Our position-by-position moves into the outfield with a look at left field. The Yankees traded for a big-name left fielder each of the past two seasons, and both are still on the roster, but offseason maneuvering means the Yankees are instead turning back to their 2011 left fielder to fill the spot with speed and defense instead of raw power.
Top of the depth chart: Brett Gardner
Backup options: Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki, Zoilo Almonte, Russ Canzler
Also coming to camp: Ramon Flores, Adonis Garcia, Slade Heathcott, Jose Pirela, Antoan Richardson
Deeper in the system: Ronnier Mustelier, Ben Gamel, Nathan Mikolas
Brett Gardner hasn’t been a regular left fielder since 2011. He would have been in 2012, but he was hurt. That’s the year the Yankees traded for Ichiro Suzuki and asked him to play left. In 2013, Gardner was in center field, opening left field for the Yankees to trade for Alfonso Soriano. This year, with Jacoby Ellsbury added to the mix, Gardner is moving back to left field. There’s little doubt about his defense at the position — probably should have won one Gold Glove there already in his career — but the question is whether Gardner’s brand of speed-oriented offense is enough for a position that’s typically known for home runs. And, frankly, what kind of offense are the Yankees really going to get out of Gardner?
Lingering question: Is Gardner definitely sticking around?
Right now, there seems to be absolutely no indication that the Yankees are on the verge of trading Gardner. Brian Cashman has said all winter that, while he received plenty of calls, he has not actively shopped Gardner in hopes of getting rid of him. The Yankees like Gardner’s speed, they like his defense, and they like his patience at the plate. He gets in bad counts sometimes, and he doesn’t run as much as some would like, but he’s been a good player. That MLB Network show that ranks players “right now” had Gardner among the 10 best left fielders in baseball. For now, it seems that he’s basically locked into the job, but he remains a valuable trade chip if the Yankees decide they have to go after an infielder or a pitcher.
Worth watching this spring: What’s Zoilo Almonte doing?
Assuming no one gets traded, the Yankees seem to have five outfielders in place. Gardner, Ellsbury, Soriano — who could certainly play at least a little bit of left field — and Carlos Beltran will be the go-to outfielders (with someone getting regular turns at DH) while Ichiro seems set as the fifth outfielder/pinch runner/defensive replacement in right. But is that a sure thing? Of all the other outfielders coming to camp, Almonte seems most prepared to step into a big league bench role. He has some power, he can play both corners — and center field in a pinch — plus he showed some stretches of productivity last season. Is Almonte going to get a look as a big league candidate, or is he inevitably heading back to Triple-A to wait for a potential call-up if one of the more experienced players gets hurt?
Best-case scenario: Have to consider bringing him back
The best the Yankees can hope for is the kind of year that forces them to make a tough decision about whether to bring Gardner back on a multi-year deal. This was Gardner’s last year of eligibility, meaning he’s a free agent at the end of this season. Vernon Wells has been released, and both Ichiro and Soriano are also heading to free agency, which means the Yankees future outfield commitments are Ellsbury and an aging Beltran. They’re going to need at least one other outfielder in 2015 and beyond. Best they can hope for this year is that Gardner plays so well — maybe the 7.4 WAR and .383 on-base percentage he posted in 2010 — that he establishes himself as one of the very best free agent outfielders heading into this coming offseason. Obviously he’s not a typical corner outfielder, and he might find more money from a team that has a spot for a center fielder and leadoff hitter, but if Gardner’s the best available, and he’s coming off a terrific year, wouldn’t the Yankees have to at least consider signing him to a new deal?
Worst-case scenario: Not nearly enough
Gardner had a nice year in 2013, but even then he hit just .238 in the month of August, and .247 in July. He gets streaky at the plate. And he might not be able to repeat last year’s increased power numbers. And his patient approach sometimes puts him in bad counts. And he’s had some injury problems. Point is, Gardner hasn’t removed all doubt about his ability to be standout everyday player. We know he can defend, and we know he can run, but he’s constantly having to prove everything else. It’s at least possible that this year will do the opposite, raising more questions than it answers. If Gardner strikes out too much and doesn’t get on base enough, he’ll be no better than a typical No. 8 or 9 hitter. And it’s not like Ichiro or Almonte is a can’t-miss option to replace him in the lineup.
Keep an eye on this year: Where’s Slade Heathcott playing?
In two ways, this question seems to matter: At what level is Heathcott playing, and are the Yankees showing any signs of preparing him to play in an outfield that already has center field covered by Ellsbury? Surely the Yankees are hoping that Heathcott at least spends half of this season in Triple-A, and if he plays well at that level — finally healthy for a full year, finally producing with speed and a little bit of power — would the Yankees consider giving him regular turns in left field in preparation for playing a big league role next season? Basically any outfielder in the Yankees system could end up being a left fielder in the future. For a guy in Heathcott’s situation — significant talent, pretty close to the big leagues, blocked at his primary position — beginning to get some time in left might actually be a good sign that the Yankees think he’s nearly ready to help out in New York.
Associated Press photos