- The LoHud Yankees Blog - http://yankees.lhblogs.com -

State of the organization: Left field

Tweet [1]

Alfonso Soriano [2]

With Brett Gardner having transitioned to his more natural center field position, left field at Yankee Stadium belongs to the former Yankees second baseman who came back to the Bronx and provided a legitimate down-the-stretch spark this year. But that’s only the state of the organization for 2014. Beyond next season, left field is a total mystery.

Signed through 2014
If he had enough at-bats to qualify, Soriano would have finished fifth in American League slugging percentage this season. He showed up at the end of July, hit 17 homers, slugged .525 and proved to be perhaps the best trade deadline acquisition in baseball. He did exactly what the Yankees wanted him to do, and far exceeded what they could have reasonably expected him to do. Now the question is, can he do that again for a full season? And even if a repeat of his .256/.325/.525 slash line is too much to ask — until the trade, Soriano hadn’t hit like that since 2008 — is it reasonable to hope for something close to his 2012 production (.262/.322/.499)? With Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson heading toward free agency, the Yankees desperately need power, and Soriano could provide that for another year. He’ll be 38 next season, but the Yankees aren’t in this for the long term. They need one more productive season, and Soriano’s triumphant return to the Bronx certainly suggests he’s capable of such a thing. He’s going to strike out a lot, but as long as Soriano is driving the ball, he can play a significant role in the Yankees depleted lineup.

If we’re talking about a depth chart here, the Yankees have Vernon Wells and Ichiro Suzuki under contract as either platoon right fielders or backup corner outfielders. If the Yankees need someone to fill-in for Soriano forĀ  a day, they’re covered. But that’s not really what we’re talking about with ready replacements. The better focus here is on Zoilo Almonte. The switch-hitter has played both outfield corners in his career — and a little center field — but this season he focused on left field in both the big leagues and in Triple-A. He’s also played almost exclusively in left field this winter. That’s not to say he couldn’t compete for a right field job in spring training, but he would certainly seem to be at or near the top of the left field list should something happen to Soriano. As a general rule, Almonte’s long-term future seems closer to fourth outfielder than productive everyday player, but he did slug .487 in Double-A last year and he hit .297/.369/.421 in Triple-A this season. There’s something at least vaguely interesting about the bat — especially against right-handed pitching — and Almonte has positioned himself as the most advanced outfield prospect in the system. His opportunity, though, could be fairly limited. If he gets a chance, he’ll need to produce quickly or else be forgotten.

Soriano is pretty solid proof that a future left field standout won’t necessarily play left field in the minors. Young center fielders and second basemen could very well end up in left field at some point, so you could consider anyone from Slade Heathcott to Rob Refsnyder to be a legitimate left field prospect at this point. And as for ready replacements, Ronnier Mustelier and Adonis Garcia could easily fit into the left field discussion. But as for top prospects currently playing left field, the best in the Yankees system is still probably Ramon Flores. Entering this season, Flores was kind of a second-tier outfield prospect behind the Heathcott-Williams-Austin trio. Getting on base is his calling card, and he had a .353 on-base percentage in Double-A Trenton this year. He also hit .260 and slugged just .363. He stole seven bases and was thrown out six times. Basically, he does seem to have an advanced eye and a patient approach at the plate — and he can play some center field, which helps — but does a low-power, not-overwhelming-speed guy really have a big league future in left field? Brett Gardner was crowded into the role by circumstance, but he was always considered a better talent than Flores is considered today. If Flores were a shortstop or second baseman, his offensive potential might be viewed differently.

In the past three decades or so, the Yankees have had quite a bit of turnover in left field. Hideki Matsui held down the position for a while, but there’s also been a lot of mixing and matching there. For next season, the Yankees seem to have the position very nearly set in stone with Soriano, but everything about the Yankees outfield is a complete mystery beyond 2014. Soriano, Gardner, Wells and Ichiro are each free agents after next season, and it’s telling that Almonte is the system’s most advanced young outfielder, because he’s hardly a sure thing to have any sort of impact in either the short term or the long term. Deep in the system, third-round draft pick Nathan Mikolas has primarily played left field, but he’s also 19 with a long, long way to go. In A-ball, Ben Gamel has been a nice young player, but he’s more of a fringy prospect than a standout. Left field is typically less predictable than other positions, if only because so many players can eventually slide into that role, and the Yankees are certainly facing significant unpredictability at the position. Honestly, just try to answer this question right now: Who do you think will be the Yankees Opening Day left fielder in 2015? Your guess is as good as mine.

Associated Press photo