Beltran’s Health Key To Yankees’ 2015 Outfield

With the opening of the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, we will now look at each position on the team to assess their chances in 2015. After a disappointing 2014 season with a roster riddled with significant injuries the Yankees have reshuffled the deck with a lot of fresh faces to join some old ones. Let’s look at them.

OUTFIELD

RIGHT-FIELD: Carlos Beltran, 37, (.233, 15 HRs, 49 RBIs, 109 games)

CENTER-FIELD: Jacoby Ellsbury, 31, (.271, 16 HRs, 70 RBIs, 39 SBs, 149 games)

LEFT-FIELD: Brett Gardner, 31, (.256, 17 HRs, 58 RBIs, 21 SBs, 148 games)

In the Yankees’ 2009 championship season they featured at outfield of Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and Nick Swisher that combined to hit 81 home runs. The 2014 edition of the Yankees only managed 48.

That tells you a lot about a team that limped to a 84-78 record and finished a distant second to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East and missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season.

The Yankees had envisioned a speedy and defensive outfield that also featured some power from Beltran and Ellsbury. Instead, Gardner wound up out-homering the group and doesn’t that say a lot on how bad things were last season?

Beltran was a major disappointment but it was not through any fault of his own. In late April, Beltran was suffering through a very painful bone spur in his right elbow. It was easy to see how it affected his offense, too.

On April 23, Beltran was batting .307 with five homers and 13 RBIs in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup. From that point until he was placed on the disabled list on May 13, he hit .132 with no homers and two RBIs.

The Yankees can be faulted for signing the aging outfielder to a three-year contract. However, general manager Brian Cashman felt compelled to give in to Beltran’s demands for a third year after Robinson Cano left the team in a huff after the signing of Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153-million deal. The Yankees needed to find a solid No. 3 hitter and Beltran was the choice.

Beltran did return to the Yankees in June after attempting to rehab the elbow rather than have season-ending surgery. But he never was really the same hitter the rest of the season, batting .208 with 10 homers and 34 RBIs.

Beltran was basically playing with one arm and it showed. Even though he did return, he was unable to play the outfield until very late in the season because the bone spur in his elbow did not allow him to throw freely.

So Beltran decided to have surgery to remove the spur in September. He reported to training camp healthy and ready to prove himself as the player who hit .296 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs for the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals in 2013.

So heading into 2015 the Yankees are counting on the switch-hitting Beltran to bat third and put up big home run and RBI numbers. As a player who has hit 373 career homers and driven in 1,376 runs while batting .281 over 16 major-league seasons, Beltran is certainly capable of doing that if . . .

Yep, there is that big if. The big if is can he remain healthy throughout the season? Beltran and the Yankees are anxious to find out.

“I trained hard, I did everything that I did in the past,” Beltran told reporters. “I want to be out there, no doubt.”

The Yankees are counting on Beltran, Mark Teixiera and Brian McCann to post numbers that will prevent the Yankees from ending up with the third-fewest runs scored in the American League as they did last season.

Much was also expected of Ellsbury after he signed that big contract to leave the Boston Red Sox.

For the most part, Ellsbury did deliver what was expected of him except when Beltran and Teixeira succumbed to injuries and Ellsbury was taken out of his comfortable leadoff spot and placed in the third spot in the batting order.

Ellsbury did not produce the runs the Yankees would have expected and his bat cooled off considerably as the season wore on. He ended up batting .155 in September and he did not even get close to the .298 average he put up in 2013 with the Red Sox.

By virtue of batting third, Ellsbury also did not get as many opportunities to steal bases, ending up with 13 less from his major-league-leading total of 52 in 2013.

The bottom line is that Ellsbury still led in the team in hits (156), doubles (27) and stolen bases while posting his best home run and RBI totals since 2011. He was, by all accounts, the Yankees’ most consistent hitter in 2014.

“Ellsbury is Ellsbury,” Cashman told reporters. “I thought he was basically right where he was when he left Boston. I thought he was terrific last year.”

There were moments last season that Gardner appeared to be on the verge of having a breakout season.

On June 20, Gardner was batting .290 with six homers, 28 RBIs and 15 SBs. For a club struggling with offense, Gardner was providing opportunities to score by getting on base.

But as the season wore on, a core muscle injury in his abdomen dragged Gardner down. He hit a terrible .218 with eight homers and 21 RBIs after the All-Star break. It ruined what looked to be what would easily be Gardner’s best in the majors.

After Gardner underwent surgery in October to correct the problem, he is reporting to camp at 100 percent.

With his return to health the Yankees would like for him to be more aggressive on the bases. After stealing 47 bases in 2010 and 49 in 2011, Gardner has regressed to just 24 steals in 2013 and 21 last season.

Manager Joe Girardi must also decide how to deploy Ellsbury and Gardner in the batting order. At this point, it appears Ellsbury will resume his leadoff role and Gardner will bat second. But Girardi likely will flip the two throughout the spring to get a feel how best to bat them.

One thing is clear, however. Both Ellsbury and Gardner give the Yankees excellent defense in the outfield. It stands to reason since they are both legitimate center-fielders.

Ellsbury won a Gold Glove with the Red Sox in 2011 and his fielding in 2014 was just as superlative. He committed only one error all season and playing the wide-open spaces of center in Yankee Stadium is not an easy assignment.

Gardner has never won a Gold Glove but he should have. Last season, Gardner committed just two errors and he was able to blend well with Ellsbury. Between the two of them it takes a lot to get a ball past them in left-center.

Beltran won three Gold Gloves with the New York Mets from 2006 through 2008. However, he will not be winning anymore of them. Knee problems have robbed Beltran of the range he used to have as a center-fielder.

He was charged with three errors in 31 starts in the outfield last season. But the good news is that right-field does not have as much ground to cover so the Yankees will only ask Beltran to catch what he can reach.

Though the Yankees realized his best days were behind him they will still miss the defensive prowess of Ichiro Suzuki in right-field. Suzuki has moved on to the Miami Marlins.

The Yankees have some depth in the outfield with a pair of players who have a lot of experience.

Garrett Jones was obtained in trade with the Marlins and is slated to have some important roles with the team this season.

Jones, 33, batted .246 with 15 homers and 53 RBIs in 146 games with the Marlins last season, primarily as a first baseman.

The Yankees would like the lefty-swinging Jones to be the team’s primary designated hitter this season because his swing is perfect for the short dimensions in right-field. In addition, Jones will back up Teixeira at first base and Beltran in right-field.

Jones is not a great fielder at first base (13 errors in 129 games in 2014) but he holds his own in the outfield. He does not have much range but he can make the plays. The Yankees feel they now have a serviceable backup for both Teixeira and Beltran and they are glad to have him.

The Yankees also have 31-year-old veteran Chris Young back after an impressive late-season audition with the team in 2014.

Young was cut loose by the Mets in early August and the Yankees signed him to a minor-league deal on Aug. 27. In the final month of the season, Young batted .282 with three homers and 10 RBIs in 23 games.

On that basis the Yankees elected to re-sign the veteran to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. He will be the team’s fourth outfielder and as a right-handed hitter he can give Gardner or Ellsbury a rest against a tough-left-handed pitcher.

Young is a power hitter who hit 20 or more home runs in four of five seasons between 2007 and 2011, including 32 in 2007. However, Young has never batted above .257 in any of his eight major-league seasons and he enters 2015 as a career .234 hitter.

Young still has some speed. He has 130 career steals and eight in limited play last season.

The former 2010 National League All-Star also can play all three outfield spots and he is an above average defender.

The additions of Jones and Young give manager Joe Girardi some flexibility in making out lineups and they are solid insurance policies should someone land on the disabled list.

One of the biggest failings of Cashman and the scouting department has been the inability of the Yankees to develop minor-league outfielders who can contribute to the Yankees. It seems that whatever prospects have been in the system are languishing and they aren’t progressing.

Zoilo Almonte, 25, has been up and down with the Yankees the past two seasons and has a .211 batting average in 47 games to show for it. The Yankees elected to let him go as a minor-league free agent and Almonte has since signed with the Atlanta Braves.

The other prospect names are virtually the same from last season: Mason Williams, Tyler Austin and Ramon Flores. Further behind them is Slade Heathcott.

They all will get another look this spring but they all will not make the roster unless there are some injuries.

Williams, 23, was once considered one of the top prospects in the Yankees’ system but he has slid to No. 16 this season after batting a horrible .223 with five homers and 40 RBIs in 128 games at Double-A Trenton.

Williams is a gifted athlete and he is sensational defensive outfielder. But at the plate he has become more of a slap hitter and it is obvious that he not making enough contact. Williams’ hustle has also been questioned and he was arrested on a DUI in 2013.

Austin, 23, also dropped as a prospect to No. 15. But he was a bit better at Trenton. He batted .275 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs in 105 games last season. But after he batted .322 with 17 homers and 80 RBIs in 2012, Austin has been dogged a persistent sprained right thumb.

The Yankees still have hope that he can he can develop. The Yankees think he can become a high-average power hitter. Austin is mainly a corner outfielder and likely would figure in as a right-fielder in the majors.

Flores, 22, is ranked as the team’s 14th best prospect after he batted a .247 with seven homers and 23 RBIs at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. A high-ankle sprain kept him from progressing as the Yankees would have liked.

Right now Flores is pegged as all-fields hitter who lacks power. It’s that reason why he is beginning to look like more of a fourth outfielder than a starter. Though he can play all three spots he works out best as a left-fielder because he lacks speed.

Heathcott, 24, was a former first-round pick of the Yankees in 2009 and he was not tendered a contract offer by the Yankees in December. Yet the Yankees re-signed him and invited him to camp as a non-roster player.

Though Heathcott has great talent, his all-out style of play has landed him on the minor-league disabled list many times. In 2013, it was a knee injury that required surgery.

He played only nine games at Trenton in 2014 before re-injuring the knee and missing the rest of the season. It looks like the Yankees are offering Heathcott one last make-or-break attempt because he is 24 and he has not advanced past Double-A.

One non-roster player that the Yankees can’t wait to check out is 6-foot-7, 230-pound Aaron Judge, who was a first-round selection by the Yankees in 2013 First-Year Player Draft.

Judge, 22, has a resemblance to NBA forward Blake Griffin and because of his size he has drawn comparisons to Dave Winfield and Giancarlo Stanton. But Judge does not just look the part.

In 131 games in two Class-A stops in 2014, Judge batted .308 with 17 home runs and 78 RBIs. His right-hand power stroke is awesome to see. Scouts say he does not just hit balls; he crushes them.

With his long swing he is prone to fail to make contact and strike out a lot. But the Yankees see him fitting nicely into right-field because for a big man Judge can move pretty well and he is a decent outfielder defensively.

He is rated as the No. 5 prospect in the organization and the Yankees can’t wait to see what he can do this spring.

The No. 8 prospect is 22-year-old Jake Cave, who hit a combined .294 with seven home runs and 42 RBIs between Class-A Tampa and Trenton.

Cave hits consistently from the left side. Not a big power threat, he mostly is a gap hitter. Cave is a above-average outfielder and as a former pitcher he has a great arm in center-field. He has good but not great speed but scouts love his max effort.

OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: GOOD

The Yankees have been snakebit for the past two seasons with injuries and the one to Beltran really derailed the outfield and caused a significant drop in run production in 2014. It is easy to say that Beltran, Ellsbury and Gardner are an excellent mix of speed, power, run production and defense but they all have to stay healthy.

The fact that Beltran has not missed a lot of time in the past indicates the odds he will be able to play a full season and he should be able to provide some power (20 plus homers) and 90 or more RBIs. The Yankees will need that from him in the No. 3 spot in the order.

Ellsbury and Gardner combined for 60 stolen bases but they should steal a whole lot more this season.

The shift of Ellsbury to the third spot cut his steals to 39 and Gardner has seemed more and more reluctant to run the last two seasons. It is hard to figure out why.

But the Yankees need both of them to get on base, advance and score runs if the team is going to succeed. There is not as much power on this team as there once was and that is why Ellsbury and Gardner will have to make the engine go.

The fact the two combined to hit 33 home runs was a bonus. The Yankees would love to have a repeat of those numbers in 2015.

The Yankees are blessed to have two backup outfielders capable of hitting double-digit homers in Young and Jones.

Young can play all three positions and Jones is a corner outfielder. But Jones likely will get more work as the team’s primary DH and as the backup to Teixeira at first base.

But Jones could also end up as a starter in right-field if Beltran goes down for any length of time.

Most of the Yankees’ most advanced outfield prospects have been major disappointments. Williams, Austin, Flores and Heathcott have all been highly touted prospects but they have flamed out so far.

Of that group, only Austin appears capable of turning it around if he can overcome his injury problems.

The best news on the farm is that Judge appears to the man-mountain power threat he appears to be. The Yankees just have to hope he can keep the strikeouts in check and keep his average up. The Yankees would like to have Judge be more like Winfield rather than Dave Kingman.

He is worth watching this spring.

NEXT: STARTING PITCHERS

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