Nick Swisher is the Yankees right fielder, but everything else about the Yankees outfield is subject to change. Curtis Granderson will be in there somewhere — for this post, we’ll assume center field — and Brett Gardner is the favorite for the other starting role, but the Yankees have added a long list of candidates for bench jobs and possibly regular time in the lineup. The outfield corners are perhaps the most volatile part of New York’s lineup because of the lack of a big-name left fielder and no obvious replacements in the upper levels of the minor leagues.
Starters: Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher
Backup: Randy Winn
Veteran insurance: Marcus Thames
Almost ready: Jamie Hoffmann, David Winfree
Low Rising: Melky Mesa, Kelvin DeLeon
For a series like this, it’s much easier to lump the outfield corners together, because so many outfielders can handle both spots (including several Yankees minor leaguers who I didn’t list). For the Yankees, Winn seems best positioned to be the immediate backup in left and right — assuming he doesn’t win the everyday left field job — while Thames could very easily win a platoon role by beating out Rule 5 pick Hoffmann in spring training (you have to wonder if the Yankees are willing to let Hoffmann develop at the big league level when they have a proven option like Thames in the mix). The starting job remains Gardner’s to lose, but there are enough pieces to mix and match if necessary. Mesa and DeLeon are both quite raw, with a long road between them and the big leagues.
Worst-case scenario: Look back at 2008, when Swisher hit .219 for the White Sox and Gardner stumbled in his first big league exposure. That’s where the worst-case scenario starts. We know Swisher is going to hit for power and Gardner is going to steal some bags, but they have to make consistent contact and reach base for those things to matter. If Winn repeats 2009, Hoffmann falls flat and Thames falters against left-handed pitching, the Yankees won’t have another experienced outfielder to turn to. They’ve signed and traded for an interesting group of Triple-A outfielders to put around Colin Curtis, but no one in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre outfield is a sure thing.
Best-case scenario: Throughout the minor leagues, Gardner always improved in his second attempt at a given level. If he can raise his on-base percentage to around .370 — which is still 19 points lower than his career minor league OBP — the Yankees will have no need for those veteran backups they signed this winter. If Swisher finds his power stroke at home, where he had just eight home runs last season, he could easily top 30 homers for the year. A return to form from Winn and solid splits from either Thames or Hoffmann would give the Yankees a valuable outfield bench, and Winfree could hit his way into the major league conversation with a nice power showing in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. If Mesa and DeLeon could cut back on the strikeouts in A-ball, that would be gravy.
The future: The outfield corners could change drastically in the next few years, but that volatility could go away if Gardner proves himself and Swisher remains productive. Winn and Thames are on one-year deals, so they don’t factor into this discussion, but Gardner is still two years from arbitration and Swisher is signed through 2012 (the Yankees can buyout the last year). The Yankees could ultimately stick with those two — and save their free agent money for Jeter, Rivera and a starting pitcher or two — or they could dive into an upcoming free agent market that could include Carl Crawford, Adam Dunn, Michael Cuddyer, Brad Hawpe and David DeJesus.
An attempt at the complete depth chart
An educated guess, but just a guess
Scranton: Colin Curtis, David Winfree
Trenton: Edwar Gonzalez, Dan Brewer
Tampa: Taylor Grote, Melky Mesa
Charleston: Neil Medchill, Zoilo Almonte
Extended: Kelvin DeLeon
Several things could happen in the lower levels. Medchill is a college draftee with power, so he could jump all the way to Tampa. DeLeon is young but very talented, so he could prove himself ready for full-season ball. As is usually the case, there will be some mixing and matching going on in the minor league outfields. Trenton’s outfield is fairly wide open for anyone who earns at-bats.