2013 Season Preview: The Right Fielders

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(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.

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(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

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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.

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(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.

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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

Yankees land four on Baseball’s America Top 100 Prospects List

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(Star-Ledger)

Baseball America published their annual (and long-awaited) list of the best 100 prospects in baseball today, a list that is predictably topped by Rangers SS Jurickson Profar. Unlike last year, when their were two legitimate number one candidates in Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, Profar is the clear top prospect this year. Orioles RHP Dylan Bundy and Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras round out the top three.

Like last year, the Yankees placed four players on the top 100. OF Mason Williams ranked the highest at #32, and was followed by C Gary Sanchez (#57), OF Slade Heathcott (#63), and OF Tyler Austin (#77). Those four were ranked #35, #18, #57, and #52, respectively, by Keith Law earlier this month, so Baseball America isn’t quite as high on them. Here is the publication’s top ten prospects list for reference.

The crew at Baseball America slapped 20-80 scouting scale grades on each of the top 100 prospects in a subscriber-only feature, which is nice and easy for the Yankees since they’re all position players.

Bat Power Speed Defense Arm
Williams 60 60 70 70 50
Sanchez 50 65 30 45 60
Heathcott 50 60 70 60 60
Austin 65 50 50 50 60

Those are future grades, not present, meaning the players are expected to grow into that kind of power, etc. down the line. Three of the four project to have five average-or-better tools down the line, which is pretty amazing. Baseball America may be high on Austin’s right field defense and speed and a little low on Sanchez’s bat, but they’re the experts. Still a nice collection of tools, especially in the hit and power departments.

The Yankees ranked 11th in Baseball America’s preliminary farm system rankings back in January, and the official list will be released in the coming weeks. There haven’t been many big farm system-altering trades since the preliminary rankings came out, so I don’t expect them to change much. As I wrote in my Top 30 List a few weeks ago, the Yankees have a top-heavy farm system with quite a big drop-off between these four and everyone else. Four top-100 guys is still pretty strong though, not many organizations can match that.

Poll: The Yankees’ Top Prospect

The team's last no-doubt number one prospect. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
The team’s last no-doubt number one prospect. (Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

For the first time in several years, the Yankees do not have an obvious top prospect. Manny Banuelos was the easy (but not necessarily slam dunk) choice last season and Jesus Montero indisputably sat atop the team’s prospect list for years, but right now there is no real consensus. They do have four legitimate top prospect candidates though, so it’s not like they’re hurting for talent.

By now you know those four players: catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielders Tyler Austin, Mason Williams, and Slade Heathcott. Baseball America ranked Williams number one earlier this winter while Keith Law and John Sickels each had Sanchez in the top spot. If you spend some time scouring the interwebs, you’ll sure find other lists with Heathcott and Austin sitting at number one. I think we can all agree there wouldn’t be much argument with any of this guys being called New York’s best minor leaguer.

My personal top 30 prospects list comes out tomorrow, but you’ll have to wait until then to see I have at number one. For now I just want to poll the audience to see who you folks think is the team’s top prospect. Here’s a quick review of each guys credential’s (listed alphabetically)…

OF Tyler Austin
Austin, 21, was the best player in the farm system last season, hitting .322/.400/.559 with 17 homers and 23 stolen bases while playing at four different levels. The Yankees have moved him around the field a bit, but last year he settled into right field. Regardless, he’s a bat-first prospect.

OF Slade Heathcott
The 22-year-old Heathcott missed the first half with his second shoulder surgery in as many offseasons, but he returned to hit .302/.380/.461 with five homers and 19 steals in 65 total games. He tore the cover off the ball — .388/.494/.612 in 18 games — in the Arizona Fall League after the season. If that’s not good enough, his defense\ive skills in center and damn near elite.

C Gary Sanchez
No minor league catcher hit more homers than the 20-year-old Sanchez in 2012, who went deep 18 times while hitting .290/.344/.485 across two levels. Thanks to his greatly improved defense, he’s likely to remain behind the plate long-term. Sanchez might be the most gifted hitter in the system, and he does it at the most premium position.

OF Mason Williams
Williams, 21, hit .298/.346/.474 with 11 homers and 20 steals in 91 games between two levels last season, though a shoulder injury — suffered while diving for a ball in the outfield — ended his season in late-August. Williams offers high-end center field defense like Heathcott, but he doesn’t have the same ugly injury history.

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With all due respect to the other players in the system, these four clearly stand out from the pack. They’re all not only extremely talented, but they all produced in a big way this past season. Which one is the best? I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Who is the Yankees' top prospect?
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Keith Law’s top ten Yankees prospects list

Keith Law published his list of baseball’s top 110 prospects yesterday, and he followed up today by releasing individual top ten prospects lists for each American League club (subs. req’d). The top five prospects are the same guys from the top 110 yesterday (in the same order), and numbers six through ten are RHP Ty Hensley, LHP Manny Banuelos, RHP Jose Campos, RHP Mark Montgomery, and 2B Angelo Gumbs.

Within the write-up, Law notes the system is top-heavy with high-end guys, and their only real impact prospects for 2013 are Montgomery and RHP Dellin Betances if he takes to the bullpen. He lists Hensley as the organization’s sleeper, saying the shoulder abnormality hasn’t stopped him from running his fastball up to 98, and “if he can just show that kind of stuff and last for a 120-140 inning season in 2013, he’s a likely top-100 guy.” Interestingly enough, he notes the Yankees love OF Ben Gamel, and they expect him to show more power this summer after bulking up thanks to his offseason conditioning program.

Yanks place five on Law’s top 110 prospects list

(Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)
(Cliff Welch/MiLB.com)

Keith Law published his annual list of baseball’s top 100 prospects today (subs. req’d), a list that was predictably topped by Rangers SS Jurickson Profar. Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras and Orioles RHP Dylan Bundy round out the top three while Rays OF Wil Myers and Red Sox SS Xander Bogaerts crack the top five. Former Yankees first round pick and Pirates RHP Gerrit Cole ranks eighth while former Yankees farmhand and current Cubs RHP Arodys Vizcaino ranks 64th.

C Gary Sanchez ranks 18th and is the first of four Yankees prospects on the list. “Sanchez’ offensive potential is tremendous; despite an exaggerated leg kick, he gets his lead foot down in time, keeping his weight back enough to drive the ball, even showing doubles power the other way thanks to strong hands and excellent hip rotation,” wrote Law while also noting that he’s an aggressive hitter but not a total hacker who will chase off the plate. He also says Sanchez “improved his receiving substantially over the previous year” and is very likely to stick behind the plate long-term.

A little further down is OF Mason Williams, who placed 35th overall. Law says he’s improved at staying back on the ball but “can get a little power-happy and drop his back shoulder too much to try to elevate the ball.” He also cautions that he needs to improve his patience at the plate to reach his offensive ceiling. Williams draws high praises for his defense — “a 70 grade on the 20-80 scale thanks to above-average speed and great reads even on balls that slice away from him” — which Law touts as already big league caliber.

(Matt Burton/MiLB.com)
(Matt Burton/MiLB.com)

OF Tyler Austin ranks 52nd overall thanks to his bat. “Austin’s swing is fundamentally sound,” wrote Law, “shifting his weight just before contact, rotating his hips to drive the ball and staying balanced throughout with a short path to the ball and good extension, checking just about all of the boxes you want for a hitter’s mechanics.” His defense is adequate right now with a chance to become average in terms of range and arm. Austin’s bat is going to have to carry him, as was always the case.

The final Yankees prospect to crack the top 100 is OF Slade Heathcott, who wasn’t too far behind Austin at 57th overall. “[Heathcott] dominated the field in (the Arizona Fall League) and has a special mix of strength and quickness that might put him among the top 20 prospects in the game in a year,” said Law, who calls Slade a “maniac” because of his extremely all-out style of play. He also commends his sound swing, above-average speed, and strong center field defense. Injuries remain a concern, of course.

In addition to the top 100, Law also posted a list of ten prospects who just missed the cut (subs. req’d), a list that includes RHP Jose Ramirez. “He’s filled out quite a bit in the past three years,” wrote Law, “with more than 200 pounds on his 6-3 frame, and will work at 94-98 mph with big-time life and a hard mid-80s slider.” Injuries, specifically elbow and shoulder concerns over the last two seasons, kept him out of the top 100. Just getting consideration is pretty awesome.

I think four top-60 and five top-110 prospects is pretty darn good for the Yankees considering some of the pitching injuries this year and the fact that they’ve muffed some recent first round picks. Heathcott (first round) and Sanchez ($3M bonus) were high-profile additions, but Austin (13th round), Williams (4th round), and Ramirez (unknown but small bonus) were all shrewd pickups who have developed well. All five guys should reach Double-A Trenton this year and several (Austin, Heathcott, and Ramirez) should begin the season there.

Yankees place three on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list

MLB.com published their always entertaining top 100 prospects list yesterday, which was predictably topped by Rangers SS Jurickson Profar. Orioles RHP Dylan Bundy and Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras round out the top three, Rays OF Wil Myers and Mariners RHP Taijuan Walker the top five.

The Yankees placed three prospects on the list, led by C Gary Sanchez at #36. OF Mason Williams wasn’t far behind him at #41 while OF Tyler Austin lagged at #75. MLB.com’s lists are always eyebrow-raising, and this is likely the only time this spring you’ll see Sanchez ranked ahead of Williams — in fairness, that isn’t completely insane, just a minority opinion — and no OF Slade Heathcott on a top 100 list. Giants OF Gary Brown made the list and Heathcott didn’t. Can’t explain it, but such is life.