Finishing our look at the Yankees position players heading into 2014, we’ll move into right field, where the Yankees seem to have three prominent players nearing the end of their careers. The youngest of them is 36 and just signed a three-year deal. The oldest is 40 and likely to be a bench player for the first time in his life. In between is a 38-year-old who’s never actually played the position.
Top of the depth chart: Carlos Beltran
Backup options: Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki, Zoilo Almonte
Also coming to camp: Tyler Austin, Russ Canzler, Antoan Richardson, Adonis Garcia
Deeper in the system: Aaron Judge, Austin Aune, Yeicok Calderon
For the most part, I’m just assuming Beltran is at the top of the depth chart. I don’t believe the Yankees have specifically said he’ll get the bulk of the time in right field, but it seems to make the most sense given the other options. Alfonso Soriano has never played right field, and Ichiro Suzuki — easily the best defensive option of the bunch — hasn’t hit much the past three years. Reality is that all three of those guys could see time in right field this season, while Beltran and Soriano get regular turns at designated hitter. Because he used to be a pretty good center fielder, there’s a tendency to assume Beltran is a terrific right fielder, but advanced metrics actually had him well below average last year.
Lingering question: How will the playing time be divided?
It’s actually a legitimately interesting situation. It seems to make sense that Beltran will be the regular right fielder, Soriano will be the regular at DH, and Ichiro will mostly become a pinch runner and defensive replacement. But the Yankees need to make sure Beltran stays healthy, which will surely mean occasional days off and fairly regular turns at DH. They also have to recognize that Soriano has never been a full-time DH and might prefer to play the field whenever possible (except that he’s never been a right fielder). And Ichiro has certainly never been a bench player. Joe Girardi is going to have to keep guys fresh, keep them happy, keep them productive, and keep some sort of balance between offense and defense while sorting out his right-field rotation.
Worth watching this spring: How does Soriano look in right?
Doesn’t seem like it should be a huge transition once he gets out there a few times, but I don’t think it’s totally insignificant that Soriano’s outfield experience is almost exclusively in left field. He’ll have to adjust a little bit to the ball coming off the bat the other way. And we’ll have to see how his arm plays in right. Mostly, though, it’s worth watching to see how Soriano’s lack of right field experience might impact Girardi’s willingness to play him out there. How much incentive will there be to generally keep Soriano in left field when he’s playing the field, maybe sit Brett Gardner against tough lefties, and use those opportunities to DH Derek Jeter? Figuring out the playing time in right field could go a long way toward determining the playing time at designated hitter as well.
Best-case scenario: The perfect combination
Ichiro has speed and defense, Beltran is a kind of all-around switch hitter, and Soriano brings the raw right-handed power. Together, those three do just about everything a right fielder should do. If they could be rolled into one player, he’d be elite even for a guy in his late 30s. Instead, getting the most out of those talents will require the right kind of mixing and matching by Girardi. It will also require some late-career health, especially from Beltran, who’s had health issues in the past but has managed at least 600 at-bats in each of the past two years. There’s a good mix of skills here, enough to handle an outfield position and regular turns at designated hitter. The key will be getting the most out of those players, which will require keeping them healthy and using them in the right roles at the right times.
Worst-case scenario: Missing pieces
Here’s the problem with that idea of a three-headed approach to right field (plus a rotation at designated hitter): while Ichiro, Beltran and Soriano each bring value, each also brings some holes and concerns, not least of which is the fact that all three are older players. Beltran is the youngest — and probably a better all-around player than the other two at this point — but his injury history isn’t encouraging. Soriano has been an all-or-nothing kind of hitter in recent years, and has to hit for big-time power (at 38 years old) to be a valuable hitter. Ichiro’s offensive production is dwindling to almost nothing, and the fact he can still run a little bit doesn’t mean much if he can’t get on base. He’s a nice defensive replacement, but it’s hard to bank on him being even a replacement-level offensive player. The Yankees could piece together a productive situation in right. The pieces could fall apart also.
Keep an eye on this year: The return of Tyler Austin
In 2012, the Yankees actually got aggressive with one of their hitting prospects. At 20 years old, in his first taste of full-season ball, Tyler Austin was bumped from Low-A to High-A to Double-A. Each level proved a little more of a challenge, but the guy still hit .322/.400/.559 for the year. He was the system’s true breakout star. Then he went back to Double-A last year and hit just .257/.344/.373. This season will be a big one for determining what exactly Austin is really capable of doing against upper-level pitching. A wrist injury certainly didn’t help him last year, and it might have a significant drain. One great year doesn’t make a prospect, and one bad year doesn’t destroy a prospect. A bounce-back season could put Austin back among the top hitters in the Yankees system (and considering he should be back in Double-A to start the year, it could also move him to the verge of the big leagues).
Associated Press photos