2013 Season Preview: The Bench

Our season preview series wraps up this week with a look at the bullpen, the bench, and miscellaneous leftovers. Opening Day is one week from today.

The lesser of two catching evils. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
The lesser of two catching evils. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Previewing the bench will not be easy because we still — four days before Opening Day — have basically no idea who will fill these four spots. Sure, either Frankie Cervelli or Chris Stewart will be the backup catcher, but we don’t know which one yet. I’m guessing Joe Girardi has some kind of convoluted personal catcher situation planned; I feel like having two backup catchers on the roster is his managerial dream.

As for the backup outfield and infield spots … who knows right now? There are a lot of candidates for a few spots and the Yankees continue to look outside the organization for help. Given their massive 40-man roster logjam, a multi-player trade shouldn’t be ruled out at this point either.

Catcher
It’ll be either Stewart or Cervelli and the Yankees have indicated a pretty even playing time split (maybe more like 60/40), I think it’ll only be a matter of time before Frankie grabs the job outright. His throwing has been greatly improved and he’s a far better hitter (but still nothing special), the two things that stand out most about a catcher. If they start the year with a 55/45 or 60/40 split, I think sometime in mid-May it’ll be slanted about 75/25 in favor of Cervelli. The Yankees love Stewart but they love winning more, and playing a guy with a legit chance to post a .200s across the board slash line will only last so long given how much offense they lost elsewhere.

Ronnie has had a bit of an issue with walls in camp. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Ronnie has had a bit of an issue with walls in camp. (AP/Kathy Willens)

Backup Infielder
Derek Jeter‘s nagging ankle issues cleared up the backup infield situation quite a bit. Eduardo Nunez will open the season as the starter and that paves the way for Jayson Nix to make the team as his backup. There really isn’t much competition for this spot — veteran Gil Velazquez is the only other guy in camp who could play a passable shortstop at the big league level. Again, we shouldn’t rule out a trade, but Nix seems like a lock for a bench spot right now.

The real question is whether the Yankees want to carry two backup infielders like they have the last two years, Nix and a corner infield guy like Eric Chavez. The only real candidates for that Chavez role are Dan Johnson — who seems to have little chance of making the team at this point — and Ronnie Mustelier. The 28-year-old Cuban defector has had a good spring — mostly against Triple-A caliber pitching according to B-Ref’s OppQual stat — and has seen a bunch of time at third base lately, so he’s at least earning consideration from the team. I guess we shouldn’t rule about a two-headed first base platoon with Juan Rivera and Lyle Overbay, which would soak up that second infielder’s spot.

Backup Outfielder
Assuming Vernon Wells is penciled in as the everyday left fielder, the fourth outfielder’s spot is down to Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco, Melky Mesa, Thomas Neal, and I guess Mustelier. Depending on whether they take a second backup infielder, it’s possible two of these guys will make the team. Mustelier makes the most sense really, since he could backup both the corner infield and corner outfield spots.

Boesch and Francisco presumably have a leg up on Mesa and Neal given their big league experience, and again, both could make the team. The Yankees were planning to open the season with three left-handed outfielders and a right-handed backup, and Boesch would give them that third lefty. He also has minor league options remaining and could be stashed in Triple-A. I’m not sure if Francisco has an out clause in his contract before the end of Spring Training, so sending him to the minors might not be an option. The Yankees will want to retain as much depth as possible given their rash of injuries.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Knocking on the Door
In addition to the guys mentioned above — Velazquez, Johnson, Mesa, Neal, etc. — the Yankees will have a handful of other bench options waiting in Triple-A Scranton. That is what the level is there for, after all. Austin Romine is the clear third catcher but would probably need an injury to earn a shot in the big leagues. He’s missed a lot of time these last two years with back problems and needs to play everyday.

Corban Joseph gives the team depth at second and third bases, though they had more before releasing David Adams yesterday. Zoilo Almonte is another warm body for the outfield mix, but he has never played above Double-A and will need some Triple-A time before coming to the show. He’s pretty much at the bottom of the outfield depth chart at the moment. Pretty much anyone who doesn’t win a bench spot will open the year in Triple-A as a backup plan. That’s who’s knocking on the door.

* * *

My opinion changes by the day/hour, but if the season started today I believe the Yankees would go with a four-man bench of Stewvelli, Nix, Mustelier, and Boesch with Francisco & Co. heading to Triple-A for the time being. The club could play finagle Phil Hughes‘ expected DL stint into a fifth bench player — Francisco would be the guy for that one, I assume — for the first few games of the season, but I don’t see that happening.

That four-man bench pretty much stinks. There is no speed to pinch-run — that would have been Nunez’s job before he forced into playing short everyday — and basically no versatility outside of Nix. Carrying Mesa over Boesch would address the speed issue while Mustelier is the only one who could offer real versatility. Barring an unexpected trade(s) these next few days, the bench figures to be a work in progress pretty much all season.

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Position player questions starting to be answered

Boesch seems like a safe bet for the Opening Day roster. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Boesch seems like a safe bet for the Opening Day roster. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees showed up to camp last spring with the bench mostly set, but this year was a different story. None of the four bench spots were accounted for when position players reported last month — there were favorites for jobs, but nothing was close to set in stone — and right now the only guarantee is that either Chris Stewart or Frankie Cervelli will be the backup catcher while the other starts. The backup infielder, backup outfielder, and remaining bench spot are still undecided.

Less than two weeks before Opening Day, those three bench questions are joined by two injury-related questions in the starting lineup. Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira will be out until May, possibly longer in the case of the latter, meaning the Yankees must also sort through their assorted scraps for an outfielder and a first baseman. Thanks to some recent roster moves, these five position player questions are starting to be answered.

“There is no guarantee for anything … We will continue to evaluate these guys as we move forward,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings and Dan Martin after Matt Diaz was released over the weekend. “Maybe one piece is gone, but it’s still going to play out probably for the next two weeks … We just thought the other guys were ahead of him and to be fair to him to have a chance to [play] somewhere else.”

In addition to Diaz being released, youngsters like Slade Heathcott and Zoilo Almonte were sent to minor league camp and effective removed from the outfield competition. Juan Rivera has played an awful lot of first base lately in the wake of Teixeira’s injury — he’s played the outfield just once in the last eight Grapefruit League games — and seems to have been dropped from the outfield race. That leaves Ben Francisco, Brennan Boesch, Melky Mesa, and Thomas Neal in the competition.

With all due respect to Neal, who has quietly had a nice camp, the other three guys stand out as prohibitive favorites. I think the Yankees consider the 27-year-old Boesch is the no-doubt replacement for  Granderson — I think he would play right with Ichiro Suzuki shifting to left, putting the weaker defender in the smaller field — just because he’s left-handed and has played everyday the last three years. That said, Boesch signed a split contract and Buster Olney confirmed he has two (!) minor league options left, so he could be sent to Triple-A in a heartbeat. The fact that he’s the only left-handed hitter left in the competition leads me to believe he has a leg up on a big league roster spot come Opening Day.

Francisco. (Presswire)
Francisco. (Presswire)

That leaves Francisco and Mesa to battle it out for the right-handed outfield/DH role, and the Yankees always seem to lean towards the veteran when it comes to these part-time/reserve roles. Going with Francisco and sending Mesa to Triple-A allows the team to keep both players and frankly they could use the depth. Neither guy is like to hit much and while Melky2.0 is the better defender, Francisco is solid in the corner spots. Keeping him with Mesa in Triple-A is preferable to having Mesa in the show with no backup in the minors just in terms of having as many warm bodies as possible. Both guys will be needing over the course of the 162-game season.

Since the Yankees don’t need a fifth starter until their seventh game of the season and can backdate a DL stint ten days into Spring Training, they could have Phil Hughes start the season on the DL due to his back problem and carry an extra position player. Hughes would still be eligible to come off the DL in time for that seventh game, but the club would buy itself just a tiny bit more time to evaluate their position player options. It’s the difference between carrying both Rivera and Dan Johnson at the start of the season rather than just one or two. The Yankees only figure to see one left-handed starter in those first six games (Jon Lester on Opening Day), so having Johnson around would be helpful.

We still have no idea who the Yankees will carry north as the utility infielder, but Jayson Nix might have a leg up on Eduardo Nunez because of his versatility and defensive reliability. Going into the season with Boesch, Francisco, Rivera, and Johnson leaves the team just one spot for a utility man even if they open with Hughes on the DL. We know they’re just dying to use Nunez at short when Derek Jeter plays DH against lefties, but he hasn’t played any other position in camp. If they’re going to use him as the utility infielder, they’ll need to get him a few reps at second and third just to prepare him for the season.

With Diaz released and some others assigned to minor league camp, it looks more and more likely the Yankees will have both Boesch and Francisco on their Opening Day roster. Rivera and Johnson are the obvious first base fill-ins, but the club would need to manipulate Hughes’ injury — if they backdate his DL stint ten days, he can’t pitch in a Grapefruit League game during that time and will have to get his work in on the minor league side — to buy a temporary extra roster spot. The competition for the outfield, first base, and bench spots is still relatively wide open, but the picture is much clearer right now than it was just one week ago.

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

Melky Mesa withdraws from World Baseball Classic

Via Chad Jennings: Melky Mesa has informed the Yankees he will skip the World Baseball Classic. He made the decision on his own and wasn’t asked by the team to skip the event. A little more than a week ago we heard the outfielder was planning to suit up for the Dominican Republic.

Mesa, 26, is 4-for-15 (.267) with two homers and two steals in Spring Training so far. He has a decent chance of making the big league team thanks to Curtis Granderson‘s fractured forearm, so it seems like a wise move on his part to skip the tournament and remain with the Yankees. It’ll be difficult to beat out veterans Matt Diaz and Juan Rivera, but Mesa is the most well-rounded player in the outfield competition thanks to his power, speed, defense, and throwing arm. I ranked him 26th on my preseason top 30 prospects list.