State of the organization: Left field • 10.15.14
Our final state of the organization stop among position players is left field, where the Yankees have committed long-term to a bit of an unconventional choice for the position (more speed and on-base than true power). It’s also a position that leaves open the option of making a trade and eventually opening the door for one of many possible alternatives down the road. The left fielder of the future doesn’t necessarily have to be a guy who’s playing left field right now.
Signed through 2019
When the Yankees locked Jacoby Ellsbury into a long-term contract last winter, it seemed like bad news for Gardner’s staying power. Having long been considered a kind of poor-man’s version of Ellsbury, Gardner was giving up his leadoff spot and his defensive position to a what seemed to be a superior player, and free agency was fast approaching. But the Yankees changed that in spring training with a four-year contract extension plus a team option. Gardner responded with a unusually typical season. His .749 OPS was just slightly higher than his career OPS, and his 111 OPS+ was right in line with the previous season. But Gardner got there by hitting for a surprising amount of power with a career-high 17 homers. Those home runs came with a career-low .327 on-base percentage. There were stretches when Gardner looked like the best hitter in the Yankees lineup, and he finished with the highest OPS among the regulars. When this year started, it seemed Gardner might be on his way out. Now his production and contract essentially lock him into an everyday job for the foreseeable future (unless the Yankees decide to do something drastic).
On the verge
You could make a case for several “on the verge” left field options — and in a lot of ways, Ramon Flores is the best fit for this distinction because he’s a true left fielder who had a solid year when he was healthy — but if there’s an in-house guy who’s well positioned to actually help out in left field out of spring training, it’s probably Pirela. He’s a right-handed hitter, which makes him a nice complement to Gardner. He’s also versatile, which makes him a nice fit on a Yankees roster with so much uncertainty at various positions. Pirela came up as an infielder, but he’s been getting regular reps in left field for a few years now. He will surely try to win an everyday job at second base during spring training, but it might be easier for him a win a job as a bench player who can play the outfielder corners while providing additional depth in the infield. Adonis Garcia and Zelous Wheeler (if he’s not DFA) could also be right-handed corner outfield options off the bench.
Hard to find a true left field prospect. Quite often a young player comes up at another position and plays his way into a left field job (or, in the case of Gardner, ends up shifting to left field because the other outfield positions are filled). Flores, though, has been primarily a left fielder throughout his career. He can play center, and he has experience as a right fielder and first baseman, but the vast majority of his time has come in left. And he has a set of tools that might actually profile pretty well for a fourth outfielder type who can run a little, get on base and handle all three spots in the outfield. He has a spot on the 40-man roster and he hit .247/.339/.443 in Triple-A this year (though his season was limited to 63 games because of an ankle injury). There are bigger names who could end up in left field depending on various circumstances, but Flores is a left fielder by trade, and he’s done enough to stay on the prospect radar into the upper levels of the system.
Deeper in the system
You can dig into the lower levels of the system and find a few names worth watching in left field. Former third-rounder Michael O’Neill still strikes out a lot, but he was better this year than last year. A pretty young kid named Frank Frias had a solid year in rookie ball. A 2012 draftee named Chris Breen hit .281/.376/.504 in Staten Island. In terms of organizational depth at the position, though, the Yankees abundance of left field options basically revolves around all the guys who can play center field. If Slade Heathcott gets healthy or Mason Williams gets back on track, either one could become a left field alternative as long as Ellsbury remains in New York. Same for emerging center field standout Jake Cave. Right fielders Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge would presumably become left field options if circumstances forced the change. One interesting name that stands out, though, is Dugas. An eighth-round pick out of the University of Alabama, Dugas can play center and right but he’s mostly been a left fielder in pro ball. He’s undersized — listed at 5-foot-9 — but he’s done a terrific job of getting on base. This year he hit .299/.399/.390 between Double-A and Triple-A, essentially forcing the Yankees to not only give him regular at-bats but also to promote him to the highest level of the minors. Easy to overlook a year ago, Dugas put up numbers that can’t be ignored.
Making a trade to open a door
Aside from the year he was hurt most of the season, Gardner’s been a pretty steady player since moving into the everyday lineup. He doesn’t run as much as his speed suggests he should, and he strikes out a lot for a top-of-the-order guy, but he’s been a good lineup regular. This season’s power surge was a welcome surprise, he remains a patient hitter, and his outfield defense is a plus. Right now, Gardner’s spring contract extension looks like a pretty good one for the Yankees. So it’s worth asking, should they trade him? Gardner’s contract should make him an attractive trade chip, and the upper levels of the Yankees system have a lot of outfielders — many of them left-handed hitters like Gardner — who could become alternatives in left field. If Jake Cave, for example, builds off last season, could he be an even cheaper version of Gardner? Very little guarantee that any of the outfield prospects will be able to match Gardner’s big league production, but Gardner himself is proof that a prospect labeled as an eventual fourth outfielder can eventually play his way into being a productive everyday guy. If the Yankees want someone to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, they might first have to open Gardner’s position.
Associated Press photo
State of the organization: Center field • 10.14.14
Up next in our position-by-position look at the Yankees organization is a position that has a long-term solution already in place at the major-league level. It’s also a position with quite a bit of depth — and a good amount of both disappointment and production — within the minor league system. The Yankees have a lot of young center fielders who might or might not work out, but right now there’s not really a place to put them even if they do emerge as immediate big league options.
Signed through 2020
The Yankees lineup didn’t have much in 2013, but one thing it did have was a speedy, left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder. And so, of course, when the Yankees got into the offseason and needed to find a high-end position player, they gave seven years and more than $150 million to a speedy, left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder. For the most part, Ellsbury lived up to expectation in his first season with the Yankees. He had a 113 OPS+ in 2013, then a 111 in 2014. He had 246 total bases in 2013, 241 in 2014. Home runs were up, stolen bases were slightly down, but ultimately this was a reasonable and productive year for Ellsbury. Whether the contract will still be reasonable and productive at the end of the decade remains to be seen, but for the time being, the Yankees seem to have gotten the player they expected. And having Ellsbury in center field has allowed the Yankees to move Brett Gardner back into left field, giving them a ton of outfield range and a double-dose of speed near the top of the order.
On the verge
I’m using Richardson’s name here mostly to make a point about the uncertainty of all the organization’s upper-level center fielders. The Yankees have a lot of center fielders who could push themselves onto the big league roster early next season — Can Slade Heathcott get healthy? Mason Williams has the defense, what about the bat? Will Jake Cave keep moving up? Is Taylor Dugas for real? Are Adonis Garcia and Ramon Flores good enough in center? — but this September, when the Yankees wanted a speedy center field type to bring up in September, they called on the veteran Richardson. Even with a lot of center field talent in Double-A and Triple-A, Richardson was the choice. Ideally, one of the true center field prospects will push for that sort of call-up next year. Williams is Rule 5 eligible this offseason. Heathcott and Flores are already on the 40-man. Cave and Dugas had great 2014 seasons. Both Garcia and Flores are intriguing hitters who primarily play in the corners but have center field experience. With both Ellsbury and Gardner on the big league roster, the Yankees have ready-made depth in center field, so the development of a center fielder isn’t overwhelmingly important. But the Yankees have a lot of upper-level talent at the position, and they’ll surely need some of that talent to play some sort of role going forward.
Two things are at play here. The first is all about Cave himself. The 21-year-old missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, but he made a strong showing with Low-A Charleston in 2013, and he did so well with High-A Tampa this season that he forced a mid-July promotion to Double-A Trenton. When he got there, Cave’s power numbers actually spiked. He finished the year with a .294/.351/.414 slash line between the two levels. He can run, but he hasn’t stolen a ton of bases. He has some power, but it mostly plays out in a lot of doubles. He’s noted for a strong arm in the outfield. Good as Cave has been these past two years, though, some of his move to the top of the organizational pecking order at center field is because of the decline of both Williams and Heathcott. Williams hit just .223/.290/.304, which was another a step backwards after a disappointing 2013. His speed, defense and upside might be enough for a 40-man spot this winter, but Williams’ prospect stock is falling fast. Heathcott, on the other hand, remains one of the highest-potential players in the organization, but he had yet another surgery this season. He simply missed too much time and remains too injury prone to still consider him the top center field prospect in the system.
Deeper in the system
The Yankees top five draft picks this year were all pitchers. The first position player they selected was Payton, a University of Texas center fielder who made a strong first impression by hitting .320/.418/.497 between Low-A and High-A. Just like almost all of the other center fielders in the system, Payton is a left-handed hitter, and most scouting reports suggest a fourth-outfielder upside. He seems to be one of those guys who does a lot of things pretty well but no one thing extremely well (could say that about a lot of the Yankees other center field prospects as well). Have to assume Payton will head back to Tampa next season, looking to basically follow Cave’s footsteps with a mid-season bump to Double-A. Also coming up from the lower levels, Dustin Fowler hit for some power in Charleston this year, but Leonardo Molina is the name to watch. He’s just 17 years old and put up bad numbers in rookie ball, but the Yankees see considerable potential. Needs time to develop.
Getting things right
It’s not unusual or surprising to see a lot of left-handed center fielders in the organization. Most high school teams tend to stick their best players at shortstop, but if that best player is left-handed, center field seems to be the best alternative. And it seems the Yankees organization is seeing the trickle-down impact. Ellsbury, Gardner, Cave, Dugas, Flores, Heathcott, Williams and Payton are all left-handed hitters. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a redundant thing. With Ellsbury and Gardner locked into multi-year contracts, the Yankees most immediate opening for a young center fielder is in fourth outfielder role, and it would be convenient to have that fourth outfielder bat right-handed (if only to balance the two guys already in place). At some point the Yankees might have to trade away some of this center field depth to find a player who’s not so repetitive within their own system. Problem is, Heathcott and Williams have lost considerable trade value, and guys like Flores and Dugas (and probably even Cave) aren’t likely to headline a particularly significant deal.
Associated Press photo
Haven’t done this in a while, so here’s a quick update on a few guys in the minor league system. Now that we’re approaching the end of August, there’s a heavy emphasis on the upper-levels in this post. Just seems more relevant with September call-ups around the corner. Minor league seasons will end in just a few weeks, and at that point it will be a little easier to take a big-picture look at what everyone — including the low-level guys — did and did not do this season. For now, it seems more worthwhile to focus on the Triple-A and Double-A guys who could be on the big league radar either next month or early next year.
• Strictly my own speculation, but don’t rule out Manny Banuelos as either a September call-up candidate or perhaps a left-handed relief possibility. Once the Yankees top pitching prospect — and one of the better left-handed pitching prospects in baseball — Banuelos is beginning to look like a standout again. On Tuesday he returned to Triple-A for the first time since his 2012 Tommy John surgery, and he allowed one run on two hits through five innings. He had an up-and-down year in Double-A, but in his last five Trenton starts before the promotion Banuelos had a 3.00 ERA with a .151 opponents’ batting average through 21 innings. Probably still some work to be done, but at least showing signs of life again.
• Other left-handed pitchers to have in mind now that the Yankees don’t have a true lefty specialist: In 10 games since moving up to Triple-A, Tyler Webb has 18 strikeouts through 13.1 innings. Lefties, though, are hitting .357 with two home runs against him. Nik Turley is still working as a Triple-A starter, with kind of up-and-down results, but lefties are hitting just .179 against him (with a bunch of walks). Not sure the Yankees would go that direction, but I suppose it’s a possibility. Down in Double-A, first-round pick Jacob Lindgren has faced just two lefties in three games, but he was dominant against them in similarly limited chances with High-A Tampa. Another Double-A reliever, James Pazos, is having a really nice year and has a .143/.205/.143 slash line against lefties (though surely if he were close to a big league call-up, he would have been pushed to Triple-A at this point). There’s also Pat Venditte, who’s overall Triple-A numbers are solid, with lefties hitting .246/.313/.298 against him.
• Rob Refsnyder just keeps hitting in Triple-A. He’s hit .300/.345/.440 in the month of August and he’s hitting .300/.391/.480 overall since getting to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. True to Brian Cashman’s word, Refsnyder has not played right field since the trade deadline. He’s strictly a second baseman with a few DH turns that let Jose Pirela get occasional time at second.
• If the Yankees can get Carlos Beltran into the outfield, I wonder if they would consider giving DH at-bats to Kyle Roller. Clearly Joe Girardi isn’t sold on Zoilo Almonte, who would also seem to be a prime candidate to bring some left-handed power to the lineup. But Roller might be an interesting alternative. Strictly a first baseman when he’s in the field, Roller is hitting .284/.374/.510 against Triple-A right-handers — and lefties don’t exactly give him trouble, he has an .858 OPS against them. Plus, Roller’s hit .316/.420/.600 in his past 95 overall at-bats, and he’s homered in three of his past six games. This guy has been forced to perform in order to keep himself (or get himself) on the map. Not a big name, but plenty of people speak pretty highly of his bat and work ethic.
• Been a strange year for pitching throughout the upper levels of the Yankees organization. Obviously the big league issues are well documented, but all of the injuries and turnover in New York have left Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shorthanded several times this season. Last night, Venditte had to make a spot start, and that game went 13 innings — Venditte and four other relievers pitched at least two innings — ending with outfielder Taylor Dugas making his second pitching appearance of the season. Everything can run smoothly, and Triple-A pitching staffs are still left short-handed from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast, but it’s occasionally gotten awfully tough for the Railriders this season. They’re feeling the impact of all of those big league pitching problems.
• By the way, when he’s not filling in on the mound, Taylor Dugas is having an awfully good season. When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury and extended Brett Gardner, it seemed a little odd at least partially because the Yankees farm system was already overloaded with left-handed center field types. At this point, though, Ramon Flores has been hurt most of the year, Slade Heathcott once again had season-ending surgery, Mason Williams has underperformed, and Ben Gamel hasn’t hit a ton. Dugas is kind of the last man standing, having emerged from that group with a .299/.393/.398 slash line between Double-A and Triple-A. Doesn’t get nearly the recognition of those other guys, but he’s the only one consistently performing and staying on the field. We’ll see if that means anything this winter. Could make a case for himself as a fifth outfielder type.
• Speaking of left-handed outfielders, another emerging possibility is Jake Cave. He’s always generated some prospect attention, but because of injuries he’d never reached high enough into the upper levels to join the conversation with Williams and Heathcott. That’s surely changed at this point. Still just 21 years old, Cave moved up to Double-A in mid July and has hit .287/.368/.455 since getting there. He’s played all three outfield positions, occasionally forcing Williams into the corners. Cave already has five triples in 25 Double-A games.
• When the Yankees picked Cave in the sixth round of the 2011 draft, it came one round after they selected first baseman Greg Bird. Both were high schoolers at the time, and both have already reached Double-A. Bird jumped up to Trenton at the beginning of August, so he has just a 10-game sample size. So far, though, he’s hitting .273/.400/.636 with three home runs, all of which came in a pair of back-to-back games. Bird basically came up to Double-A as soon as Pete O’Brien was traded away. Bird got the available first-base playing time (and I have to believe Bird’s steady bat is part of the reason the Yankees felt comfortable trading O’Brien). Different kind of hitters, for sure, but each seemed more likely to settle in at first base than at any other position. Bird, by the way, was also drafted as a catcher, just like O’Brien.
• In case you’re curious about Pete O’Brien, he was assigned to Double-A and landed on the disabled list just four games after the trade. Interestingly, he didn’t play first base in any of those four games after the trade. He caught three times and played right field once after moving into the Diamondbacks organization.
• One more note about that 2011 draft class: It’s top pick, Dante Bichette, is also up to Double-A at this point. Having rejuvenated his prospect stock down in Tampa, Bichette was moved up to Trenton a week ago. He has five hits in six games. He was hitting .271/.352/.410 in Tampa.
• And one last note about that 2011 draft class: Big relief pitcher Branden Pinder has pitched 3.2 scoreless innings in four appearances since coming off the Triple-A disabled list. I wouldn’t necessarily consider him a favorite for a September call-up, but he is Rule 5 eligible this winter, and he’s been a pretty good reliever, and the Yankees currently have both Jose Ramirez and Preston Claiborne on the disabled list, meaning they might not be healthy enough to come up in September. If the Yankees are planning to protect Pinder this offseason, might make sense to give him a 40-man spot next month and bring him on up. Maybe. They could just bring up Banuelos, Matt Daley and Bryan Mitchell — guys already on the 40-man — and have a pretty massive pitching staff for the final month (especially if Masahiro Tanaka and David Phelps are off the disabled list at that point).
• Top pitching prospect Luis Severino has been placed on the Double-A disabled list with that oblique injury that was previously described as “very slight.” Could be that it really is a very slight injury, and the Yankees are just being extra cautious with their best young arm. Not like it would be unusual for them. Another top prospect, Ian Clarkin, has also been added to the disabled list. I emailed Mark Newman today to ask about the severity of the injury — could be little more than innings management with Clarkin — but I haven’t heard back just yet.
• A few very quick hits from the lower levels: Tampa right fielder Aaron Judge continues to be pretty awesome, in my mind solidifying himself as the team’s top hitting prospect ahead of Gary Sanchez. He’s homered three times in his past eight games, and he’s still taking a ton of walks. … Tampa shortstop Cito Culver‘s bat has actually regressed in the second half of the season. … Also in Tampa, third baseman Eric Jagielo is back from the disabled list and continues to hit for more power than average. He’s hit .233/.346/.433 in 90 at-bats since coming off the DL. He’s homered in his past two games. … In Charleston, second baseman Gosuke Katoh has hit .280/.378/.382 through 49 games in the second half. That’s after hitting .190/.302/.315 in the first half.
Associated Press photos of Banuelos and Roller; headshots of Dugas, Bird and Pinder
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