The Yankees have two veteran right fielders on the roster, but the team might still go shopping for an everyday alternative. And that shopping will likely begin within a week or so with a qualifying offer to Curtis Granderson.
ICHIRO SUZUKI and VERNON WELLS
Signed through 2014
What the Yankees have under contract is a right field platoon situation that might be better in theory — and in history — than in practice. Ichiro is a left-handed hitter (and possibly a Hall of Famer), and Wells is a right-hander (a three-time all-star and Gold Glove winner), but the Yankees might still be best served looking for an alternative. If this were a tradition platoon, Ichiro would play against right handers. Of course, Ichiro hit .235/.282/.307 against righties this season and actually had much better numbers against lefties (his numbers have traditionally shown very little difference vLHP or vRHP). Ichiro had a pretty good stretch in the middle of the season, but his overall production was underwhelming, which isn’t a good sign for a 40 year old. As for Wells, he hit .269/.318/.379 against left-handers this season. He was terrific in April, and he was a good singles hitter in July and August, but he was a lot like Ichiro with his ultimately disappointing season. As a pure platoon hitter, Wells might actually be a better fit than Ichiro. As a true fourth outfielder, Ichiro — with his speed and defense — might be a better fit than Wells. As for a true everyday right fielder, the Yankees might not have one. And this combination won’t do the trick either if Ichiro and Wells hit like they did last season.
The most readily available replacement just might be a guy who’s going to become a free agent immediately after the World Series comes to an end. Curtis Granderson isn’t under contract for 2014, but the Yankees could — and probably should — make him a qualifying offer, and there seems to be at least some chance he’ll accept. If he does, the Yankees will have their replacement in right field, and a chance to really buy low on short-term upside after Granderson’s injury shortened season. Then again … if Granderson doesn’t take a qualifying offer, the Yankees only ready replacements in right field would probably be Zoilo Almonte and Ronnier Mustelier (and maybe, if he has an unreal spring training, Adonis Garcia). Thing is, Almonte hit just .236/.274/.302 in 106 big league at-bats last season; Mustelier hit just .272/.319/.398 in Triple-A; and Garcia has played 50 games above Double-A. In other words, the alternatives are thin, and Granderson turning down a qualifying offer could send the Yankees shopping.
Tyler Austin left the door wide open for some other organizational outfielder to become the Yankees top right field prospect, but that didn’t happen. Austin Aune had a brutal year after moving to the outfield. Yeicok Calderon struggled with a jump to Low-A. First-round pick Aaron Judge never got on the field. So it’s still Austin, even after hitting just .257/.344/.373 in Double-A this season. It was a disappointing year considering what he did in 2012 — Austin was one of minor league baseball’s best all-around hitters last season — but it’s worth noting that it came in a year when he was dealing with a wrist injury, and most importantly, when he was playing Double-A ball at 21 years old. The Yankees have not given up on Austin. He was legitimately dominant in short-season and rookie ball, then he overpowered Low-A and High-A. Now he has to make that adjustment to the upper levels. This season might very well be a reason to doubt him — or at least a reminder that every low-level standout deserves some amount of doubt — but Austin’s also proven that there’s some legitimate offensive potential in that bat, certainly more potential than the numbers show this season.
STATE OF THE ORGANIZATION
A bounce-back season from Austin would change a lot about the state of right field in the Yankees organization. Even if Granderson were to come back for one more season, the Yankees would still be without a big league right fielder beyond next season, and Austin could emerge as a potential replacement if he were to return to Double-A, thrive at that level, and earn a bump up to Triple-A. Seems possible, but hardly a given. Just like it’s hardly a given that Aune will put things together, or that Judge will be the raw power bat the Yankees are dreaming on. But again, it’s possible. There is right field talent in the organization, even if it wasn’t a particularly good year in right field. Those organizational questions will answer themselves over time. What the Yankees have to answer for themselves is what to do about right field next season. Will they be able to bring back Granderson? Can they find someone on the free agent or trade market? Are they willing to stick with the aging platoon that’s currently in place?
Associated Press photo; headshots of Ichiro, Wells, Granderson, Austin and Mustelier