Archive for Brett Gardner
Baseball America published their annual best tools survey today (no subs. req’d), and four Yankees placed among the various AL categories. Mariano Rivera was voted best reliever, Brett Gardner the best bunter (!), Robinson Cano the second best defensive second baseman (behind Dustin Pedroia), and Andy Pettitte as having the best pickoff move. I’m pretty sure Gardner isn’t even if the best bunter in the team’s outfield, let alone the entire AL. That gives you an idea of the validity of the survey, I suppose.
The minor league best tools surveys are here: Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A. The Yankees did not place a single prospect in any category at any level. Completely shutout. That hasn’t happened as long as I’ve been following prospects. Josh Norris did the legwork and found the Yankees were the only team to be completely unrepresented at all four minor league levels. I’m … uh … sure they had a lot of guys who ranked fourth and fifth in the various categories. Yeah, that’s it.
No, it’s not the literal midway point of the season, but we’re going to use the four-day All-Star break to review the Yankees’ performance to date. We’re handing out letter grades this year, A through F. Yesterday we tackled the A’s, today we continue with the B’s.
The Yankees remain just three games out of a playoff spot despite their plethora of injuries, and the reason they remain so relatively close is a number of unexpectedly strong performances. Some new faces — I mean really new faces, as in guys acquired during Spring Training — have stepped up and assumed larger than expected roles, taking pressure off stalwarts like Robinson Cano in the lineup and David Robertson in the bullpen.
The Grade B’s are not the team’s elite players. They are the guys who have performed well, better than average really, and served as consistent complimentary pieces. One of these guys is actually a disappointment relative to his typical production, but his standard is so high that a disappointing year is actually pretty good. Without further ado, here are the Grade B’s.
Outside of Cano, Gardner has been the team’s only other consistently above-average offensive player. He missed basically all of last season with an elbow injury and has emerged as a legitimate leadoff hitter, putting up a .272/.338/422 (107 wRC+) line with a career-high tying seven homers. Gardner has only stolen 13 bases (in 19 attempts), which is surprising and a letdown, but he has made up for the lack of speed by hitting for power. He has also continued to play his typically elite defense while replacing Curtis Granderson in center field — Gardner was slated to play center even before Granderson’s injury. He can be streaky, but Gardner has been very good for the Yankees this year.
Acquired from the Mariners early in Spring Training, Kelley shook off a horrid April to emerge as Joe Girardi‘s trusted seventh inning guy. His 3.67 ERA and 3.12 FIP are built on a dynamite strikeout rate (13.37 K/9 and 36.2 K%), which has allowed him to strand 21 of 22 inherited runners. Kelley has essentially been a second Robertson with the way he can come out of the bullpen and snuff out rallies without the ball being put in play. What looked like a depth pickup in camp has turned into something much more. Kelley is a key part of the bullpen.
The theme of New York’s bullpen is strikeouts, and none of their relievers — not even Mariano Rivera — can match Logan’s ability to miss bats (12.60 K/9 and 34.7 K%) and limit walks (1.80 BB/9 and 5.0 BB%). His 7.00 K/BB is the eighth best in baseball among relievers who have thrown at least 20 innings. Logan has excellent strikeout (42.4%) and walk (3.4%) rates against lefties, but he’s run into a little bad luck (.429 BABIP) and they’ve put up a decent .246/.271/.404 line against him. That’s not good for a primary lefty specialist, but it has improved of late and Logan remains an effective cog in Girardi’s bullpen. He’s been the team’s best left-handed reliever since Mike Stanton way back in the day and it’s not all that close either.
The Yankees signed Overbay with just three days left in camp and he was only supposed to hang around until Mark Teixeira returned, but Teixeira’s season-ending wrist surgery has made him the everyday first baseman. Overbay has responded by hitting an ever-so-slightly above-average .252/.308/.437 (101 wRC+) with more than a few clutch, late-inning hits, plus he plays very good defense at first. He’s a platoon bat — 121 wRC+ vs. RHP but only 46 vs. LHP — but the Yankees have had to play him everyday, so the fact that his overall season line is a bit better than average is a testament to how productive he’s been against righties. Overbay has exceeded even the highest of expectations and has probably been the team’s third best everyday position player. No, really.
Sunday’s disaster start makes this seem silly, but even the diminished version of CC Sabathia is a reliable innings eating workhorse. As I’ve been saying the last five years now, even bad Sabathia is still pretty good. He’s got a 4.07 ERA and 4.05 FIP in 137 innings, the fifth most in all of baseball. His biggest problem this season has been the long ball — CC has already surrendered 21 homers, just one fewer than his career-high set last year. Learning to live with reduced fastball velocity is not an easy thing to do, but Sabathia has worked through it and typically gives the team a chance to win. Well, at least gives a team with an average offense to win. He’s not an ace right now and he may never be again, but the sheer volume of innings he provides makes him a better than average hurler despite the an ERA and FIP that are worse than his career norms.
10:10pm: In case you’re wondering, Hafner fouled a ball off his foot in the batting cage during his usual between at-bats routine.
9:39pm: Both Hafner (left foot) and Brett Gardner (right leg) are day-to-day with contusions. X-rays came back negative. Gardner was hit by a pitch before being removed in the blowout game, though I’m not sure what happened with Pronk. He could have fouled a ball off his foot at some point.
8:51pm: Travis Hafner was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning of tonight’s game for no apparent reason. Vernon Wells replaced him and faced the right-handed starter Wade Davis. Hafner hasn’t hit at all since missing a few days with shoulder tendinitis in mid-May, and given his injury history, a move like this definitely registers as more than a blip on the radar. We’ll presumably find out more after the game.
Got four questions for you this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything — questions, comments, links, complaints, etc. — throughout the week.
Paul asks: I know Brett Gardner was never really a highly talked about prospect, but I don’t remember anything about him before making it to the show. Can you give a brief history of how the Yankees got and developed him?
You’re right, Gardner was never touted as a top prospect. He was more of a second tier guy, someone I ranked 13th (2007), 19th (2008), and 11th (2009) in my annual preseason top 30 prospects lists. In retrospect, I under-rated his elite defense and should have had him higher. Not many prospects have an elite carrying tool, but Gardner did.
The Yankees drafted him in the third round of the 2005 draft out of the College of Charleston, signing him for a modest $210k. Gardner went to Short Season Staten Island that summer and put up a .752 OPS with 19 steals in 73 games. The Yankees sent him to High-A Tampa to start 2006 season, then bumped him up to Double-A Trenton at midseason after he hit to a 150 wRC+ with 30 steals in 63 games. He posted a 95 wRC+ with 28 steals in 55 games with the Thunder to close out the season.
Sent back to Double-A Trenton to start 2007, Gardner missed almost the entire month of May when an errant pitch broke his right hand. He hit to a 120 wRC+ with 17 steals in 52 total games for the Thunder before being bumped up to Triple-A Scranton and managing a 91 wRC+ and 21 steals in 45 second half games. The Yankees sent Gardner back to Triple-A to open 2008, where he put up a 134 wRC+ with 37 steals in 94 games while getting a few cups of coffee. He was in the big leagues for good in 2009, meaning he went from third rounder to big leaguer in the span of three and a half years. Not bad.
Brian asks: Suppose either Hiroki Kuroda or Andy Pettitte returns next season. Beyond CC Sabathia you have three rotation spots open. Let’s say you can keep three of the following while the other two are, say, traded before the deadline for a corner outfielder with at least 1.5 years of team control left: Phil Hughes, Michael Pineda, Ivan Nova, David Phelps, Vidal Nuno. Who do you keep?
So I assume this means Hughes would be re-signed to a whatever contract? Of those five, I’d keep Hughes, Pineda, and Phelps without much of a second thought. Nova has been dreadful for a full year now and I have little faith in Nuno as a soft-tossing lefty who can’t miss bats, especially in a small ballpark in the AL East. If Pineda comes back from the DL and pitches terribly or looks like a right-handed Nuno, then I’d probably take Nova over him.
Ultimately, I say keep all of these guys unless there happens to be a trade they just can’t refuse. Most of them have minor league options, and that flexibility and depth is always great to have. Sabathia and Pettitte/Kuroda aren’t getting any younger, plus young pitchers tend to go through ups and downs (in case you haven’t noticed). Having a whole bunch of pitchers is a good thing! As badly as they need a bat, I’d much rather hold onto these guys and deal prospects.
Paul asks: Trades are frequently done for a Player To Be Named Later (PTBNL). Does that PTBNL ever end up being useful? Have the Yankees ever gotten a useful one? Or lost a useful one?
Every so often a PTBNL will turn into a useful player, but it’s not common. Marco Scutaro might be the most famous PTBNL in recent history after going from the Indians to the Brewers in the Richie Sexson trade back in 2000.
I went all the way back to 1990 and dug up every PTBNL either traded by or acquired by the Yankees. Only five are noteworthy:
- OF Lyle Mouton: PTBNL to White Sox for Jack McDowell in 1995. Mouton produced a 98 wRC+ from 1995-2001 as a part-time player for various teams.
- RHP Jim Mecir: PTBNL to Red Sox for Mike Stanley in 1997. The Devil Rays plucked Mecir from Boston in the expansion draft a few weeks later, and he pitched to a 3.53 ERA (3.63 FIP) in 448.1 innings from 1998-2005.
- 3B Scott Brosius: PTBNL from Athletics for Kenny Rogers in 1998. I think we all know what happened here.
- IF Joaquin Arias: PTBNL to Rangers for Alex Rodriguez in 2004. Arias was one of the Yankees top prospects at the time and he’s bounced around as a utility infielder over the years. Won a ring with the Giants last year. Pushing the limits of “useful” here.
- RHP Zach McAllister: PTBNL to Indians for Austin Kearns in 2010: McAllister has a 4.14 ERA (4.16 FIP) in 208.2 career innings for the Tribe, including a 3.43 ERA (4.22 FIP) in 65.2 innings this year.
It’s worth noting the Yankees acquired IF Charlie Hayes as a PTBNL from the Phillies for Darrin Chapin in 1992. That was Charlie’s first stint in pinstripes. He stayed with them in 1992 before being selected by the Rockies in the expansion draft after the season. New York eventually re-acquired him from the Pirates for the stretch drive in 1996. Otherwise, that’s it. Five, maybe six noteworthy PTBNL’s in the last 23 years.
Jaremy asks: Mariano Rivera struck out the side to beat the Mariners on Saturday. How many times has he struck out the side to register a save? How does that compare to his fellow closers?
You can thank the magic of the Baseball-Reference Play Index for this answer in advance. I’m going to limit this to one-inning saves since 1997, when Rivera officially got the closer’s job. Here’s the list (doesn’t include yesterday’s games, but I don’t think that changes anything anyway):
I don’t think it’s terribly surprising Wagner tops the list with 35 instances of striking out the side for a save; he has highest K/9 in baseball history among pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings at 11.92. He’s actually tied with Lidge, who ranks third in the list above.
Rivera has only done it 14 times in the regular season believe it or not, but he’s never really been a super-high strikeout guy either. He’s been over a strikeout per inning just five times in his 17 years as a closer. Mo’s thing is broken bats and weak contact, not racking up strikeouts and overpowering hitters.
Got six questions this week, so I tried to keep the answers reasonably short. The Submit A Tip box in the sidebar is the way to go to send us questions, comments, links, complaints, whatever.
Brad asks: With the Dodgers recent injury bug to their rotation and the news of Derek Jeter being out until late July at the earliest, would it make sense to swap Ivan Nova to LA for perhaps Mark Ellis and a reliever?
Yes and no. The Dodgers started the year with eight legitimate starters for five spots, but they’ve since traded Aaron Harang and lost Zack Greinke (collarbone), Chris Capuano (calf), and Chad Billingsley (Tommy John surgery) to injury. Behind Clayton Kershaw they have Josh Beckett, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ted Lilly, and rookie Stephen Fife. I’m sure they’re in the market for a fill-in starter.
I’ve always been open to trading Nova, but Ellis wouldn’t work because he can’t play any position other than second base. Jerry Hairston Jr. would be a better fit, maybe even Luis Cruz if you think he’s better than his -52 wRC+ suggests. Los Angeles has a ton of relievers, good ones too, so there would be a fit there. I don’t like the idea of trading Nova for a utility man and a reliever though, even if it would fill two fringe roster needs. I’d rather use him as the second or third piece in a package for an impact player and instead trade prospects for infield and bullpen help.
Isaac asks: Would the Yanks ever consider extending Brett Gardner before he hits free agency? If so, what kind of deal makes sense? Does Carlos Gomez’s extension with the Brewers work as a baseline?
I think there’s a small possibility they would, but Gardner strikes me as a year-to-year guy because of his injury history. The thing that worries me most is that he’s going to be 30 this summer, and he’s the type of player who will lose his value very quickly once his speed starts to slip. I don’t really want to be on the hook for that decline.
The framework of Gomez’s deal actually works very well. His new four-year pact covers his final arbitration year and three free agent years for $28.3M total, and his $4.3M salary in 2013 should be similar to Gardner’s salary next season. An $8M average value for the following three years is reasonable. Gomez is several years younger with more power (and more raw tools in general), but he hasn’t had the same kind of success as Gardner. The Brewers bought potential. Eight million bucks a year for Brett’s age 31-33 seasons seems fine, I just worry about a quick descent into uselessness if the speed slips.
Tarik asks: Do you think Al Aceves‘ release was motivated by behavioral issues that just weren’t made public, or did Brian Cashman just not think he’d recover well from his injury? (Had to shorten the question, sorry Tarik.)
After seeing how things have played out the last 2+ years, I definitely think Aceves’ nutcase ways played a role in the team’s decision to release him. The back and collarbone problems likely contributed as well, but someone with the Yankees screwed up there. He healed just fine in time for Opening Day after the club’s doctors said he would miss the first few weeks.
I’m guessing the Yankees did a better job of keeping any behavioral incidents under wraps than the Red Sox have, or maybe the veteran clubhouse just did a better job of keeping him in line. Hell, maybe Aceves was on his best behavior with New York because he was a rookie back then. We don’t really know. It’s easier to understand why they released him nowadays, but I still can’t help but wonder if they could have found a trade partner.
I think that’s possible but unlikely. The Yankees love athletes first and foremost, and Flores is a bat first player. A bat first player who has yet to show much power at that. Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams both provide a ton of value in the field, more than they do at the plate really, while Tyler Austin is simply a better hitter. I like Flores a lot — I didn’t rank him fifth on my preseason top 30 prospects list out of boredom — but he’s clearly behind the other guys for me. He’s underrated, but I would hope the team doesn’t value him more than their other outfield prospects.
Mark asks: Are you in favor of bringing up Zoilo Almonte? If we’re going to get zero production from Ben Francisco as an extra outfielder – why not bring someone up who can at least provide defensive and base running value. Shame that Thomas Neal got hurt.
Not particularly, no. Almonte’s off to a really great start this year (125 wRC+) and he’s drawing a ton of walks (20.5%), but the book on him is that his left-handed swing is ahead of his right-handed swing. That’s typical and it’s just a repetition thing because there are way more righty pitchers than lefties. His splits since the start of 2010 — .267/.324/.433 against lefties, .282/.349/.487 against righties — bear that out.
The Yankees should absolutely be looking for a Francisco replacement, though. Neal was probably the best internal candidate, but he just went down with a hamstring injury. Melky Mesa is back to his super high strikeout ways, so he’s not really a big league candidate at the moment. I guess that makes Zoilo the top option by default, especially since Ronnie Mustelier is still sidelined. Mustelier would immediately become the top choice once healthy.
Celebrate! I don’t think the Yankees would dump Chris Stewart in favor of Romine, but I expect them to promote both Sanchez and Murphy at midseason. Romine and Murphy would just have to share catching and DH duties — Murphy can also squeeze in a few games at third base — at the Triple-A level for a few weeks. It’s not ideal but hardly the end of the world.
Brett Gardner isn’t a young player anymore. The soon-to-be 30-year-old outfielder has played in parts of six big league seasons now and outside of his injury-sabotaged 2012 campaign, he’s been an everyday player since 2010. The Yankees have given the speedster a number of opportunities to serve as their regular leadoff hitter, but he either hit his way towards the bottom of the order (2011) or got hurt (2012). Given the team’s expectations and the other players on the roster, he was going to have to rake right away to remain in the leadoff spot and that just didn’t happen.
Things are different this season, however. Derek Jeter‘s ankle injury caused his to miss Opening Day and his setback will keep him on the shelf through the All-Star break. Ichiro Suzuki didn’t hit a lick during the first three weeks of the season, so Joe Girardi really didn’t have another legitimate leadoff option on the roster. Gardner was given the leadoff spot almost by default, and after a slow first week he’s turned things around and proven to be an asset atop the lineup.
“Any time you get off to a slow start, you look to get it going. I felt like I swung the bat pretty well in Detroit, just didn’t have anything to show for it,” said Gardner to Mark Feinsand following the 4-for-5 day against the Indians that helped get him going in the right direction. His overall season line sits at an almost perfectly league average* .250/.322/.400 (99 wRC+) following a torrid .300/.368/.480 hot stretch since the start of that Cleveland series.
For the first time in his career, Gardner finally has a clear path to regular playing time as the team’s leadoff hitter. He’s been solid but there is definitely still some room for improvement, especially since he’s seeing a career-low number of pitches in the strike zone (52.3%) while swinging at a career-high number of pitches out of the zone (25.6%). Swing rates stabilize rather quickly (takes only 50 plate appearances), so this isn’t necessarily a sample size issue. Gardner has to get back to laying off pitches out of the zone like he has in the past. He’s also stolen just one base through 19 games, and that needs to change in a hurry. I know stolen bases are down around the league, but he has to run. It’s what he does.
Gardner is the only player on the Yankees who has played every inning of every game so far this season — Robinson Cano got the final two innings off during one of those blowout wins against the Indians — though earlier this week Girardi seemed to indicate his first day off could be coming soon. It won’t be more than a routine day off though, a “maintenance day” to use a hockey term. Gardner is playing (and hitting!) against both righties and lefties, and he’s finally starting to establish himself as the team’s everyday leadoff hitter after being unable to seize the job in recent years.
* Gardner is hitting .250/.322/.400 and non-pitchers are hitting .252/.320/.403 across MLB. You can’t get much closer than that.
Via Andrew Marchand: Brian Cashman reiterated the team will indeed bring Curtis Granderson back as the center fielder once his fractured right forearm heals up. “I don’t think so,” said the GM when asked if there was a chance of keeping Brett Gardner in center.
I don’t the switch is as cut-and-dry as it seems, especially since there’s at least a small chance it could impact Granderson’s offense. This isn’t as simple as sticking Ichiro Suzuki in left last year because they weren’t putting anything at stake offensively. I definitely think they should reconsider though, because it will be a defensive upgrade (how much exactly? not sure) and the Yankees will need to squeeze every ounce of production from their roster if they plan to contend for a playoff spot.
Via George King & Andy McCullough: Brett Gardner is wearing a new fiberglass device to protect his left thumb when running the bases. “I don’t want to hurt it again … I am trying to wear something to protect it,” said the outfielder, who wore a similar device with less protection in the past.
Gardner, 29, broke the thumb in 2009 and missed a few games with soreness in 2010. Here’s a screen cap from yesterday’s game of the new protective gear, which isn’t the most high-tech thing in the world. Keeping Gardner healthy this summer will be one of the team’s top priorities given the current list of injured players, but his head-first slides — especially those into first base — make it tough. Hopefully this new thumb guard helps.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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 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.
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.
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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.