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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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.

Poll: Replacing Curtis Granderson

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

The dust has settled a little bit following the news of Curtis Granderson‘s fractured forearm on Sunday. The Yankees will be without their 40-homer center left fielder for the next ten weeks, meaning he will miss the first month of the season. It’s a big loss, no doubt about it, but they are lucky it happened so early in Spring Training. Things would have been a lot worse had he gotten hurt on March 24th instead of February 24th.

As expected, the Yankees insist they will plug their new outfield hole from within. The Johnny Damon talk has already fizzled out while the Alfonso Soriano talk never really got going. The only unsigned free agent outfielder who is both healthy and actually capable of playing the outfield everyday is Scott Podsednik. Thanks, but no thanks. The Yankees will stick with their internal options and see if (hope?) a better alternative pops up next month as camp winds down and roster spots are finalized. Here is a quick look at those internal options, listed alphabetically.

Zoilo Almonte
Almonte, 23, is a switch-hitter who managed a power-heavy 120 wRC+ with Double-A Trenton last year. He hit a career-high 21 homers and also stole 15 bases, though his miniscule walk rate (5.6%) and strikeout concerns (22.7%) seem to make skipping over Triple-A a risky proposition. Zoilo’s pop is legit, but the rest of the package is lacking.

Matt Diaz
Diaz was in the running for the right-handed outfield platoon bat role before Granderson’s injury, so it seems natural that he would be among the favorites for the job now. The soon-to-be 35-year-old hasn’t hit in three years (80 wRC+), due to in part to various injuries — getting stabbed in the hand by a palm tree and dealing with the subsequent infections chief among them. Diaz is on a minor league contract and was a total shot in the dark by the front office, who hopes he can recapture his 2006-2009 form (117 wRC+).

Adonis Garcia
Here’s the darkhorse. The 27-year-old Garcia signed for $400k last summer and has impressed with his bat ever since, especially in winter ball (.292/.319/.481 with six homers in 39 games). As Baseball America wrote earlier this month, the right-handed hitter “is a better fit on a corner outfield spot and doesn’t have an impact bat, but he’s shown a knack for hitting and surprising pop for his 5-foot-9 stature.” Garcia is not on the 40-man roster, which could hurt his chances.

Melky Mesa
Mesa, 26, is the best all-around player of the bunch. He can swing-and-miss from the right side with the best of ‘em (career-low 23.5 K% in 2012), but he’s hit at a better than average rate at each rung of the minor league ladder, including a ~125 wRC+ split between Double-A and Triple-A last year. Mesa has power and speed — at least 19 homers and 19 steals in three of the last four years — to go along with standout defense and a strong arm. Among players in the organization who could legitimately see big league time this summer, Melky2.0 is probably the second best defender behind Brett Gardner. He got his first taste of the show last September.

Ronnie Mustelier
Everyone loves the right-handed hitting Mustelier, the 28-year-old Cuban defector who has managed a ~144 wRC+ since signing for a measly $50k two years ago. His strikeout rate (13.0%) is strong, his walk rate (6.7%) slightly less so. The concern with Mustelier is his defense, which is poor and has gotten him moved down the defensive spectrum form second base to third to left over the last 20 months or so. He can hit a fastball though.

Thomas Neal
Neal, 25, seems to be the afterthought in all this. The righty swinger managed a 144 wRC+ with 12 homers and 11 stolen bases in Double-A last year, making his big league debut with the Indians in September. He has some Triple-A time under his belt (277 plate appearances) and is solid defensively. Neal is a long shot, but he shouldn’t be written off completely. Like Garcia and Mustelier, he is not on the 40-man roster.

Juan Rivera
Like Diaz, the Yankees inked the 34-year-old Rivera to a minor league deal so he could complete for the right-handed bench bat role. The former Yankee is, by far, the most experienced and accomplished player in this post. He’s hit to the tune of a 92 wRC+ over the last three seasons and despite being a strong defensive player once upon a time, he’s now comfortably below-average. Rivera’s best attribute is his ability to put the ball in play (12.9 K% since 2010).

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Ramon Flores is on the 40-man roster, but I have no reason to think the Yankees will jump him from High-A to MLB just to plug a one-month hole. Same goes with top prospects/non-40-man players Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, and Tyler Austin. If you want some projections for the players mentioned in this post, SG has you covered. Otherwise, time to vote…

Who should be the regular left fielder while Granderson is on the DL?
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Update: Mesa, Cedeno, Velazquez, Ibarra, and Venditte will play in WBC

5:57pm: Infielder Walt Ibarra (Mexico) and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte (Italy) will also play in the tournament according to Wally Matthews. Guess this means Venditte’s right shoulder is healthy following labrum surgery.

5:30pm: Via Dan Barbarisi: Outfielder Melky Mesa, left-hander Juan Cedeno, and infielder Gil Velazquez will all participate in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. Velazquez will play for Team Mexico while the other two will suit up for Team Dominican Republic.

The 33-year-old Velazquez and 29-year-old Cedeno are expected to serve as depth pieces with Triple-A Scranton this summer. Mesa, 26, has an outside chance of making the big league team as the right-handed hitting outfield bench bat with a strong spring, though this might be a once in a lifetime thing for him. The Dominican Republic’s outfield has been decimated by declined invites (Melky Cabrera and Carlos Gomez, specifically), so Mesa might be their everyday center fielder. I don’t blame him for going, and there’s a good chance we’ll see him in the Bronx at some point this summer anyway. He should be the first outfielder recalled when injury strikes.

Melky Mesa, 2013, and beyond

(Elsa/Getty)

The Yankees have a full 40-man roster at the moment, and you’ll notice they’re carrying a lot of prospects who either qualify as fringy or are unlikely to contribute in 2013. Corban Joseph, Zoilo Almonte, and Francisco Rondon make up the former category while Jose Ramirez, Ramon Flores, and Nik Turley headline the latter. In the middle somewhere is outfielder Melky Mesa, who made his big league debut with New York as a September call-up this past season.

Mesa, 26 next month, is actually one of the longest-tenured players in the organization. The Yankees originally signed him as a 16-year-old way back in 2003, so his climb up the minor league ladder has been rather deliberate. Mesa broke out in 2010, when he won the High-A Florida State League MVP award by hitting .260/.338/.475 (133 wRC+) with 19 homers and 33 steals. He produced a .264/.325/.480 (~122 wRC+) batting line with 23 homers and 22 steals in 504 plate appearances split between Double-A and Triple-A this summer before the cup o’ coffee.

The scouting report on Mesa is exciting, as he’s a tooled up center fielder who could put together a Yoenis Cespedes-esque workout video that would make fans drool. He’s got right-handed power, speed, a cannon arm, strong defense, durability … he just struggles to make contact. His career strikeout rate in the minors is a whopping 27.7%, and it’s 26.0% since his 2010 breakout. To his credit, he did cut that down to 23.4% in 2012. Contact is the most important of the five traditional tools, and it’s the one Mesa lacks.

The Yankees are currently seeking a right-handed hitter to pair with their all-left-handed hitting starting outfield, and Mesa is their only realistic internal option for the position. He’s only hit .216/.285/.357 (29. K%) against southpaws over the last two seasons (.271/.343/.465 and 25.6% against righties), but the sample is only 249 plate appearances. We should hardly take that as definitive proof he’s unable to hit lefties, but it’s not encouraging, especially when you’re talking about a team in hopes of contending. Still, the speed and outfield defense would be assets off the bench. The Yankees just need a little more offensive punch than Mesa could likely provide at this point.

Barring something unexpected, Mesa will begin the season in Triple-A, where he only has 133 career plate appearances. He’s obviously older that your typical prospect, but there’s enough tools here to remain interesting despite the lack of contact skills. Mesa’s a guy you dream on, which is something New York has been doing since they added him to the 40-man roster after the 2010 season to prevent him from becoming a minor league free agent. He only has one more option left, meaning he can go back to the minors in 2013 (but not 2014) without having to pass through waivers, so next season is his final chance to work things out in the minors before a decision has to be made about his long-term future in the organization.

Season Review: Miscellaneous Position Players

As we wrap up our seemingly never-ending review of the 2012 season, it’s time to look back on the last handful of position players. These are the guys who spend some time on the big league roster this year but not much, ultimately contributing little in the grand scheme of things.

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Dewayne Wise
He was sparingly used during his three months on the roster, but the 34-year-old Wise hit .262/.286/.492 (106 wRC+) in 63 plate appearances for the Yankees. He also retired both batters he faced while pitching in a blowout loss. The team originally recalled him to fill Brett Gardner‘s roster spot before cutting him loose following the Ichiro Suzuki trade. Wise went 9-for-18 with a double, a triple, and three homers during an eight-game stretch in late-June/early-July, but his greatest contribution to the club — besides the bunt that turned the season around — was his non-catch against Indians in late-June.

Chris Dickerson
Had the 30-year-old Dickerson not been on the minor league DL early in the season, chances are he would have been recalled to take Gardner’s spot instead of Wise. He instead had to wait until rosters expanded in September, and he went 4-for-14 (.286) with two homers and three steals in his limited playing time. Most of his action came as a defensive replacement in the late innings. I like Dickerson more than most and think he can be a useful left-handed platoon outfielder who also provides speed and defense, but it’s obvious the Yankees aren’t interested in giving him an opportunity. For shame.

(Elsa/Getty)

Melky Mesa
Mesa, 25, was the team’s only true rookie position player this year. He came up when rosters expanded in September and only appeared in three games — one as a pinch-runner and two as a late-innings replacement in blowouts. Mesa did pick up his first career hit and RBI in his first big league plate appearance, singling on a ground ball back up the middle. His most notable play was a base-running blunder, when he missed the bag while rounding third base on an Alex Rodriguez single in extra-innings against the Athletics. Mesa would have scored the game-winning run, but alas. Rookie mistake.

Darnell McDonald
The Yankees got a little cute prior to the All-Star break, claimed the right-handed hitting McDonald off waivers from the Red Sox before heading up to Fenway for a four-game set. The Sox were set to throw three left-handed starters in the four games, so the 34-year-old figured to see some playing time against his former team. McDonald instead received just four plate appearances, made outs in all of them, and collided with Curtis Granderson in center field. A run scored on the play. Embedded Red Sox? Embedded Red Sox.

Ramiro Pena
Rakin’ Ramiro was on the roster for less than a week this season. The Yankees called him up after Alex Rodriguez had his hand broken by Felix Hernandez in late-July, but he was sent back down following the Casey McGehee trade a few days later. In between, the 27-year-old infielder singled once in four plate appearances and got into two other games as a pinch-runner. Pena became a minor league free agent after the season, ending his seven-year stint with the organization.