Just when you thought the Yankees had moved on from Stephen Drew, they’ve decided to bring him back.
This week, the Yankees and Drew agreed to a one-year deal worth $5 million plus some incentives based on plate appearances. For now, it seems Drew slides in as the team’s regular second baseman with the flexibility to add depth at shortstop and perhaps third base if necessary.
Really, though, it seems we’re going to have to wait until spring training to see how exactly Drew impacts the 25-man roster. His contract is not so substantial that the Yankees absolutely have to stick with him no matter what happens elsewhere. If Rob Refsnyder, for example, looks like a stronger option at second, the Yankees could get creative to find a way to make that happen.
Ultimately, Drew is a veteran option at a position where the Yankees had no one with substantial big league experience. He hits left-handed and has typically been a much better hitter than what last year’s numbers suggest. This could be a strong buy-low situation, or it could be a $5 million mistake that ends with a mid-season release much like Brian Roberts a year ago.
For now, though, Drew is coming to spring training to give the Yankees another option in an infield that has changed almost completely in the past few months.
• Yankees pitching prospect Ty Hensley was hospitalized with multiple facial injuries after a fight at a friend’s house in Oklahoma. A former college linebacker has been charged with assault, and each side claims the other started the whole thing. Hensley suffered a broken jaw but seems optimistic that this will not derail his career. Just a sad situation all around.
• Speaking of prospects, the Yankees have re-signed their own prospect by agreeing to a new minor league deal with Slade Heathcott. Released earlier this offseason to open a 40-man spot, Heathcott has always been a high-potential center fielder, but his progress has been slowed by a series of injuries. He and Jose Campos were both released at the non-tender deadline, and both have since been re-signed.
• Whatever you want to make of it, Alex Rodriguez posted a picture to his Instagram account showing him going through third base fielding drills as a high school in Miami. Seems little surprise that Rodriguez wants to at least get ready to play some third base. I’m sure he’d like to prove he can handle the position better than Chase Headley, even if the Yankees are clearly doubtful.
• Speaking of DH options, Jerry Crasnick reported that Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard left the Yankees off his no-trade list. In theory, that opens the possibility of trading for Howard in a bad-contract swap, but the Howard contract might actually be worse than anything on the Yankees roster (aside from maybe Rodriguez, who seems perfectly unmovable under any circumstances).
• Coaches were named for Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Most notable seems to be the promotion of hitting coach Marcus Thames to Triple-A, and the promotion of P.J. Pilittere to Double-A. Those two seem to be among the organizational favorites, and both could be rising toward big league roles in the future. Manager Dave Miley and pitching coach Scott Aldred are returning to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, while Al Pedrique is replacing Tony Franklin as the manager in Trenton.
• The leagues in Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic have entered their postseason, which means several young Yankees have wrapped up their winter league regular seasons. Ramon Flores, Adonis Garcia, Jose Pirela and Ali Castillo stand out as Yankees who played particularly well this offseason.
• Speaking of winter ball, it’s worth noting and remembering that Esmil Rogers has been working as a starting pitcher in the Dominican Republic this winter. Could be stretched out as rotation insurance in spring training.
Associated Press photos
With Slade Heathcott re-signed to a minor league deal, the Yankees now have a ton of outfield depth, but still not the kind of depth that necessitates a trade or a particularly difficult decision. It’s not like the Francisco Cervelli situation in which the Yankees have a player with a defined value, along with the need to move someone in order to open up the proper at-bats for everyone else. Here’s a rough look at the Yankees top upper-level outfielders. Each comes with some good, some bad, and some reason — either because of the team’s needs or because of his own value — that limits his trade possibilities.
The good: Already a borderline Hall of Famer expected to be healthy again after last year’s elbow injury.
The bad: About to turn 38 years old — are we sure last year’s .703 OPS was strictly the product of injury?
Trade him? Not a lot of trade value in an aging player, coming of a bad year, with $30 million left on his deal.
The good: Signed a hefty deal last winter and more or less delivered an as-expected season in his Yankees debut.
The bad: Even coming off a solid season, seven years and $153 million is a massive contract.
Trade him? Might be the best position player on the roster right now.
The good: Power numbers spiked, and for a while he looked like a better player than Ellsbury last year.
The bad: Still a rather streaky player with limited power for a corner outfielder.
Trade him? Might be the most valuable trade chip on the big league roster, but also signed to a reasonable extension.
The good: History of left-handed power with an ability to backup first base, right field and designated hitter.
The bad: Turns 34 in June and his power numbers have been down the past two seasons.
Trade him? Would be more of a salary dump than an actual effort to get anything valuable in return (also provides first base insurance).
The good: Returns to bring right-handed balance after reestablishing himself with a terrific September.
The bad: Other than one good month, last season was bad enough to get him released … by the Mets.
Trade him? Plays a role the Yankees need as a veteran right-handed bat with power and speed off the bench.
The good: Last year’s terrific second half brought back memories of how good a hitter he was earlier in his career.
The bad: A wrist injury contributed to much less exciting numbers before that second-half resurgence.
Trade him? Of all the outfielders ticketed for Triple-A, Austin probably has the most offensive impact potential.
The good: Left-handed hitters with speed and some defensive flexibility; looks like a nice fourth outfielder down the road.
The bad: Coming off an ankle injury and isn’t a great fit while Gardner and Ellsbury are on the roster.
Trade him? Low power potential probably limits his value to more of a second or third piece in a significant trade.
The good: Right-handed hitter who’s shown some speed, defense and on-base ability in the minor leagues.
The bad: Plucked off waivers, suggesting he was not exactly a high commodity (also put up bad winter ball numbers this year).
Trade him? Value is pretty low just a few months after being placed on the waiver wire; DFA might be more likely than a trade.
The good: Offensive utility man put himself back on the prospect map — and in the big league picture — with a terrific Triple-A season.
The bad: Can’t really play shortstop and hasn’t really established whether he hits enough to keep a job in the big leagues.
Trade him? First and foremost, he seems to have a legitimate shot at the big league second base job heading into spring training.
The good: Speed and defense were deemed major-league ready, enough to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this winter.
The bad: Hasn’t hit the past two years, doing a number on his once elite prospect status.
Trade him? Would be selling awfully low — Williams no longer has the value to remotely headline a significant deal.
The good: Might have surpassed Williams and Heathcott as the system’s top center field prospect.
The bad: Doesn’t have overwhelming speed or power, and doesn’t have more than 42 games above A ball.
Trade him? Could be a nice complementary trade piece; could also be the most viable center fielder in the minor league system.
The good: The guys gets on base way too much to ignore; played his way out of the shadows and up to Triple-A last year.
The bad: Never a standout prospect, doesn’t run much, very little power, has spent more time in left field than center.
Trade him? Has never moved the needle among prospect watchers, suggesting his stock is too low to be considered a real chip.
The good: Has been a solid hitter throughout the minor leagues, even when easily overshadowed by other prospects.
The bad: Always kind of a sleeper prospect, but not one who’s forced people to really wake up and take notice.
Trade him? Hasn’t done nearly enough; could more easily simply become a Double-A bench player behind all of this depth.
The good: Has been a pretty nice hitter both in Triple-A and in winter ball (able to play center field and third base in a pinch).
The bad: Turns 30 years old in April so the upside is probably limited.
Trade him? Sure, if some team values a 30-year-old with no major league experience; could be another Ronnier Mustelier.
The good: No one seems to question the former first-round pick’s raw talent and ultimate potential.
The bad: Just can’t stay healthy, which has cost valuable development time; hard to gauge his ceiling at this point.
Trade him? Was a free agent until yesterday; if another team valued him highly, he probably wouldn’t have come back.
The good: After a standout first full season, he emerged as the top offensive prospect in the entire minor league system.
The bad: Ultimately we’re talking about fewer than 500 minor league at-bats; he’s promising but unproven.
Trade him? Plenty of value here, but Judge could be the best middle-of-the-order bat the Yankees have developed since Robinson Cano.
Associated Press photos
Heathcott turned 24 in September and still has big league potential. He was a first-round pick in 2009 and has consistently ranked among the Yankees high-end prospects based largely on his raw talent and athletic ability. His upside was occasionally said to be, basically, Brett Gardner with power.
Injuries, though, have significantly derailed Heathcott’s progress. He played only nine games last season and has only once played more than 76 games in a season.
Because of those injuries, the Yankees made a somewhat surprising yet totally understandable decision to release Heathcott at the non-tender deadline last month. The Yankees did the same with another often-injured prospect, Jose Campos, and have since re-signed both Heathcott and Campos (each of whom might easily have been selected off waivers had they been designated for assignment rather than being released, a trick the Yankees have pulled a few times in recent years).
Even if he’s healthy, Heathcott would seem to be a longshot to make the big league roster if only because he’s left-handed and the Yankees have plenty of lefties in their outfield as it is. Instead, Heathcott will almost certainly slide into a large pool of upper-level outfielders that will fill the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Trenton rosters.
Put Heathcott in the AAA/AA mix with Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, Eury Perez, Ramon Flores, Taylor Dugas, Adonis Garcia, Jake Cave, Aaron Judge and Ben Gamel. Jose Pirela might also need some Triple-A outfield time if he’s not the Yankees starting second baseman.
Random thoughts on this Friday morning • 12.05.14
It’s Friday, and I’m actually off the clock for about 72 hours. I’m taking a few vacation days to spend today and the rest of the weekend with my parents, who are visiting from Missouri. I’ll check back in on Monday — or late Sunday night — when I get to San Diego for the Winter Meetings. Until then, a few random thoughts.
• One sure indication that this free agent market hasn’t played out in the Yankees favor is the fact Chase Headley has gotten a ton of attention lately. He’s a nice player — great glove, does enough offensively, strong presence in the clubhouse — but we just reached the start of December and he’s the best infielder out there. That’s not a great thing for a Yankees team that would like to add not one but two everyday infielders this offseason. With that in mind, last year’s Martin Prado trade looks better and better. Can you imagine trying to find three everyday infielders in this market? If that were the case, wouldn’t the Yankees have to simply roll the dice with either Alex Rodriguez or Rob Refsnyder?
• Andrew Miller is really good, and between him and Dellin Betances, the Yankees could surely find a closer. But I still think if the Yankees do end up signing Miller — without signing Dave Robertson — they might go after a guy like Jason Grilli or Casey Janssen on a one-year deal to potentially handle the ninth inning. Closer is an unusual job, but it’s not necessarily the most important job in the bullpen. Find a one-inning guy who’s been there and done that, and use Miller and Dellin Betances to really shorten the game. Just an idea. I still think the better way to go is simply re-signing Robertson.
• Isn’t it a bit odd that the free agent rumor mill seems to have completely forgotten Asdrubal Cabrera and Jed Lowrie? Stephen Drew’s name pops up occasionally in reports about the market’s lack of a standout shortstop, and Headley has gotten a ton of attention ever since Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval came off the market, but there’s been hardly a peep about Cabrera or Lowrie. Those two might not be shortstops, but in a market that’s thin on third basemen and second basemen, they can surely find an everyday job somewhere. Maybe even with the Yankees if dominoes fall the right way.
• Some talk earlier this week about the possibility of giving up the pursuit of Headley and simply giving Refsnyder a chance to play second base. How would the market have to develop for the Yankees to engage in similar conversations about letting Brendan Ryan play shortstop every day? He hardly played last season, but he carries a well-earned reputation as a defensive wizard. There are worse fallback options, I just what it takes for the Yankees to legitimately open that particular possibility.
• Six at least fairly interesting Yankees prospects who can play center field in Triple-A and/or Double-A next season: Eury Perez, Jake Cave, Mason Williams, Ramon Flores, Taylor Dugas and Adonis Garcia. That’s not to mention Ben Gamel, and even Jose Pirela got some center field time with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year. Point is, the Yankees have a lot of center fielders in the upper levels, so many that I have no idea where exactly Slade Heathcott will play if he re-signs. Losing a first-round pick in a situation like this — ultimately non-tendered because of recurring injuries — is obviously no good, but at this point, I’m not sure Heathcott is a better prospect than a lot of guys just mentioned. Maybe he’ll be back, maybe he won’t, but I have a hard time disagreeing with the Yankees decision that they could no longer hold onto him at all costs. (By the way, all of this is to say nothing of Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge who will surely get most of the time in right field, and give the Yankees two more legitimate upper-level outfield prospects.)
• A quick checklist of topics for the first couple weeks of spring training: Don’t forget to ask about Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow, Carlos Beltran’s elbow, CC Sabathia’s knee, Michael Pineda’s shoulder, Ivan Nova’s rehab, Mark Teixeira’s wrist, Tyler Austin’s wrist, Martin Prado’s appendix, Brett Gardner’s abdomen, and Alex Rodriguez’s … everything. Offseason injury updates usually fill a day or two down in spring training. They might take up all of February this time.
Associated Press photo
This piece by J.J. Cooper over at Baseball America does a pretty nice job explaining the upside to non-tendering a young-but-underperforming prospect. From Cooper:
After checking with a few front office officials, the answer is that teams have figured out a nice quirk of the nontender deadline. It’s one time that teams can clear a player off the 40-man roster without having to designate the player for assignment. Players nontendered do not hit the waiver wire, they become free agents immediately.
Essentially it’s the same idea that the Yankees have used in spring training the past two years when they’ve released rather than designate David Adams and Nik Turley. In each case, the Yankees were able to re-sign the player to a minor league deal. In the case of Adams, he was on the big league roster in a matter of weeks after re-signing.
In the case of Heathcott and Campos, the Yankees clearly decided those players weren’t the best use of a 40-man spot (for obvious reasons). They could have waited and designated them when the roster got full, but that would have exposed the prospects to waivers. If another team had room on its 40-man, it very easily could have claimed the player, stashed him on its roster and hoped for the best.
As free agents, though, Heathcott and Campos have to be convinced to sign elsewhere. Certainly they could be wooed by the promise of a major-league contract and a spot on the 40-man — or they could be enticed by more money or the perception of a better opportunity — but they don’t have to blindly latch on with another organization.
As Cooper writes:
The now-free agent can opt to sign with someone else, but that’s often not as appealing as returning to the organization one already knows. Go to another organization and you’re often just another guy. Stick with your existing organization and you have a few coaches, a signing scout or a roving instructor who is sticking up for you in organization meetings.
It might not work, but in the case of Heathcott in particular — who’s been through quite a bit with the Yankees — there’s surely some appeal in the idea of staying with the Yankees at least until value is reestablished.
Check out Cooper’s story. He uses Heathcott as specific examples of the non-tender strategy.
Associated Press photo
It’s often difficult to determine a team’s non-tender plans involving prospects. Organizational decision makers are obviously hesitant to spread negative information about their own young players, and those same decisions makers are weighing a prospect’s potential against the needs and restrictions of a 40-man roster.
Injured prospects are always at risk of being non-tendered (which helps explain the Yankees decisions on Slade Heathcott and Jose Campos), as are prospects who have not advanced as expected toward the big leagues (that’s Campos) and prospects who have essentially been surpassed by similar players in the system (that’s Heathcott).
While last night’s decisions might have come as a surprise — it’s always a bit surprising to see these decisions with former top prospects — it’s hard to be truly stunned by them. Prospects have to develop, and those two really didn’t.
The non-tender surprises, though, really started with the new contract for Esmil Rogers, a relief pitcher who seemed expendable and stood out as the most obvious non-tender candidate on the roster. Using the wildly accurate MLB Trade Rumors projections, Rogers was expected to earn roughly $1.9 million in this second year of arbitration. Instead, according to Jon Heyman, the Yankees got him to agree to $750,000 guaranteed with the potential to earn up to $1.48 million. Think of it as kind of a middle ground between the non-tender and the typical arbitration process.
It was not exactly what was expected, which means it mildly changed some things going forward.
Three reasons Rogers seemed to be a strong non-tender candidate:
1. The roster: The Yankees 40-man roster stood at 39 players with a shortstop, third baseman, starting pitcher and relief pitcher still on the shopping list. Non-tendering Rogers was a way to open a roster spot for someone else.
2. The money: At slightly less than $2 million, Rogers’ expected salary for next season wasn’t much, but it was enough to be worth saving if possible. Why sign a deal if the team knows it’s going to cut the player?
3. The bullpen: Assuming the Yankees add a true late-inning reliever, the bullpen seemed to have six logical pieces already in place without Rogers (Betances, Kelley, Warren, Wilson, Phelps, and a new guy). That left one spot open for spring competition among a few young guys and probably a non-roster veteran or two, which meant the Yankees didn’t absolutely need Rogers.
So what’s the impact of keeping Rogers?
1. The roster: Rogers now has a roster spot that could have gone to someone else. Could have gone to Heathcott, for example, or it could go to the new shortstop (whoever that is). Obviously the Yankees could DFA Rogers at some point, but if it’s as simple as that, then a non-tender was the way to go. Re-signing Rogers suggests he’s higher on the pecking order than some of the younger guys. At some point — either this winter or next season — the Yankees are probably going to have to open a roster spot, which means someone’s going to have to go. Is it going to be the guy they just signed? Probably not.
2. The money: After making $1.85 million last season, Rogers was projected to earn $1.9 million for next season. That’s more than David Phelps is projected to make and only slightly less than Michael Pineda. Instead, he’s guaranteed only slightly more than the minimum, and his financial upside is still fairly small. Clearly the Yankees like him too much to simply let him go for nothing. Amazingly enough, if he maxes out the contract, Rogers could be the second-highest-paid reliever among players on the current roster. Only Shawn Kelley is expected to make more.
3. The bullpen: At this point, Rogers has to be considered a favorite for a spot on the Opening Day roster. Clearly that could change between now and then, but Rogers would have been non-tendered if the Yankees didn’t think he had a good chance to make the roster. Put a free agent in the ninth inning, then put Kelley, Dellin Betances and Adam Warren in various setup roles, make Justin Wilson the go-to lefty, and treat Phelps and Rogers as long relievers and middle-inning guys. That could be the Opening Day bullpen. Probably won’t actually work out that way, but based on the guys in place, that’s at least a reasonable prediction. If nothing else, Rogers is another bit of pitching depth to compete for a job this spring.
Associated Press photo
Late last night came word that the Yankees non-tendered three players, including two prospects. Here’s a look at all three decisions.
Non-tender possibilities always begin with arbitration eligible players, but prospects become candidates in certain situations. In the case of Heathcott, injuries have taken their toll and have cost him a spot on the 40-man roster (and perhaps a spot in the organization). Around this time last year, Heathcott was added to the 40-man after hitting .279//.339/.514 in the second half in Double-A. His 2013 season was cut short by a late-season knee surgery, but it was said to be minor, and Heathcott seemed determined during spring training. By mid-season, he was having knee surgery again. The Yankees roster was overflowing with outfielders — especially left-handed hitters who can play center field — and so Heathcott was, in a way, expendable. It’s worth noting that a non-tendering Heathcott might also give the Yankees a chance to keep him by re-signing him to a minor league deal (might have a easier time keeping him that way rather than having to DFA him mid-season).
Three years in the Yankees organization and Campos has pitched just 111.2 minor league innings. He made just five starts in 2012 and spent the rest of the year nursing a somewhat vague elbow injury. He came back in 2013, worked with a very strict pitch limit, and completed 19 starts plus another seven multi-inning relief appearances. Things seemed to be heading in the right direction until April of this year when Campos had Tommy John surgery. His minor league numbers are impressive — 3.37 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.6 strikeouts per nine — but he’s never pitched above Low A, and now he has the surgery hanging over him. He’s simply no longer a guy who looks like he belongs on a 40-man roster. It’s always a bit stunning to see a legitimate prospect non-tendered, but it’s hard to know what to make of Campos these days. Like Heathcott, he stands out as a guy who the Yankees could try to re-sign to a minor league deal that doesn’t require a roster spot.
Here’s a guy who pitched fairly, seems unlikely to make much money, but simply doesn’t fit on the Yankees roster. When this offseason started, Huff was probably the top left-handed reliever on the 40-man. Then the Yankees acquired two players. Justin Wilson came over from Pittsburgh and instantly became the top in-house lefty for the big league bullpen, and minor league veteran Jose De Paula signed a major league contract that made him look like basically a younger version of Huff (and a version that still has options). The Yankees simply have too many potential long relievers and spot starters — Phelps, Rogers, Mitchell, Banuelos, Whitley, De Paula — and Huff would have been redundant, despite the fact he’s not likely to earn much more than the minimum next season. Huff stood out as a non-tender candidate from the beginning, though he’s a non-tender guy who could legitimately land a big league contract on a different roster. He just doesn’t fit this one.
Associated Press photo
Yankees non-tender Heathcott, Campos, Huff • 12.03.14
Major league reliever David Huff and minor league starter Jose Campos were also non-tendered.
While the decision on Huff comes as little surprise, the names of Heathcott and Campos certainly raise some eyebrows. Just two years ago, both were among the Yankees top five prospects according to Baseball America. Heathcott had been a first-round draft pick, and Campos had been acquired in the Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero trade.
Injuries, though, have derailed the development of each player. Campos had Tommy John surgery, while Heathcott has gone through a number of operations, including a second knee surgery this season.
It’s worth noting that non-tendering a player leaves open the possibility of re-signing that player to a minor league deal. Of course, it also leaves open the possibility of another team making a better offer.
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
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