb, back, hernia). The Yankees need him to stay on the field in 2013, especially early in the season.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Of course, Youkilis is only the third baseman because A-Rod will miss the first half of the season. He’s visited the DL every year since signing his $275M scarlet letter prior to the 2008 season, but this injury is the most serious: a torn left hip labrum, a bone impingement, and a cyst. The doctors say he will make a full recovery but the Alex of old is long gone. His .272/.353/.430 (114 wRC+) performance in 2012 was solidly above-average but far below his career norms. Like Youkilis, almost everything on A-Rod’s graphs page is going in the wrong direction.

For all intents and purposes, the Yankees have to proceed under the assumption that Rodriguez will not be back this season. They can’t count on him for anything, let alone to ride in on a white horse to save the offense in the second half. It’s unclear how the new hip procedure will impact his swing — he was unable to use his lower half as much following the right hip surgery in 2009, and that injury was less severe — or his defense or his mobility. Anything the club gets out of Alex in 2013 is total gravy. Youkilis will be counted on as the starter until his contract expires as far as I’m concerned.

The Backup
With the Yankees continuing to groom Eduardo Nunez as a shortstop and Dan Johnson both failing his Spring Training hot corner audition and being needed at first base in the wake of Teixeira’s injury, the backup third baseman is Jayson Nix. The 30-year-old is a versatile little player who does almost all of his offensive damage against lefties (97 wRC+ in 2012 and 94 career) and has surprising pop (career .157 ISO). Unless the Yankees swing an unexpected trade before the season begins, Nix will be Youkilis’ primary backup at the hot corner and he could play pretty much full-time against southpaws if Johnson takes over at first.

It hasn't been pretty for CoJo at the hot corner in camp. (Presswire)
It hasn’t been pretty for CoJo at the hot corner in camp. (Presswire)

Knocking on the Door
The Bombers do have some third base depth in Triple-A Scranton. David Adams and Corban Joseph are both second basemen by trade, but the 25-year-old Adams shifted over to third late last year while the 24-year-old Joseph has played the position quite a bit in the spring. Outside of one being a right-handed hitter (Adams) and the other being a lefty (Joseph), the two players are very similar. They are both willing to take a walk and can hit for doubles power, though their glovework leaves something to be desired. Joseph in general has trouble making the long throw across the diamond. He’s expected to open the year at second base in Triple-A while Adams mans third, but both will surely get reps at each position to stay fresh.

It’s worth mentioning 28-year-old Ronnie Mustelier here, who played third base in yesterday’s Grapefruit League game — Joe Girardi said that was planned before Teixeira’s injury — and has played 26 games at the position in the minors since signing two years ago. The Yankees have moved him down the defensive spectrum from second to third to left in the last 20 months or so, but it’s fair to wonder if they’ll give him a longer look at third in the coming weeks. Mustelier can hit a fastball and put the ball in play, but the defense is a question. I don’t think he’s a legitimate third base candidate at the big league level but we shouldn’t rule it out.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Top Prospect
There’s a pretty strong case to be made that the team’s best third base prospect is an outfielder. Tyler Austin — who ranked third on my preseason top 30 prospects list — moved off the hot corner last year in deference to 2011 first rounder Dante Bichette Jr., and he mashed (.322/.400/.559 and ~163 wRC+) his way up to Double-A Trenton while settling into right field. The Yankees have considered moving him back to third base, but as far as we know that won’t happen. It’s not like the club has a long-term right fielder in place, so no big deal. He’ll open the year back with Trenton and we shouldn’t rule him out as a big league factor for 2013, but it’s unlikely. Boy can he hit though.

Outside of Austin and multi-position infielders Adams and Joseph, the Yankees’ top true third base prospect is Bichette. I ranked him 27th on my preseason top 30 for a few reasons, most notably because he fell back into some bad swing habits and had a miserable season with Low-A Charleston (.248/.322/.331 and 85 wRC+). Bichette was named the MVP of the rookie level Gulf Coast League Yankees after signing in 2011 because he made some adjustments at the plate, but he has to get back to being that guy if he wants to avoid becoming a non-prospect less than three years after being drafted. The Yankees will return him to the River Dogs this year and he’s a long way from being a big league factor.

The Deep Sleeper
New York spent $750k to sign 18-year-old Miguel Andujar out of the Dominican Republic back in 2011, then he hit .232/.288/.299 (80 wRC+) in 191 plate appearances for the rookie level GCL club in his pro debut last summer. Disappointing performance aside, Andujar is the team’s best lower level third base prospect because he’s a solid all-around player with no carrying tool but no real weakness. He has good pop and hitting ability from the right side to go along with strong defense at the position. If he grows into some more power or suddenly becomes a much more adept defender, Andujar will raise his profile quite a bit. He’ll open the year back in Extended Spring Training before joining Short Season Staten Island in June, though he doesn’t have a ton of breakout potential.

* * *

The Yankees have a decent amount of third base depth at the upper levels, but they lack a true impact player at the position. I suppose Youkilis could surprise and revert to his 2008-2010 ways, but he’s a deal pull right-handed hitter who will no longer have the advantage of the Green Monster. Despite its general hitter friendliness, Yankee Stadium is not kind to pull-happy righties. Nix, Adams, Joseph and even Mustelier are decent alternatives and emergency options, but the front office should keep their eyes peeled for corner infield help while Teixeira is out, even if it means acquiring a new starting third baseman with Youkilis sliding over to first.

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