I had this post planned before the Yankees got busy making moves. If you’re interested in things not involving the loss of Martin Prado and the addition of a young starter, here are a few updates from winter ball:
• A little less than two weeks ago, Esmil Rogers reported and began pitching a little bit in the Dominican Republic. Rogers has made three appearances this winter, and all three have been starts. His first start was pretty good (four innings, six strikeouts, one earned run), his second was brutal (2.2 innings, six hits, five earned runs), and his most recent start was outstanding. On Thursday, Rogers went five scoreless innings with one hit, one walk and 10 strikeouts. Brian Cashman has mentioned Rogers as a potential rotation candidate in spring training, so the fact he’s getting stretched out this winter seems at least mildly significant.
• Because of the Winter Meetings, it’s now been two weeks since we did one of these winter ball updates, and in that time, Adonis Garcia has gone nuts at the plate. He has six multi-hit games — and 18 hits total — in his past 12 games. Three of those hits have been home runs and five have been doubles. Garcia wasn’t having a particularly good winter down in Venezuela, but now he’s hitting .305/.356/.450 while spending all of his time in left field and right field (not time in the infield this winter). The Yankees Triple-A outfield will be crowded next season, but Garcia’s an interesting right-handed bat.
• Speaking of that crowded Triple-A outfield, Ramon Flores continues to put up great numbers while getting his first dose of significant winter playing time. As the regular left fielder for the Tigres de Aragua, Flores has a .320/.403/.456 slash line with nearly as many walks (24) as strikeouts (28). In his past five games, Flores has walked five times and struck out only once. Flores has gotten a little bit of time in center field and right field this winter, and he could be an interesting bench option for the Yankees at some point next season.
• And while we’re speaking of bench options, it seems Jose Pirela is a legitimate favorite to win a spot as a big league reserve next season. And his production this winter is doing nothing to diminish his chances. While playing mostly second base and third base — he’s gotten a little bit of time in the outfield corners, but he’s mostly played the two spots where he could most easily backup in New York — Pirela has hit .313/.415/.560 in Venezuela. After not stealing a bag all winter, he now has one stolen base in each of his past two games. He’s also has exactly as many walks (24) as strikeouts (24).
• Pirela’s winter ball teammate, Ali Castillo, has seen his numbers slide a little bit, but he’s still having a nice winter while getting time at shortstop, second base, third base, left field and designated hitter. Castillo has five hits in his past nine games, but two of those were triples and two were doubles, so he’s still hitting .299/.342/.397. Castillo was the regular shortstop in Trenton last season, but it’s worth wondering if the Yankees offseason minor league additions will crowd him out of a Triple-A promotion next season.
• Acquired late last season and so far kept on the 40-man roster for outfield depth, Eury Perez has seen his winter go from bad to worse. He opened the season as the regular left fielder and leadoff hitter for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League. He’s since lost his everyday job, and in a part-time role his bat has gone completely silent. Perez hasn’t had a hit since November 18, going 0-for-19 while playing very sparingly. In those past 19 at-bats, he’s struck out seven times, and he currently has 21 strikeouts with no walks this winter. He’s hitting .194/.202/.258 and he’s been caught stealing the two times he’s tried to swipe a bag.
• Outfielder Adam Silva has barely played in regular season minor league games since joining the Yankees in 2013, but this winter he’s getting some regular at-bats back home in Australia. The 20-year-old is hitting .270/.343/.365 as a regular right fielder.
• Just when reliever Diego Moreno was getting on a roll again in Venezuela, he’s hit another rough path. Since our last update, Moreno’s pitched just three times and has allowed six earned runs on five hits, a walk and a hit batter. His winter ERA is up to 5.40 with a 1.45 WHIP and a .291 opponents’ batting average. He does have at least one strikeout in 10 straight outings.
Associated Press photo
The Arizona Fall League has ended, so our weekly winter ball updates are going to be a little more limited at this point. The Yankees really don’t have a ton of high-profile guys playing this offseason — the pitching is especially thin — but there are some upper-level guys who could fight for bench jobs in spring training, so it seems worth keeping track of how they’re doing.
• On Saturday, Jose Pirela went 2-for-4 with a home run for Aguilas del Zulia in Venezuela. It was his first homer since October 27, and it started a stretch of three straight two-hit games during which he also doubled twice. Yesterday he went 0-for-4 and struck out for the first time in seven games. In the past week he’s played right field three times, second base once and third base once. That ability to play all over the field might be just as important as his bat when it comes time to play for a big league job this spring.
• We’ve seen Pirela put up great winter numbers in the past, which is why I’m actually more fascinated by the offseason production of outfield prospect Ramon Flores., who hit two homers on Sunday and has multiple hits in five of his past eight games. Coming off a minor league season that was limited by an ankle injury, Flores has hit .390/.470/.520 as an everyday guy in Venezuela. He was most recently moved into the No. 3 hole in the lineup. The past two years, Flores has never gotten much playing time in winter ball, but this year he’s become a regular and he’s made the most of it while getting time in all three outfield spots. Flores has a spot on the 40-man, so he could become a legitimate big league option if a Yankees outfielder gets hurt this year.
• Also on the 40-man roster, and also in the mix for a big league job should someone get hurt, relatively new outfielder Eury Perez has finally shown signs of life in the Dominican Republic. He went 4-for-6 last Friday — that one day his batting average jumped nearly 50 points — and he followed with a two-hit game the very next day. One curious thing about Perez: He has a .360 career on-base percentage in the minors, but he really doesn’t walk a ton. He has yet to draw a walk after 74 at-bats this winter. He walked 13 times in 238 Triple-A plate appearances last year. For comparison, Flores drew 33 walks in 271 Triple-A plate appearances. Perez was hit by a pitch eight times; Flores was hit by a pitch once.
• He doesn’t have a 40-man spot, but Adonis Garcia belongs in that conversation of outfielders who could play for a bench job at some point next season. The versatile Cuban — he’s played all three outfield spots and a little bit of third base in the minors — has finally gotten his bat going this winter. He homered last Friday, then he homered again on Sunday. That was the end of a stretch when he had 14 hits in seven games, and he’s had hits in his past two games as well, bringing his winter slash line up to .317/.371/.417. He’s capable of hitting for more power than that slugging percentage suggests. Needs to hit to keep from being completely eclipsed by the Yankees glut of upper level outfielders.
• The Yankees have absolutely no shortstop depth in the upper levels, and their middle-infield depth is pretty much limited to Pirela and Rob Refsnyder. But a kid named Ali Castillo is doing what he can to be on the radar. Trenton’s shortstop this season is now hitting .317/.348/.421 in Venezuela this winter — he’s Pirela’s teammate — while playing shortstop, third base, second base and left field. As I’ve written before, he’s not really considered much of a prospect, but the top of the Yankees system is awfully thin in the infield. Beggars can’t be choosers, and Castillo’s doing what he can this winter. He currently has a five-game hitting streak.
• Here’s a guy I know very little about: Right-handed pitcher Luis Niebla is pitching in Mexico and has a 3.25 through seven starts. On Tuesday he went five scoreless with three hits and three strikeouts. He was signed back in 2011 and pitched pretty well at three different levels this season. He finished the year in Charleston where he had a 2.23 ERA through 36.1 innings. In his final start of the minor league season, Niebla went seven scoreless with seven strikeouts and no walks.
• Another guy signed out of Mexico in 2011 is Giovanny Gallegos, and like Niebla, he’s currently pitching in the Mexican Winter League. Working out of the bullpen, Gallegos has allowed just one run — it came on a home run — through 12 innings. He’s walked four, given up nine hits and struck out eight. He’s already 23 and had a not-so-great year as a multi-inning reliever in Charleston. His last outing of the regular season was a good one: four scoreless innings.
• Recently re-signed Triple-A reliever Diego Moreno vultured a couple of wins out of the bullpen this past week in Venezuela. He got off to a great start in winter ball, then had a bat stretch, but he’s now gone six straight outings without allowing a run, and an intentional walk on Tuesday was his first walk since October 31 and only this third walk in 13.1 innings this winter.
• New addition Jose De Paula — the minor league lefty signed to a big league deal earlier this month — still has just two appearances this winter. He made two starts back in October, but he hasn’t pitched for his Dominican team since the Yankees acquired him.
Associated Press photo of Pirela
The Yankees first significant signing came this weekend when they agreed to a new one-year deal with Chris Young, bringing some right-handed balance to the outfield and some power/speed potential to the bench. With that signing, the Yankees seem set in the outfield with no need to add either a big league bat or additional minor league depth.
As it is, the Yankees have seven full-time outfielders on their 40-man roster — that’s to say nothing of the three 40-man infielders who have a solid amount of outfield experience — and they’re likely to add one or two more outfielders when it comes time to protect Tyler Austin and possibly Mason Williams from the Rule 5 draft.
Just taking a look at the projected big league roster, and the potential options at the highest levels of the minor league system, it seems the Yankees should have all that they need in the outfield. The depth could also leaves the Yankees with trade options should they decide to make a move.
Granted, it’s not remotely a lock that Pirela is going to make the team, and there’s a solid chance Wheeler will be designated for assignment at some point, but this is still a clear picture of three obvious starters, an experienced fourth outfielder, and at least one infielder who can play the outfield regularly if necessary. This roster also has three guys who can play center field when necessary, so the Yankees are covered as the most difficult-to-fill outfield position. Maybe another outfielder comes to camp on a non-roster invitation just in case — stranger things have happened — but there’s no overwhelming need here. Especially if the Yankees carrying a versatile utility guy like Pirela, they have plenty of big league outfield options as it is.
Picking the three “starting” outfielders for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre next season isn’t an easy task. I assume Austin will move up after his finishing strong in Double-A, and the bulk of his playing time will surely come in the outfield corners (perhaps with a little bit of corner infield now and then). Flores and Perez clearly need regular at-bats as well — they could be first in line for an outfield call-up — and both Dugas and Garcia have played well enough to also deserve playing time. Chances are Refsnyder will be strictly a second baseman, but he’s listed here just to show the Yankees have yet another guy who could play some Triple-A outfield if necessary. There’s also the chance that Pirela and/or Wheeler could end up back in Triple-A providing even more depth. There’s not much big league experience here, but there are only so many Triple-A at-bats to go around, and the Yankees surely want to prioritize legitimate prospects ahead of minor league veterans. Bringing back a guy like Antoan Richardson or signing someone similar would only take away at-bats from young guys who need the playing time.
Kind of like the Triple-A outfield, the Double-A outfield has more than three guys who seem worth of everyday at-bats. The tough part here is predicting what the Yankees are going to do with Heathcott and Williams. Is Heathcott going to be healthy enough to stay on the field (and if so, is he going back to Double-A or finally jumping to Triple-A)? Is Williams going to be lost in the Rule 5 draft (and if not, would he get priority playing time ahead of the other guys listed here)? Like with Austin, I’m assuming Judge will be challenged with a jump up a level, which means right field is taken, and Cave has played too well to be anything less than an everyday outfielder next season. In terms of immediate outfield depth, the important thing to notice here is that Heathcott and Williams are still looming as upper-level outfielders who could be on the 40-man roster and still warrant playing time as well. That leaves the Yankees with a lot of outfielders who need at-bats.
Associated Press photo
Ramon Flores continues to get more winter ball at-bats than ever before, and he’s making the most of them.
Moved regularly into the No. 2 spot in the order, Flores has 13 hits in his past five games for the Tigres de Aragua in Venezuela. He had three straight two-hit games, then he went 6-for-6 with a double on Wednesday. He has yet to steal a base, he hasn’t hit for a ton of power, but Flores has taken some walks and he’s struck out just nine times in 17 games. He’s hitting .411/.468/.518 through 56 at-bats.
Still just 22 years old, Flores has a spot on the Yankees 40-man roster, and he was hitting pretty well in Triple-A before a June 1 ankle injury cost him most of the second half. He’s mostly a left fielder — that’s where he’s playing regularly this winter — but he can play center, and he has some experience in right field and at first base.
Could be a legitimate bench option coming out of spring training. It’s worth noting, though, that Flores is left-handed and the right-handed fourth outfielder might be a better fit.
A few other notes from winter ball:
• Well, it seems Jose Pirela isn’t going to hit three home runs every week this winter (he did that in his first week in Venezuela). On Sunday, though, he did go 3-for-4 with a triple. Pirela already has three triples and three homers through his first 10 games this winter. He took an 0-for-6 on Thursday, but he’s still hitting .317/.364/.707 through 41 at-bats. He’s played mostly left field with starts at second base, third base and right field.
• One of Pirela’s winter teammates is utility man Ali Castillo, who’s having a terrific winter as the Aguilas leadoff hitter. Castillo is hitting .348/.378/.478 with nine stolen bases. He was playing shortstop until Freddy Galvis arrived, and now he’s basically playing left field or second base (whichever Pirela isn’t playing on a given day). Not really considered much of a prospect, but the Yankees don’t exactly have a ton of guys who can play shortstop in the upper levels.
• Not everyone is raking in Venezuela. On Thursday Adonis Garcia was dropped to sixth in the order for Navegantes del Magallanes. He put up impressive winter league numbers last year, but this year his power has been nowhere to be found. He’s hitting .272/.314/.296, with his only extra-base hits being a couple of doubles. I’d still say he has a chance to make an impression in spring training, just hasn’t done much this winter.
• Eury Perez, the guy acquired at the very end of the year, is still playing a lot of left field and batting leadoff in the Dominican Republic. He has just seven games 31 at-bats so far. He has yet to take a walk and he’s 0-for-2 in stolen base attempts — speed is a pretty big part of his game — but he’s also played in just seven games and has just 31 at-bats. The Dominican Winter League started a little later than the Venezuelan Winter League.
• Down in the Arizona Fall League, Dante Bichette Jr. has gotten his bat going a little bit. He has four hits and five RBI in his past three games, and one Wednesday he got his first Fall League extra-base hit (a double). He’s hitting .256/.328/.276, which pales in comparison to the other Yankees position players sent to Arizona this year.
• Speaking of those other Yankees hitters in Arizona, after winning Fall Stars Game MVP over the weekend, Greg Bird promptly had another 2-for-4 game on Monday, then he took two walks on Wednesday. He’s hitting .341/.404/.610 through 67 at-bats. … Aaron Judge hasn’t had an extra-base hit since his two-homer game last Thursday — he’s only had 15 at-bats since then — but his Arizona slash line is still an impressive .284/.395/.507 with nearly as many walks (12) as strikeouts (14). … Riding a mild four-game hitting streak, Tyler Austin is hitting .318/.392/.470 in the Fall League. He’s still seeing time in both outfield corners. Has yet to play either first base or third base.
• I’ve said this before, but it remains true: It seems that every year the Yankees have one pitcher who gets absolutely rocked in the Arizona Fall League. This year, it’s Alex Smith. In an offense-heavy league, Smith was roughed up for two more runs on Wednesday and his ERA is up to 9.72 with a 3.12 WHIP through eight appearances. … The other two Yankees pitchers in Arizona, Kyle Haynes and Caleb Cotham, each pitched one hitless inning this week. Cotham has 12 strikeouts and only two walks this Fall, but he also has a 5.56 ERA. Haynes has a 1.86 ERA, but he also has seven walks and four unearned runs in 9.2 innings.
• Recently re-signed minor league reliever Diego Moreno had four saves in his first five appearances this winter, but he’s now allowed eight hits and four earned runs in his past 2.2 innings spread across his past three outings. Really aren’t many Yankees pitchers getting many innings so far this winter.
Associated Press photo of Flores; headshots of Pirela, Perez and Smith
Earlier this week, Jim Callis wrote quite a bit about the Yankees currently playing in the Arizona Fall League. He understandably focused on breakout right field prospect Aaron Judge, noting that Judge is wrapping up the longest stretch of baseball he’s ever experienced.
Pro ball often forces a young player into a longer and more rigorous schedule than he’s used to, but Judge’s adjustment was delayed because of last year’s quadriceps injury.
“After you get drafted, you just want to show people who you are,” Judge told Callis. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise, though. I met a lot of great big leaguers while I was down in Tampa rehabbing. It kind of helped me with the mental side of baseball. Everyone’s going to have ups and downs, and just trying to stay even keel through that whole process is a huge part of it.”
Check out the Callis story. It has some basic scouting details on all of the Yankees players down in the Fall League.
A few other notes from winter leagues:
• The Yankees top first base prospect, Greg Bird, has played in 12 games in the Fall League, and he has a hit in every one of them. Four of those hits have been home runs. It’s an offense-heavy league, but a .333/.382/.627 is awfully good. The guy can hit. It’s not reflected in the numbers here, but Bird doubled in his first at-bat today, so make that a 13-game hitting streak.
• After getting time at right field, first base and third base in the minor leagues, Tyler Austin is getting some time in left field while on assignment in the Arizona Fall League. In fact, he’s playing left field again tonight (while Judge plays right). It will be his fourth turn in left field, which can’t be a bad thing for a guy who could earn some sort of big league role next season, possibly as a corner bench player. Austin’s had two hits and and two RBI in two of his past four games. Hasn’t shown much power so far, but after 36 at-bats his slash line is a not-bad .278/.366/.361.
• Interesting for Yankees fans that the Scottsdale team has often gone with Yankees prospects in the 2, 3 and 4 spots in the lineup — Austin, Judge, then Bird as the cleanup hitter. Judge has been in the No. 3 spot for each of his starts down in Arizona. He’s hitting .276/.313/.448 with eight RBI in seven games.
• Off to a slow start in Arizona, Dante Bichette Jr. has now reached base seven times in his past four games, which has helped his slash line. He’s still hitting just .226/.306/.226. Only 31 at-bats, though. In his MLB.com piece, Callis notes that Bichette might eventually end up as a DH. The bat is his ticket to the big leagues. Needs the power that he showed his first season of pro ball.
• As expected, catcher Kyle Higashioka is only getting occasional playing time down in Arizona (he’s part of the roster that’s only occasionally active) but he’s making the most of it so far. Through two games, Higashioka has five hits, a home run and a stolen base. The Yankees have long liked his defensive ability, but he’s never shown much offense at all in the lower minors.
• The group picked by the Yankees for the Fall League is heavy on position players, and the pitchers sent to Arizona remain somewhat underwhelming statistically. Alex Smith has allowed at least one earned run in each of his five outings and currently has an 11.81 ERA with more walks (6) than strikeouts (4). … Caleb Cotham has 10 strikeouts and just two walks through seven innings. He also has a 7.71 ERA. Last time he pitched was Monday when Cotham allowed six hits and three earned runs through two innings. … Kyle Haynes hasn’t pitched since Saturday. Through 5.2 innings, he has yet to be charged with an earned run, but he’s allowed three unearned. Has a solid 1.24 WHIP. Tiny sample size, of course.
• Looking for more encouraging pitching numbers? Reliever Diego Moreno, who had some solid moments with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, has pitched well as a closer in the Venezuelan Winter League. He’s 4-for-4 in save opportunities, and he’s allowed just two hits through 5.1 innings. He recently re-signed a minor league deal to return to the Yankees system.
• Also down in Venezuela, Cuban outfielder Adonis Garcia continues to be the regular left fielder and usual No. 3 or 4 hitter for Navegantes del Magallanes. He’s hit for a strong average and stolen a couple of bases, but Garcia’s still waiting for the winter power to show up. He’s hitting .283/.313/.304. Last winter he hit .325/.347/.502 in Venezuela.
• After getting just six winter at-bats last year, and 13 at-bats the year before, young outfielder Ramon Flores continues to get fairly regular playing time this winter. Two weeks into the Venezuelan season, Flores has played in seven games and hit .333/.429/.500 through 18 at-bats. If he weren’t left-handed, Flores might be an even stronger candidate for the Yankees bench next season. As it is, some winter playing time couldn’t hurt after missing so much time this season with an ankle injury.
• Notable at least partially because of the Yankees total lack of standout shortstop prospects in the upper levels, utility type Ali Castillo continues to hit in Venezuela. He’s playing shortstop everyday — he was the regular shortstop for Trenton this year — and he’s hitting .395/.429/.447 through 38 at-bats in 10 games. He’s also stolen five bases in seven attempts. He’s been hitting leadoff. The same winter ball team used Castillo all over the infield and hit him ninth last year.
Some winter leagues have not even started yet, and the ones that have started are only a week or so into their schedules, so these updates come with really small sample sizes. But almost three weeks into the season, perhaps it’s nice to see some actual stats from young Yankees who are still playing actual baseball games. Here are a few winter and fall league updates.
• Getting regular turns as his team’s cleanup hitter, Greg Bird is off to a strong start down in the Arizona Fall League. The Yankees top first base prospect has a hit in each of his first seven games, he started with a four-RBI performance in the Fall opener, he had two hits and a walk last night, and he’s so far hitting .379/.438/.586 in an admittedly tiny sample size. It’s always dangerous to make too much of Arizona Fall League results — and that’s especially true after 29 at-bats — but Bird’s been good so far. Better than the alternative, I suppose.
• Interesting Scottsdale Scorpions lineup last night if only because it had Tyler Austin in left field. That’s relevant because Austin has actually never played left field in the minor leagues. He’s played the other corners — first base, third base, right field — but he’d never seen time in left until this Fall. He played left field on Monday and again on Wednesday. Probably not a huge leap for Austin to move to the other outfield corner, but for a player who could hit his way into a big league role at some point next year, being able to play left field and bring some right-handed balance to the outfield would be a plus.
• Each time that Austin has played left field, it’s opened right field for another Yankees prospect, Aaron Judge. Last night, Judge homered and drove in two runs. So far, Austin has gotten more Fall League at-bats. Might stay that way considering Judge had more regular season at-bats and, in theory, has less need to play regularly this Fall.
• Catcher Kyle Higashioka is only a part-time player in Arizona — rosters down there have guys who aren’t active for every game — but he made the most of his first bit of playing time. He started a game last weekend and went 3-for-5 with a home run. Needs playing time and plenty of production to get back on the fringes of the prospect radar after injuries and unimpressive seasons. The Yankees other Fall League position player, Dante Bichette Jr., is playing fairly regularly but still has fewer than 20 at-bats and just three hits. Doesn’t mean much.
• The Yankees have far more high-profile hitters than pitchers in the Fall League this year. A quick update, though, on the guys on the mound: Caleb Cotham made his third appearance last night and went two hitless innings. He allowed two homers in his first Fall outing, so this was a step in the right direction. Seems like every year a Yankees pitcher gets absolutely rocked in the Fall League, and it might be Alex Smith who has that unfortunate distinction this year. Through three outings, Smith has this line: 2 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 2 K, 22.50 ERA and a .533 opponents batting average. Much, much better numbers for late Fall League assignee Kyle Haynes. His line through three outings: 4.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K. Covering the AFL for Baseball America, Josh Norris reported that Haynes has a 93-95 mph fastball with an mid- to upper-80s slider and changeup.
• Presumably because of his age and relative inexperience, outfield prospect Ramon Flores has rarely gotten many at-bats with his Venezuelan Winter League team. So far this winter season, though, Flores is playing pretty regularly. Might change as we get deeper into the winter season, but Flores has 15 at-bats so far, and that’s more than he had an either of the past two winters. He’s played both center field and left field, and some regular winter playing time would be a good thing for a guy who missed a lot of time this season with an ankle injury. Flores has a spot on the 40-man roster and he does a lot of things well, so he really could come into spring training with a chance to push for some sort of big league role. Winter at-bats probably won’t hurt.
• Adonis Garcia is used to getting regular winter at-bats, and this year he’s been the everyday left fielder and No. 3 hitter for the Navegantes del Magallanes in Venezuela. Hasn’t hit for much power yet — just 29 at-bats into the season — but last winter he slugged .502, so there’s reason to think the power will arrive. Last winter, Garcia got a ton of time at second base and third base during winter ball. It’ll be interesting to see whether that happens again this winter. Garcia got a solid amount of third base playing time with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, so it seems the Yankees haven’t completely ruled out some sort of infield flexibility.
• Dominican Winter League gets started tonight and the Puerto Rican Winter League gets started at the very end of this month. For now, here a few other Yankees minor leaguers who are already playing in Venezuela (and all playing for the same team, no less): Trenton shortstop Ali Castillo is hitting .313 through 16 at-bats while pretty regularly playing shortstop for Zulia, recently re-signed catcher Francisco Arcia has five RBI through five games as Zulia’s regular behind the plate, and recently re-signed reliever Diego Moreno already has three saves with a 0.75 WHIP as one of Zulia’s go-to late-inning options.
Associated Press photo of Flores
State of the organization: Corner outfield • 01.18.13
There’s a reason — beyond the obvious talent — that Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Upton and Mike Morse generated so much trade talk among Yankees fans this winter. A big, power-hitting, prototypical corner outfielder would fit incredibly well on this roster. The minor league system might have a legitimate outfield slugger on the way, but he’s at least a year away, and for the time being, the Yankees outfield is filled with two small-ball players and one all-or-nothing free agent to be. Those are three legitimate pieces, but the Yankees outfield could certainly make room for one of Brian Cashman’s big, hairy monsters if he could find one.
Curtis Granderson / Ichiro Suzuki
Signed through 2013 /2014
We know Suzuki will be in right field. We can only guess whether Granderson or Brett Gardner will be in left (as I wrote a couple of days ago, I’m heading into spring training expecting Gardner to shift to center). Either way, the Yankees are going to have considerable speed in their outfield and should cover a lot of ground. They’re going to count on Gardner and Ichiro to run on offense, and on Granderson to hit home runs. What’s still unclear is who they’re going to count on to hit against lefties. Matt Diaz is coming to camp on a minor league deal, and Russ Canzler is going to try to win a job in spring training, but Cashman has made no secret of the fact he’d like to add another right-handed hitting corner outfielder. Nick Swisher gave the Yankees a steady right field presence for four years, and he’s been difficult to fully replace this winter.
On the verge
Maybe Tyler Austin can play his way into the big league picture this year, but it’s more likely that immediate help will have to come from either Zoilo Almonte or Ronnier Mustelier, two players who really weren’t even worth watching two years ago. Almonte was signed way back in 2005, but he didn’t put himself on the map until 2011 when he cut down on his strikeouts and hit .276/.345/.459 between High-A and Double-A. His power numbers went up during a full Double-A season last year, and now he has a 40-man spot with a Triple-A job on the way. He’s a switch hitter who was especially good against righties last year (it hasn’t always been that way). Mustelier is a Cuban defector who didn’t join the Yankees until 2011 when he was already 26 years old. He’s too old to be considered a typical prospect, but he’s hit .324/.378/.497 through two pro seasons, including a pretty good 89 games in Triple-A last year. He’s played some second base and center field, but Mustelier’s ticket to the big leagues might be his ability to play all four corners. He’s kind of a less proven version of Canzler, who’s probably higher in the pecking order. Under certain circumstances, center fielders Melky Mesa and Abe Almonte could also factor into the corner conversation.
Deeper in the system
Austin is easily the top corner outfield prospect in the system, and he appears to have been a 13th-round steal. Drafted out of high school in 2010, Austin was the unquestionable breakout star of the Yankees minor league system last year. He hit .322/.400/.559 while climbing all the way from Charleston to Trenton. Despite that little bit of Double-A experience, the Yankees are considering sending Austin back to High-A to open this season. If he repeats last year’s results, he won’t stay there for long. Austin’s breakout season easily overshadowed Ramon Flores, a left-fielder who has a knack for getting on base (.362 on-base percentage in his minor league career). Flores was added to the 40-man this winter and is ticketed for Trenton. It’s hard to mention all of the system’s mildly interesting corner outfielders — converted third baseman Rob Segedin, under-the-radar Cuban prospect Adonis Garcia, does-a-little-of-everything Ben Gamel, and 2012 draftees Taylor Dugas and Nathan Mikolas are names worth knowing — but I’ll save room for Jake Cave, the Yankees sixth-round pick in 2011 who’s hardly played since being drafted because of a knee injury. Cave could have been drafted as either a left-handed pitcher or an outfielder, but the Yankees liked his bat. There’s upside to him, just no professional track record.
On the move
College outfielder Rob Refsnyder played right field for the Yankees Low-A team last year but seems likely to shift to second base next season. On the flip side, long-time middle infielder Jose Pirela began to see considerable time in left field last year and kept at least a little bit of prospect status alive with a strong Double-A season. The Yankees have shown a willingness to move players into the outfield corners when necessary — that’s how Austin got there after signing as a corner infielder — and they could eventually do that with last year’s second-round pick Austin Aune, who will first get a chance to sink or swim as a shortstop. Obviously, if top center field prospects Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott each get to New York, one of them will have to shift to left field.
What to watch
The development of Austin is among the most interesting aspects of the Yankees system this season. Last year was a revelation, the kind of year that suggested he just might be a real life, in-house, power-hitting corner outfielder that can rise through the system and get to New York within two years. That would be huge for the Yankees. For now, the thing to watch is the Yankees on-going pursuit of a right-handed outfield bat and the how-long-can-he-last uncertainty of Ichiro’s two-year deal.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Granderson, Ichiro, Almonte, Mustelier, Austin, Flores, Williams and Heathcott