For the Yankees, 2013 was pretty much a lost season and the biggest weakness on the team was in the outfield.
The projected outfield after the Yankees let right-fielder Nick Swisher sign a free-agent contract with the Cleveland Indians included Ichiro Suzuki, Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, only Gardner had a productive season.
Granderson, 32, was struck in the right arm on a pitch from Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Jay Happ in his first at-bat of spring training and he missed the first month and a half of the season.
He returned on May 14 and played in just eight games before suffering a fractured left knuckle on May 25 after being hit by a pitch by Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Cesar Ramos. He did not return until Aug. 2.
Granderson ended up his final season of a four-year contract with just seven home runs and 15 RBIs and a .229 batting average in 61 games. The Yankees opted not to make an offer to the outfielder and he signed with the crosstown New York Mets for 2014 season.
The Yankees, devoid of power they lost through free agency before the 2013 season, missed out on Granderson’s power that saw him slug a major-league best 84 home runs in the previous two seasons. But it is pretty safe to say that Granderson will not be hitting 40 home runs in spacious Citi Field and the Yankees will not miss the 364 strikeouts he compiled in the two seasons he hit the 84 home runs.
Granderson’s strikeout totals rose as his batting average dropped and the front office doubted his ability to play center-field by installing Gardner there in 2013.
Suzuki, 40, on the other hand, was perfectly healthy throughout the 2013 season. However, as the season wore on, Suzuki’s ability to get on base waned to the point that he ended up being benched for most of the final month of the season.
He hit a career-low .262 with seven homers and 35 RBIs and 20 stolen bases, which also was a career low. Although Suzuki is in the second year of a two-year contract he signed with the Yankees, his spot on the roster is now tenuous at best. The Yankees package him in a trade before spring training starts.
But it is safe to say that Suzuki’s days as a everyday player with the Yankees have come to an end.
On July 19, Suzuki was helping a team that was ravaged by injury, hitting a respectable .283. From that point on the former American League Most Valuable Player and perennial All-Star hit .198. Father Time looks have claimed what little magic was left in Suzuki’s bat.
That is a shame.
Gardner, 30, ended up coming off an injury-plagued 2012 season to have his best season in the majors. He hit .273 with eight homers and 52 RBIs and stole 24 bases for a team that finished out of the playoffs for only the second time in 18 seasons.
He also played Gold Glove-quality defense in center-field.
But, like many of his teammates, Gardner succumbed to a strained left oblique on Sept. 12 and he missed the rest of the season. Before spring training in 2014, Gardner looks to be a player without a position because of the Yankees’ decision to trade for left-fielder Alfonso Soriano in the middle of the 2013 season and the free-agent signings of center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and right-fielder Carlos Beltran.
Yankee general manager Brian Cashman and team president Randy Levine made it clear at the winter meetings that the team was not looking to trade Gardner. Levine said, the team “absolutely had no intention” trading the speedy outfielder.
But because the team has also said they will not carry a permanent designated hitter, Soriano looks to be the team’s left-fielder, leaving Gardner relegated to backup status. That would not seem to make much sense. However, the Yankees have had to make a lot of shifts to the outfield this offseason.
On Jan. 10, the Yankees designated for assignment veteran outfielder Vernon Wells, who was acquired in a late 2013 spring training trade with the Los Angeles Angels to replace the injured Granderson.
Wells, 35, looked like a godsend on May 15 when had 10 home runs, 23 RBIs and was batting .301. But the league caught up to Wells’ aggressive approach at the plate and he ended up with just two home runs and 27 RBIs and hit only .145 the rest of the season.
Like Suzuki, Wells ended up being benched most of the final month of the season. His future with the Yankees was in serious doubt and the Yankees have opted to cut him loose now so that he might be able to sign with another team.
Unlike Wells, Soriano, 38, was a true revelation when he donned the pinstripes on July 26 for the first time since 2003.
Soriano was hitting .254 with 17 home runs and 51 RBIs with the Chicago Cubs when he was acquired. From that time on, Soriano hit .256 with 17 home runs and and 50 RBIs in only 58 games with the Yankees.
His impact was almost immediate for a team missing Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Soriano became the team’s cleanup hitter and he along with Robinson Cano gave the team a one-two punch the lineup had not had all season long.
On top of that, Soriano showed the Yankees he had improved as an outfielder. He committed only one error in the outfield for the Yankees and he made some pretty sparkling plays in the field for his old team. So enters 2014 as the team’s starting left-fielder.
The Yankees upgraded their outfield nicely by signing Ellsbury, 30, to a shockingly rich seven-year, $153 million contract that prompted Cano to pitch a temper tantrum and storm off to the Seattle Mariners.
Ellsbury is what the Yankees had hoped Gardner would be by this stage: A hitter who could get on base a lot and score a lot of runs by being daring and disruptive on the bases.
In 2013, Ellsbury hit .298 with nine homers and 35 RBIs while leading the American League with 52 stolen bases. Ellsbury is also an excellent defender, having won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award in 2011 when he hit .321 with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs.
Ellsbury has compiled 241 career stolen bases and has a career success rate of 84 percent. Gardner, in contrast, has 161 bags with a 81 percent success rate. The Yankees envision both being in the lineup and wreaking havoc on the basepaths. However, in order to do that they would have to find a spot for Gardner to play.
The Yankees determined pretty early that with Swisher having left last season and Suzuki on his last days as a player they needed to upgrade right-field and they did that by signing Beltran to a three-year, $45 million contract on Dec. 19.
Beltran, 36, hit .296 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs with the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals in 2013. He also is a switch-hitter with a career average of .283 and 358 home runs and 1,327 RBIs. With Cano missing from the middle of the Yankees’ lineup Beltran will provide a powerful bat to replace him in 2014.
The trio of Beltran, Soriano and Teixeira could easily combine to hit 100 home runs for the Yankees in 2014, which would address one of their biggest shortcomings last season.
Though Beltran did win three Gold Glove awards from 2006 through 2008 with the New York Mets, knee injuries have cut down his ability to play center-field with the skill he used display. However, he is no slouch in right-field and he has an above-average arm.
So the Yankees’ quintet of Gardner, Ellsbury, Soriano, Beltran and Suzuki provide a nice mix of power and speed. They also provide superb defense.
The signings of Ellsbury and Beltran and the acquisition of Soriano are an admission that is painful for Cashman and the Yankee front office that the team’s minor-league outfield prospects are not progressing at a pace they would have wanted.
The Yankees entered 2013 with a handful of promising outfield prospects. But not many have stepped up and most were disappointments last season.
The team’s No. 2 prospect Mason Williams suffered a shoulder injury that cut short his season and he ended up hitting a combined .245 with four home runs and 28 RBIs with 15 stolen bases in 117 games between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton.
The 22-year-old speedster has the ability to become a smaller version of Bernie Williams with line-drive power, speed and a very good-fielding center-fielder. But he has to shake off the injuries that sidetracked him and accelerate his development in 2014.
The team’s No. 3 prospect, Tyler Austin, is also 22 and he also suffered some injury issues in 2013. A wrist injury cut his season short and he left the Arizona Fall League when it recurred.
Austin hit a combined .257 with six home runs and 40 RBIs in 83 games with Trenton. Austin is a converted infielder who has the ability to hit for average (He hit a combined .354 in 2011.). But it does not appear he will hit for a lot of power as you might expect from an outfielder.
He has the ability to be an above average fielding right-fielder and the Yankees hope he shows some real progress as a hitter in 2014.
The No. 7 prospect, 2009 top draft pick Slade Heathcott, has been a victim of his all-out style that periodically kept him off the field up until 2013.
Now he is starting to put it all together and he hit .261 with eight homers and 49 RBIs with 15 steals in 103 games at Trenton last season. Heathcott, 23, has a line-drive bat that could develop into power and is way above-average fielder with a plus arm.
The Yankees just hope he can remain healthy enough to progress to the majors.
The No. 6 prospect actually played in the majors last season due to the injuries the team sustained. Zoilo Almonte, 24, was actually rushed to the majors despite the fact he did not spend a full season above the Double-A level.
In 68 games at Triple-A Sranton/Wilkes-Barre, Almonte hit .297 with six home runs and 36 RBIs. He made his major-league debut on June 19 and he ended up hitting .236 with one home run and nine RBIs in 34 games with the Yankees.
Like most of the Yankees, he ended up on the 15-day disabled list on July 20 with a left ankle sprain. He was not activated until Sept. 9 and played sparingly the rest of the season. But the Yankees do believe he could turn into a solid run-producing outfielder.
Almonte is not a speedster and he will not win any Gold Gloves with his defense. But his bat could make him a solid starter or a real good fourth outfielder. The Yankees like the fact he is switch-hitter and they would like to see what he can do with a full season at Triple A.
His chances of making the roster are slim unless the Yankees choose to deal away Gardner or Suzuki.
Almonte’s Scranton teammate, Melky Mesa, also made his major-league debut with the Yankees last season. Mesa, batted .385 with no homers and one RBI in five games with the Yankees last season.
But Mesa, who will be 27 at the end of January, has pretty much played himself out of prospect status after hitting .261 with 13 home runs and 39 RBIs with 13 steals in 84 games with Scranton. His 112 strikeouts in .314 at-bats pretty much make him a right-handed hitting version of Granderson.
His power is and speed are special but those numbers come at the cost of a lot of swinging at air. Mesa is an above-average center-fielder who can run down flies with the best of them. But his all-or-nothing approach at the plate make him less likely to have much success at the major-league level.
These are the Yankees’ cream of the crop outfielders at this stage. With Beltran signed for three years and Ellsbury signed for seven there will be lots of time for them to develop in the minors.
In the meantime, Beltran and Ellsbury have elevated the quality of the outfield and there is plenty of depth with former starters Gardner and Suzuki considered as backups for the time being.
The combination of power and speed with quality defensive play makes this the strongest part of the Yankees’ roster in 2014. It could very well be one of the best outfields they have fielded in some time.
Sometimes a baseball season can hinge on one flick of the wrist. In Mark Teixeira’s case it was a painful one.
Teixeira’s hallmark had always been his durability. In his first nine seasons he had never played less than 132 games and had averaged 153 games played.
But his 2012 season with the Yankees was cut short with thumb and calf injuries that limited him to a career-low 123 games played. He started spring training determined to rebound with a productive 2014 campaign.
Unfortunately, while preparing for an exhibition game as part of the World Baseball Classic with Team USA in Arizona, Teixeira took a batting practice swing that sent pain reverberating through his right wrist. He immediately knew something was terribly wrong.
Instead of starting the season playing first base with the Yankees, he was fitted for a cast and given a choice in his rehabilitation: He could have surgery to repair a torn sheath in the wrist that would end his season or he could try a period of two months of rest to allow the wrist to heal.
Teixeira, 33, elected the latter, which was the smart move because if his wrist did not heal properly he could always have the surgery later and still be ready for the 2014 season.
As misfortune would have it during the Yankees’ most injury-filled season in franchise history, Teixeira finally had to admit the wrist was not healing.
Losing a productive hitter is one thing thing. But losing a Gold Glove-quality first baseman like Teixeira was devastating.
Teixeira played his first game on May 31 but it became obvious as the weeks wore on that the “pop” in his bat was just not there. The wrist was fine batting left-handed but it ached miserably when he batted right-handed.
Finally, on June 15, Teixeira was removed from the lineup in a game against the Los Angeles Angels and he never returned. Teixeira’s 2014 season ended after 15 games and only 53 at-bats in which he hit an awful .151 with three home runs and 12 RBIs.
His season was not much different from his fellow Yankee brethren as the club limped to the finish line with an 85-77 mark, tied with the Baltimore Orioles for third place in the American League East.
Well, how is Teixeira doing in his rehab after wrist surgery?
The latest word is pretty good. He has been out of his cast for some time and currently is working on exercises to give his wrist normal range of motion and he is taking only slow swings to loosen up the wrist without overtaxing it.
His schedule calls for working on strength and flexibility in December and by January he hopes to be taking full swings and hitting off a tee. In February, barring any setbacks, he hopes to be taking hacks off a pitching machine and by March he hopes to be taking live batting practice.
Teixeira plans to begin playing spring training games by the first week of March.
The veteran also said on the YES Network’s “Hot Stove” program that he will stop using a weighted bat and will cut down on the amount of swings he takes in preparing for games in order to take pressure off the wrist. Teixeira also might require more days off to rest his body and stay sharp for the entire season.
The Yankees signed Teixeira to a eight-year, $180-million free-agent contract in 2009. In his first three healthy seasons with the club, Teixeira has averaged 37 home runs and 114 RBIs. But in that time his batting averages have dipped from .292 in 2009, to .256 in 2010 to .248 in 2011.
While Teixeira briefly toyed with the idea of dropping his pull approach he has simply embraced the fact that he is paid to hit homers and produce runs and he is no longer too concerned about his average anymore.
Also during his first four seasons, Teixeira managed to make two All-Star teams, win a Silver Slugger award in 2009 and selected for three Gold Gloves (2009, 2010 and 2012).
For all the production Teixeira provides as a switch-hitter in the middle of the lineup, it is his defense that draws rave reviews from teammates and fans. The former third baseman simply has dynamic range, exceptional agility and a great pair of hands.
He can take away extra-base hits with ease and scoop throws in the dirt to save his fellow infielders errors. Though many fans believe Don Mattingly was the best fielding first baseman in Yankee history, Tex’s five Gold Gloves at least put him in the argument.
The Yankees missed Teixeira dearly last season.
They were forced to sign 37-year-old journeyman Lyle Overbay to fill in for Teixeira in the final week of spring training. Though Overbay could come close to Teixeira with his glove, he was a definite step down in power and in production.
Overbay hit .240 with just 14 homers and 59 RBIs in 142 games. Though Overbay handled right-handers by posting a .258 mark. He only was able to hit .190 and was woefully overmatched by lefties. Because the Yankees did not have a right-handed hitting option after they lost Kevin Youkilis to a recurrence of a nagging back injury on June 13, the Yankees were forced to use Overbay every day and they paid dearly for it.
The Yankees’ current roster lists veteran outfielder Vernon Wells as the backup at first base. But Wells has made only one start at the position in his career and that was last season with the Yankees.
The Yankees might consider re-signing corner infielder Mark Reynolds, who hit .238 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 36 games after the Yankees signed him as a free agent on July 19.
Reynolds, 30, made 24 starts at first and 14 at third base for the Yankees. He could become the starter at third base should Alex Rodriguez end up being suspended by Major League Baseball as part of the Biogenesis scandal. An arbitrator has heard the case but he is not expected to rule until December.
The Yankees also might have an interest in former Texas Rangers infielder Michael Young.
It does not appear the Yankees have much interest in free agent first basemen Kendrys Morales, Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau or Carlos Pena. They would cost top dollar to sign any of them and they would not play much behind Teixeira in any event.
There is not much help at first base in the minor leagues because the Yankees used journeyman Dan Johnson at first at Triple-A Scranton last season. Johnson did hit .250 with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs in 138 games but he is not much of a prospect at age 34.
Kyle Roller, 25, batted .253 with 17 home runs and 69 RBIs at Double-A Trenton but he is at least two years away from making an impact.
So the Yankees will definitely have look for corner infield support for both Rodriguez and Teixiera this winter.
Tex’s days of playing 158 games appear to be over and the Yankees do need to look at spelling him this season. He is coming off wrist surgery and that is a concern. But the fact Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays was able to come back after similar surgery in 2012 certainly bodes well for Teixiera.
As they say, the trick is all in the wrist and Teixeira plans on showing Yankee fans he is not through playing at a high level. Time is definitely on his side.
Well, the worst-kept secret through the New York Yankees’ rumor mill became a reality on Thursday. Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner will be swapping outfield positions this spring.
Manager Joe Girardi said that Granderson will play left and Gardner will play center this spring in an “experiment” to gauge if the move will improve the Yankees’ defense. Of course, Girardi always has the prerogative to change his mind and switch them back, but it doubtful that will be the case.
Gardner, 29, has provided the Yankees with Gold Glove-quality defense in left-field – when healthy – since the 2009 season.
Granderson, 31, acquired in a trade with the Detroit Tigers before the 2010 season, has played center-field, at times, shakily. Granderson does not make instinctive reads on balls and loses some. He also takes strange routes to balls and he has to rely a lot on his speed to make up for his mistakes.
The Yankees also have asked him to get his vision checked on a few occasions.
So the move of Gardner to center was almost inevitable and it looks like it could become permanent.
Granderson also is playing in the last year of his four-year contract and it is no secret that the Yankees are not looking to keep him by signing him to multiyear extension. So it makes sense to make the shift now because it is whole lot easier to find a quality player who can play left than it is to find someone with the skills to play good defense in center.
The Yankees are actually quite fortunate that they have three starting outfielders who are capable of playing center, which includes Ichiro Suzuki, 39. Not many teams can say that.
However, there is a big difference from saying someone is capable of playing center than it is to say that someone is better off playing the corner positions. The Seattle Mariners made that decision some years ago with Suzuki because Franklin Gutierrez had more range in center and Suzuki’s arm was perfect for right.
The Yankees are just making a similar decision with Granderson.
With all the talk this offseason that the Yankees offense took a major hit with the departures of Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Russell Martin, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones, it would seem that there would be a premium be placed on pitching and defense this season.
Moving Gardner does that and the Yankees actually boast in Granderson, Gardner and Suzuki one of the best fielding outfields in baseball. They have good speed, range and excellent arms. A good defensive outfield should pay off on preventing a few runs here and there from crossing the plate as the season unfolds.
Managers love it, pitchers love it and the fans will be happy too.
“I have a pretty good idea how they react in center and left, and they do a pretty good job. I just want to see if it improves or stays the same or what happens,” Girardi said. “More, in a sense, how they play individually, but how the tandem works together with covering from right-center all the way over.”
Granderson still considers himself a centerfielder but said that he is good with the move. He said he would have more of an issue if he was benched entirely. Moving to left seems to be a better option than that and so he will play the good soldier.
Gardner has always considered himself a centerfielder. But when he came up in 2009, Melky Cabrera was already entrenched in center. Granderson’s arrival in 2010 pretty much meant he would stay in left since Granderson had not played left since 2007, and only then to play just a handful of games there.
So 2013 is Gardner’s year to shine in center.
But that does not mean Granderson is unimportant in left. Because of the amount of real estate in left-center at Yankee Stadium, leftfielders must possess the range and the ability to cut balls off in the alleys. Granderson can do that and that is why it should not really much of an issue come late May.
The novelty will wear off and there will be other things to talk about.
But the bottom line here is that the Yankees are making a move that is a positive step for the team’s defense and it is going to work out well for both players.
NEWS AND NOTES
- The Yankees will open their spring schedule on Saturday against the Atlanta Braves at Champion Field at Lake Buena Vista, FL. Right-hander David Phelps, 26, will start for the Yankees and he is expected to pitch two innings. Veteran left-hander Paul Maholm will pitch for the Braves. The game will start at 1:05 p.m. EST and the game will be broadcast on MLB Radio only.
- Girardi also announced that first baseman Mark Teixeira, second baseman Robinson Cano and shortstop Eduardo Nunez will make the trip. In addition, catchers Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine will play with Cervelli getting the starting nod. After Phelps, right-handers Brett Marshall, Mike O’Brien, Kelvin Perez, Branden Pinder and Chase Whitley and left-hander Nik Turley are scheduled to pitch.
- Girardi announced that after Adam Warren starts the Yankees home spring opener against a Toronto Blue Jays split squad on Sunday that left-hander Vidal Nuno and right-hander Jose Ramirez will start the next two games.
- Phil Hughes, 26, continues to feel better in his recovery from a bulging disk in his upper back. Hughes is taking anti-inflammatory medication and expects to be able to advance to working out in a pool in several days. He hopes to be able to return to action within two weeks.
- Alex Rodriguez issued a statement through his spokesman Thursday saying he is working out twice a day in New York in his recovery from hip surgery under the supervision of Dr. Bryan Kelly and trainer Pete Draovitch. Rodriguez is targeting a return to the team at midseason. Kelly performed Rodriguez’s two-hour operation in January at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
- For those of you planning to attend Saturday’s game at Disney’s Wide World Sports complex along with me you will not have to pay a dime for parking. That is the best part of seeing games here. But most of the stadium gets a pretty good dose of sun so you will need to lather on the sunblock.
- The Disney staff is generally accorded to be the best in customer service but last season I was not feeling it. Before the game began I was snapping photos of the Yankees during batting practice when a Disney attendant barked at me for being a section over behind home plate. It was more than an hour before the game and no one was sitting there. Huh? Much later I chose to leave the hot sun and watch the game from the standing-room section behind home plate. Another Disney attendant came up to me and yelled at me for – of all the most serious transgressions – having my right foot a half-inch over the line painted on the floor behind the section. I understand if you put your foot all the way over the line they have to stop the game and remove you for interfering with play. Geesh!