The New York Yankees have reached the halfway mark of the season and they are comfortably in first place in the American League East. This is despite some injuries to some keep players such as Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlain. As we do every year, let’s look at the individual components of the team and issue grades for the first half.
RIGHT-FIELD – NICK SWISHER (12 HR, 46 RBIs, .258 BA)
CENTER-FIELD – CURTIS GRANDERSON (23 HR, 48 RBI, .241 BA)
LEFT-FIELD – RAUL IBANEZ (11 HR, 35 RBIs, .237), ANDRUW JONES (7 HR, 16 RBIs, .230)
The team Joe Girardi is managing now is much different from the team he left spring training with in April. The loss of left-fielder Brett Gardner took with it the element of speed of out the lineup and reinforced it with more devastating power.
As a result, these players are pretty much cut from the same cloth. They hit a lot of home runs (53 combined), drive in a lot of runs (145 combined) and they hit for a relatively low batting average (.249 combined). They also won’t blaze many trails on the basepaths. They have 10 steals in 14 attempts and Gardner usually matches that total in about a month.
Gardner, 28, injured his right elbow making a diving catch and has played in only nine games this season. He has just about completed two rehab assignments before experiencing recurring pain in his elbow.
But after seeing three different physicians, Gardner is hopeful of returning for good (please rub your rabbit’s foot now) by the end of July. The Yankees have missed not only his speed on the bases but his Gold-Glove quality defense in left-field.
Girardi has had little choice but to use Ibanez, 40, and Jones, 35, a lot more in the field than he expected. While Ibanez and Jones have not embarrassed themselves out in the field (they each have not committed an error), they do not cover much ground either.
Jones is a long way removed from his days of 10 Gold Gloves when he was in his prime with the Atlanta Braves and Ibanez never was considered a great fielder, even in his heyday.
But you have to give the pair credit for providing power and production to the lower part of the lineup and that is what both of them were signed this winter to do.
Speaking of signing, Swisher, 31, is in the final year of his contract and he clearly wants to remain with the Yankees. There is no doubt his bleacher buddies in right want him back also.
But Swisher’s contract drive is not really predicated on performance, though that is one small factor. The Yankees are looking to trim payroll before the start of the 2014 season and handing out long-term deals (except to Robinson Cano) does not look like it will be in the Yankees’ plans.
Nonetheless, Swisher does provide power and he is a switch-hitter with a good eye at the plate. This season, however, Swisher has changed his style a bit. He is walking less (He is on pace to draw a career-low 52 walks this season) and he is striking out at a high rate (He has fanned 66 times in the first half which translates to 132 for the season).
Perhaps he is walking less in order to try to produce more and get the contract he wants to stay with the Yankees.
But give Swisher credit for being one of the more consistent players the Yankees have. He has not produced less that 23 home runs and 82 RBIs in his three previous seasons with the Yankees. This season he is on apace to hit 24 home runs and drive in 92 runs.
In fact, for most of the first half of the season, Swisher led the Yankees in RBIs. That was largely because the heart of the batting order – Alex Rodriguez, Cano and Mark Teixeira were failing so miserably with runners in scoring position. Swisher is hitting a respectable .263 with RISP and .400 with the bases loaded.
As a fielder, Swisher will never won a Gold Glove but he gives maximum effort on every play. He has made two errors but he is not considered awful either. He has an above average arm in right but he only has three outfield assists this season, which is down from his career-high of 10 in 2010.
Granderson, 31, was the team MVp in 2011, hitting 41 home runs, driving in 119 runs and scoring a major-league-best 136 runs. Many people figured that Granderson could never duplicate those numbers.
But Granderson is on a pace to hit 46 home runs and drive in 92 runs and score 112. That is not a bad follow-up to his remarkable 2011 season.
There are some oddities in Granderson’s numbers, however.
For instance he has only two triples and Granderson led the American League in triples in 2007 with 23 when he was with the Detroit Tigers. Granderson also has stolen only six bases in nine attempts. He stole 25 in 35 attempts last season.
You would have thought with Gardner out, Granderson would be more aggressive on the bases. But it has been the opposite.
Granderson has made great strides as an outfielder with the Yankees. The Tigers criticized his jumps on balls and the routes he would take to them. But with the Yankees, Granderson is playing more shallow to take advantage of his ability go back on balls. It seems to be working well also.
Granderson has not committed an error and he has two outfield assists. Granderson’s arm is not a strength. It is just average and his throws can be erratic at times.
As major-league outfields go, it is hard to find any that is close to producing the 53 the Yankees have at the halfway point. But when Gardner returns this outfield will change into a more balanced group with a combination of speed and power. As a whole it will be excellent group defensively with Gardner leading the way.
BACKUPS – DEWAYNE WISE (3 HR, 6 RBIs, .271 BA), JAYSON NIX (2 HR, 6 RBIs, .228 BA)
Wise, 34, is forever linked to his amazing ninth inning catch that preserved Mark Buerhle’s perfect game for the Chicago White Sox against the Tampa Bay Rays. But he can hit a little also.
Wise hit .359 this spring to make the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre roster and he hit .333 for the first 20 games he played there until he was recalled to replace Gardner on the roster.
Wise provides versatility in that he can play all three outfield spots. He also has excellent defensive skills and a very good arm.
At the plate, Wise is a career .222 hitter. But when he gets hot he can really go on tears, as he did most recently when he was given four starts in a week.
Girardi’s major failing was not starting Wise some in center to rest Granderson. Granderson’s batting average suffered from the fact he played in all but one game this season and he was in the field for nearly every inning in the ones he did play.
When Gardner returns look for him to be used some in center to spell Granderson.
Nix can only play the corner spots and is passable out in left. He has good instincts and he won’t make major mistakes. But if you are looking for spectacular diving catches and highlight-reel leaps at the wall to bring back potrential home runs, you are looking at the wrong guy in Nix.
He gets to what he can and he catches them. That is pretty much what Nix does as an outfielder. Nothing special.
The Yankees have a pair of promising 20-year-old outfielders in Mason Williams and Tyler Austin.
Williams hit .304 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs at Class-A Charleston before being promoted to High Class-A Tampa. Williams can also run and plays good defense so if you want a comparison think of a smaller-framed version of Bernie Williams.
Austin hit .320 with 14 home runs and 54 RBIs and 17 steals in 70 games for Class-A Charleston. He was slated to play in the Futures Game but he was hit in the head with a pitch in his first game at High Class-A Tampa and is was placed on the disabled list. Austin is primarily an outfielder by he is being tried at the corner infield spots.
The Yankees have no real prospects at Triple-A Scranton. There are just former major leaguers like Jack Cust, 33, who is hitting .260 with 19 home runs and 57 RBIs in 83 games.
There also is Chris Dickerson, Cole Garner and Colin Curtis. Each of the three are 27 or or older and they have long passed the prospect status. Their chances for making the Yankees 25-man roster are virtually nil.
Second-tier outfield prospects Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa are Double-A Trenton. Mesa, 25, is hitting .276 with 11 homers and 40 RBIs in 58 games while Almonte, 23, is hitting .286 with nine home runs and 39 RBIs in 58 games.
OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B-
In Granderson, the Yankees have an All-Star center-fielder with power, some speed and someone who is solid defensively. Granderson is showing his 2011 season was not a fluke and, despite what he says about not being a power hitter, he is on pace to hit 46 home runs.
Swisher is the Swiss Army knife of the outfielders. You can put him in any spot in the batting order and he will produce home runs and RBIs. Though he is drawing fewer walks, he still is valuable in the No. 6 spot in the order because he is one of the few Yankees who is producing with runners on base this season. Though it looks like he will not signed to a new contract, Swisher is motivated to produce good numbers so he can maximize his value on the free-agent market.
Very soon (we promise) Gardner will return to his left-field spot and the Yankees will have a base-runner who can actually steal bases at the bottom of the order. Gardner was hitting .321 at the time of his injury. But the Yankees will take anything they can get from him in the second half because they really missed a guy who stole 49 bases in 2011.
In the meantime, Ibanez and Jones are available to play the outfield. The veterans are not even close to as good as Gardner on defense but they provide a lot of power and production to the Yankees at the lower portion of the batting order. When Gardner returns, Ibanez and Jones will resume their designated hitter roles. Of course, with Derek Jeter and Rodriguez requiring half-days off at DH, both Ibanez and Jones will have to settle for a more limited role at DH.
As a group this outfield is pretty good. They won’t hit for average but they can hit for power and drive in runs. This is very much a strength for the Yankees. They have a lot of depth and they have an experienced group of very professional hitters.