Justin Upton went to Atlanta, Mike Morse went to Seattle and Giancarlo Stanton stayed in Miami. Needless to say, the Yankees didn’t get any of the corner outfielders who emerged in trade speculation. Instead, the Yankees stuck with what they had: Short-term solutions with long-term potential on the way.
Turn back the clock
I wrote earlier in the week that the Yankees are better off with Brett Gardner in center field, which means the Yankees best-case scenario in the corners begins with putting Curtis Granderson in left. That alignment gives the Yankees an interesting left-right combo — both Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki have speed and athleticism, but their different approaches have the potential for balanced production.
Want to get over-the-top optimistic? Think of Granderson in 2011 and Ichiro in 2009. For Granderson it might not seem like much of a stretch, but let’s also acknowledge that it’s entirely possible 2011 will go down as the absolute, no-doubt-about-it, best year of Granderson’s career. To set our sights a little more realistic, look at the first half of 2012 when Granderson hit .248/.352/.502. It’s plenty potent, and plenty plausible. For a more realistic version of Ichiro, how about 2010? He hit .315/.359/.394 that year, leading the league in hits. During his two months with the Yankees last season, Ichiro hit .322/.340/.454, which is pretty close to 2010, except with an obvious power boost. Give him a few Yankee Stadium home runs, and that rejuvenated Ichiro could be a realistic (and really good) best-case scenario.
Then there’s Tyler Austin (I suppose we could also talk about Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams in this spot — the best-case scenario certainly involves putting one of them in left field eventually — but for now it’s easier to think of those two strictly as center fielders). Austin brings significant prospect potential to the right field, where he’s adjusted defensively and could have the prototypical bat for the position. He got a brief look in Double-A last year, and although he might open this season back in High-A, a best-case scenario certainly involves him getting to Triple-A (at the very least). If he hits like he did last year, and does it in the upper levels, Austin could very easily become one of the biggest prospects in the game. Zoilo Almonte remaining productive after a bump to Triple-A would make him an immediate corner option for the Yankees, Ramon Flores continuing to get on base in Double-A would solidify his prospect status, Rob Segedin showing some increased power would put him back on the map, and Jake Cave finally getting regular at-bats — and being productive with them — would take him from a kind of sleeper prospect to another power bat on the rise.
Too good to be true
Here’s the most unsettling thing about the Yankees corner outfield situation: All of the optimism comes from fairly small samples. Ichiro was terrific after last year’s trade, but that was two months of production after a year and a half of disappointment. Granderson was an MVP candidate one year, but he struggled quite a bit the year before that, and he had a hard time making contact for the second half of last year. Gardner — who could end up back in left field — is coming off a year lost to injury and has never sustained success long enough to completely quiet his detractors. If Ichiro reverts to the first half of last year, Granderson repeats the second half of last year, and Gardner’s small-ball routine proves too unreliable, the Yankees could have a good-glove, light-bat outfield that doesn’t provide nearly enough offense.
And trying to replace one or more of those outfielders could be tricky because right now the backup options are Matt Diaz (who’s been pretty bad and injured for two years), Russ Canzler (if he clears waivers), Thomas Neal (who has a handful of big league at-bats), Juan Rivera (a fading slugger who spent most of last year at first base), Zoilo Almonte (who’s never been to Triple-A), Melky Mesa (who swings and misses all the time) and Ronnier Mustelier (who’s played in the U.S. for just two years). There’s no dependable backup in the bunch.
And the Yankees certainly want to believe that Austin is on his way to change all that, but just a few years ago — in 2010 — every team in baseball let him slip to the 13th round of the draft. His past two years have been outstanding, but that’s with only a handful of Double-A at-bats. He certainly wouldn’t be the first player to rake in the lower levels and struggle against the more advanced pitchers. Flores also hasn’t seen much upper-level pitching (or ever hit for typical corner-outfield power), and Cave has hardly played at all since turning pro, and Segedin was awful when he got to Double-A last year. There are a lot of guys with a lot to prove in the Yankees corner outfield spots. The worst-case scenario, quite simply, involves those players proving nothing at all.
Associated Press photos