Tagged: High A

A-Rod’s Injury Clouds Yanks’ 2013 Pennant Hopes

PART 3: THE STARTING LINEUP

The New York Yankees enter the 2013 season with more uncertainty in their starting lineup than they have in the past two decades.

A combination of committed contracts to aging veterans, expired contracts to some helpful contributors, injuries and underperformance have left the Yankees in a real bind to fix their problems knowing they have an edict by the boss Hal Steinbrenner to trim payroll to $189 million by 2014.

The most significant issue is the impending January left hip surgery for third baseman Alex Rodriguez which will shelve him for at least half the season. Because Rodriguez has not played a full healthy season of baseball since 2007 it should not be considered that big a deal.

However, it points up the problem with offering lengthy and lucrative contracts to players past the age of 30. Players break down at a rapid rate after that and that is particularly true of players who have dabbled in the use of performance enhancing drugs as A-Rod has.

The plain fact of the matter is that Rodriguez IS NOT nor WILL HE EVER BE AGAIN the impact player he was in 2007 when he hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs for the Yankees. Unfortunately, the Yankees are committed to paying him through the 2017 season.

If you want to look up the definition of the euphemism “albatross around the neck” A-Rod’s picture would be displayed prominently.

Seemingly healthy to begin the 2012 season, Rodriguez neither produced with power or run production. Every day manager Joe Girardi cautioned the media that A-Rod always produced home runs in bunches and it would be any day now. But that day never arrived.

He was struck in the left hand by a pitch from Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on July 24 and the injury sidelined him until the first week of September. At season’s end, Rodriguez had 18 home runs and 57 RBIs and batted .272. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Clutch when he was healthy either.

With runners in scoring position he hit a miserable .230 and with the bases loaded he hit .200.

Unfortunately, the Yankees may be saddled with A-Rod for the remainder of his contract because his skills have eroded so fast no team would be willing to take him and his bloated contract now that he is 37.

So all the Yankees can do is look to find a replacement for him for 2013 because there is no guarantee he will be able to come back in July.

Last year’s insurance policy, Eric Chavez, who hit 16 home runs and drove in 37 runs in 278 at-bats, has signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Eduardo Nunez fielded to so poorly at third base he was demoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and the Yankees have vowed to keep him primarily at shortstop.

So the Yankees have signed free-agent Kevin Youkilis.

Youkilis, 33, has had some injury issues of his own. He does not have a season in which he has played more than 147 games. He had not played but one season in which he passed 136 games in four seasons. His all-out style was popular in Boston but it also led to some significant injuries and a decline in production.

After a 2011 season in which he hit only .258 with 17 home runs and 80 RBIs, Youkilis ran afoul of then Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine and he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox. He ended up hitting a career-low .235 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs.

But the Yankees hope he can help fill the void at third while Rodriguez is out and fall into a right-handed designated hitter and corner infield backup role when Rodriguez returns. Though it may seem odd that the heart and soul of the Red Sox would be wearing pinstripes, Johnny Damon had no trouble adapting to life in the Yankee Universe. Neither did Wade Boggs or Roger Clemens. “Youk” would seem to be in the same mold.

There is an issue at shortstop as well.

Though Derek Jeter vows his broken ankle will be healed and he will be ready to go by Opening Day of 2013, he also is 38 years old. So the Yankees will want their captain and emotional leader to be cautious in spring training.

Jeter’s injury in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers pretty much sounded the death knell for a team that was already reeling in the midst of an horrific team batting slump.

Jeter was one of the few who actually contributed positively to the offense in 2012.

He led the major leagues in hits with 219 and he ended up hitting .316 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. Though this is the not the Jeter who hit .349 with 24 home runs and 102 RBIs in 1999, the Yankees are happy to have this more mature Jeter, who has learned how to adapt to his age and still produce positively to the team.

He simply was the team Most Valuable Player last season and the Yankees seem to have stopped talking nonsense like moving him to center-field or resting him two days a week. He will rest some but he will play a lot in 2013 because the Yankees need him at the top of the lineup.

The Yankees’ best player is also one who poses the most uncertainty heading into 2013. Robinson Cano, 30, is simply the best second baseman in baseball both with his glove and his bat. He also hit a career-high 33 home runs in 2013 while batting over .300 (.308) for the seventh time in his eight major-league seasons.

However, Cano hardly could call 2012 his “breakout” season because he drove in a paltry 94 runs hitting in the heart of baseball’s top run-scoring team. The reason: He hit poorly most of the season with runners in scoring position. Also, in a huge reversal in a trend, Cano hit just .239 against left-handers.

That will have to change in 2013 because he figures to continue to see a steady diet of them.

There is a big incentive for Cano to improve. His contract for 2013 was renewed by the Yankees but he can become a free agent after this season. With the Yankees looking to trim payroll, Cano’s impending free agency presents a huge challenge. Will general manager Brian Cashman have the financial backing to present a package that can keep Cano in pinstripes for the rest of his career?

That is huge question only the Steinbrenner family can answer. But one thing is certain: The Yankees would certainly regress in 2014 without their best player.

Speaking of regression, Mark Teixeira has found out just how fast a career can regress when you follow former Yankee first baseman Jason Giambi’s pull-happy approach at Yankee Stadium.

Teixeira, however, changed his tune about it in 2012. Instead of trying to change back as he did at the start of the 2012 season, he decided to keep the “pull” approach figuring the Yankees pay him to hit home runs and drive in runs. So he hit 24 home runs and drove in 84 runs in a season that was cut to just 123 games due to a calf injury he suffered in August.

He hit just .251 but that is coming off seasons in which he hit .256 (2010) and .248 (2011). So Yankee fans are just going to have to accept lower batting averages and big production out of Teixeira. He more than makes up for it with his glove.

He and Cano both won Gold Gloves in 2012 and they form the best right side of an infield in baseball history from a fielding and production standpoint. Can you name a better pair?

The Yankees will have one huge hole filled in their lineup in left-field with the return of Brett Gardner and having to fill two more at catcher and in right-field.

Gardner’s loss last season proved to be more problematic in hindsight than it was at the time. With Gardner, 29, sidelined and Nunez in the minors the Yankees lost their two best base-stealers for most of the 2012 season. That made the Yankees much more of a station-to-station team and brought to the forefront their reliance on the home run to win games.

It also goes beyond saying that Gardner’s Gold-Glove quality in defense in left was missed, too. The Yankees need Gardner to come back healthy, get on base consistently and be disruptive to the team’s opponents on the bases.

For the past two seasons, the Yankees have reaped the benefit of having a stalwart defensive catcher in Russell Martin, who actually deterred teams who like to run the bases with reckless abandon. Though Martin struggled most of the season hitting under the “Mendoza Line” until he got hot in September, his power will be missed also.

But Martin has signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Yankees are looking for a new catcher in 2013.

At the moment, the Yankees list Francisco Cervelli as the heir apparent. Cervelli, 26, was the primary backup for three seasons from 2009 through 2011 until the Yankees acquired San Francisco Giants catcher Chris Stewart in a trade just as spring training drew to a close.

Because Stewart, 30, was out of options, the Yankees elected to keep Stewart as the backup catcher in 2012 and shipped Cervelli to Scranton.

Cervelli hit .246 with two home and 39 RBIs in 99 games at Scranton in 2012. His defense is fine but his throwing can be erratic at times.

Stewart surprisingly hit .241 with a home run and 13 RBIs in 55 games with the Yankees. His defense and throwing are superior to Cervelli but his offense is severely lacking.

The Yankees did sign former Los Angeles Angels catcher Bobby Wilson, 29, to a minor-league contract. Wilson was non-tendered a contract by the Blue Jays after he hit .211 with three home runs and 13 RBIs with the Angels in 2012. Wilson is excellent defensively but is a career .208 hitter in the majors. So it is hard to see how he will figure in as anything but a potential backup and insurance in case the Yankees need to trade a catcher or sustain an injury.

The Yankees do have very high hopes for 24-year-old rookie Austin Romine. They believe his defensive skills make him a major-league ready receiver but his bat and his chronic back issues have been delaying his progess. He missed most all of the 2012 season with a back injury.

He has been cleared to come to spring training and he has a shot at supplanting either Cervelli or Stewart if he can show some improved skills with the bat. But realistically, the team may take a more cautious approach with Romine and he could head back to Scranton to convince the front office his back issues are over.

This area seems ripe for a deal to obtain a free agent. Cashman did have former Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski in mind. Pierzynski, 35, would fit in with the Yankees because he hits left-handed and he has some power. He hit .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBis in 2012.

But Pierzynski elected to sign a contract with the Texas Rangers. So unless the Yankees elect to make a trade they will be choosing between the four catchers they have now.

The biggest hole in the Yankees lineup and perhaps the biggest blow to the bleacher bums in right-field will be the loss of fan favorite Nick Swisher.

Swisher might not have been a superstar but his consistency was his calling card. What you saw was what you got.

Swisher, 32, has played four seasons in pinstripes and did not deviate from between 24 through 29 home runs and between 82 and 93 RBIs. There are not many outfielders who can claim that and the Yankees would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the level, except perhaps the oft-injured star Josh Hamilton.

The Yankees did have an opportunity to sign the former Texas Rangers’ star if they wanted. But they have some restriction to them doing so.

If the Yankees were to sign Hamilton, Cano’s departure would be a foregone conclusion unless there was a major dump of salary after the 2013 season. Hamilton signed with the Angels and the Yankees played it safe.

The Yankees instead decided to bring back Ichiro Suzuki, who came over in a trade in June and sparked the Yankees down the stretch. At age 39, Suzuki is no longer the player he was when he was the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year in 2001 but he showed a renewed vigor in the Bronx in 2012, hitting over .300 after the deal.

He ended the season hitting. 283 with nine home runs and 55 RBIs and he stole 29 bases.

It is obvious if the Yankees want to return to a slash and dash attack Girardi favors, Suzuki would be the correct choice.

Center-field is an interesting situation for the Yankees.

The team renewed Curtis Granderson’s contract for 2012 but there are all kinds of rumors swirling around about him.

The Yankees first floated the idea they could move Gardner from left to center and put Granderson in left next season. They also sent Granderson to an eye specialist to check his vision because of his habit of losing balls in flight to the outfield and his penchant for swinging at pitches that bounced in front of home plate.

Granderson struck out a team record 195 times last season. The Yankees can live with the strikeouts for his 43 home runs and 106 RBIs, which were both team highs in 2012. But his .232 average is 30 points below his career average of .262 and he hit just .218 against left-handers last season. Granderson is also in the final year of his contract.

The Yankees also seemed intent on keeping outfielder and left-handed DH Raul Ibanez.

Ibanez, 40, was forced to play more than he was expected in the outfield because of Gardner’s injury. But Ibanez came through with 19 home runs and 62 RBIs while hitting .24o in 384 at-bats. But Ibanez’s biggest impact was the clutch home runs he hit down the stretch against the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox to get the Yankees into the playoffs.

He carried that into the American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

His clutch hitting was not lost on the front office and they wanted him back badly in 2013. But Ibanez dealt a blow to the Yankees by electing to sign with his old Mariners team so the Yankees now have a huge hole at the DH spot.

The Yankees made it clear that right-hand DH Andruw Jones would not retained for the 2012 season and Jones shopped himself to a team in Japan. The Yankees likely will use a veteran free agent to fill the role until A-Rod returns in July. Rodriguez figures to DH a lot when he returns and Youkilis can fill the role when A-Rod does play third.

Nunez figures to have an opportunity to win the right-hand DH role until A-Rod returns. The left side of the equation might come down to an offer to Jim Thome or a similar veteran.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, most of their best minor-league hitting prospects are a few years away of making an impact at the major-league level.

The top prospect in the organization, catcher Gary Sanchez, is only 20. But he may be worth the wait because he hit a combined .290 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs with Class-A Charleston and High-A Tampa in 2012. Sanchez is being touted as “Jesus Montero with defense.” However, his glovework slipped a notch last season.

But the Yankees still believe he is their future behind the plate.

Outfielder Mason Wiiliams, 21, had a torn labrum ended his season his August. However, Williams was able to flash some five-tool talent by hitting a combined .298 with a 11 home runs and 35 RBIs and stole 20 bases at Charleston and Tampa.

Some are comparing him to another Williams named Bernie. He has a good bat and he is developing power as he progresses through the system. The Yankees absolutely love his high ceiling for improvement.  The lefty swinger looks like a future center-fielder for the Yankees.

Somewhat lost in all the talk about Sanchez and Williams is 21-year-old outfielder Tyler Austin, who hit an organization-best .354 in 2011 and hit .322 in four minor-league stops in 2012. He hit 17 home runs and drove in 80 runs while stealing 23 bases.

Austin played his first two minor-league seasons at the corner infield spots but was moved to right-field last season and the Yankees see him as the real deal as a right-hand hitter.

The Yankees also have a trio of promising outfielders in power-hitting Zoilo Almonte, 23, who hit 21 bombs at Double-A Trenton, and slash-and-dash hitters in 2009 No. 1 draft pick Slade Heathcott, 22, and Ramon Flores, 20.

Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr., 20, the team’s first selection in the 2011 draft, hit only three home runs at Charleston in 2012 but the Yankees believe he will develop into the kind of power hitter his father was. Called up to appear in an exhibition game against the Astros last March, Bichette hit a pair of solo home runs in only two exhibition at-bats. His star is definitely on the rise.

The Yankees also have a trio in promising infielders in Angelo Gumbs, 20; Jose Pirela, 23; and Austin Aune, 19. However, only Pirela has advanced as far as Double A and Gumbs and Aune may eventually be moved to the outfield. For now Gumbs and Pirela are second basemen and Aune is power-hitting shortstop.

 

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Mo’s Return In 2013 Keeps Yanks’ Bullpen Strong

PART 2: THE BULLPEN:

The Yankees figured to have a strong bullpen as they entered the 2012 season. Perhaps the best in baseball.

Of course, having the best closer baseball has ever seen and will see in Mariano Rivera was a large part of that strength. However, in 2012 Rivera was not a big part of the team’s success.

Everybody remembers that day at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City last May when “Mo” tried to shag a ball he should not have and tore his MCL in his left knee. He later had surgery and missed the rest of the season.

But the Yankee bullpen was rescued by a fluke signing of Rafael Soriano in 2011 over the objections of general manager Brian Cashman. Nonetheless, the Yankee brass overruled Cashman and signed the former Tampa Bay Rays closer coming off a 2010 season in which he saved 45 games and a had a 1.73 ERA.

That deal looked wasted in 2011 when Soriano pitched in mediocrity and then injured his elbow before finishing with just two saves and a 4.12 ERA. He was baseball’s most expensive seventh inning pitcher in history.

In 2012, he saved the bullpen by stepping in for Rivera and notching 42 saves in 46 opportunities with a sparkling 2.26 ERA. Many thought that with Rivera gone that the Yankees would sink in the American League East. But Soriano proved them wrong.

It is no wonder that Soriano elected to opt out of his contract and seek a closer’s role of his own as a free agent. The Yankees might have panicked to find a suitable closer for 2013 had Rivera not decided to come back for one last hurrah.

Indications are Rivera will be ready to go when spring camps open in February. Rivera, 43, was 1-1 with a 2.16 ERA and five saves in six chances when he went down in 2012. In 2011, he was 1-2 with a 1.91 ERA and 44 saves in 49 opportunities. So as long as Rivera’s knee is sound, the Yankees will have no worries about their closer in 2013.

With Soriano gone, it would seem to be an issue if the Yankees did not have David Robertson, who was an American League All-Star selection in 2011 with a 4-0 record and 1.08 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 66 2/3 innings. In 2012, Robertson got off to a slow start with a ankle injury suffered in spring training.

He later had to be placed on the disabled list at midseason in May with an oblique strain. He simply was not the same pitcher early in the season as he was in 2011. But in the second half, Robertson flashed his old form. After a brief and unsuccessful trial as a closer he was shifted back to his eighth inning role and he flourished again.

He was 2-7 with a 2.67 ERA but he was finally his old self by late August and for the September stretch run. At age 27, Robertson becomes a very valuable pitcher for the Yankees with the departure of Soriano. Robertson will also have to adapt to close on days Rivera is unable to pitch. The Yankees do not seem worried about it though.

Behind these two hard-throwing relievers, the Yankees will seek to build another strong bullpen with a pair of similarly hard-throwing veterans in right-hander Joba Chamberlain and left-hander Boone Logan.

Chamberlain, 27, missed most of the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. He missed the start of the 2012 season after suffering a break of his right ankle in a trampoline accident in Tampa, FL.  He was 1-0 with a 4.35 ERA in 20 2/3 innings over 22 appearances late in the season.

He returns in 2013 without injury and seeking to regain the consistency he enjoyed in 2011 when he was 2-0 with a 2.83 ERA before he injured his elbow. If he does the Yankees will not miss Soriano at all. Chamberlain figures to be the logical choice to pitch most in the seventh inning. If he measures up to the challenge the Yankees’ bullpen will again be very strong.

Logan, 28, has been the unsung hero of this bullpen for a long time.

Sure he can be erratic at times. But he also has now put together three very good seasons with the Yankees. Miscast as a lefty specialist for two seasons, he was able to step out of that role in 2012 and post a pretty good season.

He was 7-2 with a 3.74 ERA and held opponents to a .234 batting average. The elevated ERA was largely due to the fact that he was pressed into service more than he had in the past and the additional innings caught up to him. He pitched in a league-high 80 games and manager Joe Girardi would like to cut that down to a more realistic 60 to 65 in 2013.

But with Chamberlain, Robertson and Rivera on the disabled list at one point last season, Logan pitched in a lot of games he would not have pitched in normally. A healthy bullpen should make him more effective as well as additional man to pitch in the seventh inning.

Girardi was able to cobble together a pair of specialists out of left-hander Clay Rapada and right-hander Cody Eppley and he was very pleased with the results he got from them.

Rapada, 31, was 3-0 with a 2.82 ERA. But against lefties he was plain nasty. They hit just .186 off him and he looks to have an inside track on keeping that role in 2013.

Eppley, who was picked up off waivers from the Texas Rangers early in 2012, turned into an effective pitcher against right-handers. He had a 1.93 ERA against righties and they hit just .227 against him. The 27-year-old veteran was 1-2 with a 3.33 ERA overall and he earned Girardi’s trust as the season progressed.

Depth in 2013 does not look to be an issue. There are a number of candidates to challenge for spots in 2013.

David Phelps, 26, is thought of primarily as a starter based on his success in the minor leagues. But he could settle into a long reliever/spot starter in 2013, the role he largely held in his rookie season as he compiled a 4-4 mark with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts).

Phelps will get a chance to crack the 2013 starting rotation in the spring but he only likely will have a chance if there is an injury or Ivan Nova continues to pitch poorly. Long relief looks to be a good bet or he could be sent back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to keep him stretched out as a starter as an insurance policy on what is a veteran starting rotation.

The Yankees signed free-agent right-hander David Aardsma last season even though they knew he was recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Aardsma, 30, saved 38 games in 2009 and 31 games in 2010 for the Seattle Mariners before he injured his elbow.

He pitched in only one game for the Yankees late last season but the Yankees saw enough renew his contract option for 2013. So Aardsma could very well win a spot in the Yankees bullpen this spring if he regains his hard-throwing dominant arsenal. Aardsma could be helpful both in the middle innings or as a late-inning option for Robertson and Rivera when they are unavailable to pitch.

The Yankees also have a veteran right-hander in Jim Miller, 30, who was 2-1 with a 2.59 ERA in 33 appearances with the Oakland Athletics last season. Miller oddly is tougher on lefties than he is on righties. Lefties hit just .136 off him in 2012 while righties solved him to the tune of .283. The Yankees will see how he fits in this spring.

Cesar Cabral, a 2012 Rule 5 draft acquisition, spent the entire season on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his left elbow as he was competing for the lefty specialist role with Rapada last spring. After compiling a 3-4 record and a 2.95 ERA in the minors 2011 with 70 strikeouts in 55 innings, Cabral will get a chance to display his power stuff this spring with a chance of supplanting Rapada or earning a spot as a third lefty in the bullpen. Cabral is only 23 and he has a high ceiling as a reliever.

The Yankees do have some interesting young reliever candidates in their minor-league system but most of them have to be considered as longshots to make the 2013 roster.

Chase Whitley, 23, was 9-5 with a 3.25 ERA at Scranton and the right-hander compiled a 1.07 WHIP in 80 1/3 innings over 41 games. The Yankees like his competitiveness though he does not appear to have closer stuff.

Right-hander Preston Claiborne, 24, pitched impressively enough at Double-A Trenton (2-2 with a 2.22 ERA in 30 games) to earn a promotion to Scranton, but he may need some more work. He was 4-0 with a 4.05 ERA in 20 games there. But the Yankees still like the tall Texan and he does have strikeout stuff (78 punchouts in 82 innings).

The most impressive young pitcher the Yankees have in the minors is 22-year-old right-hander Mark Montgomery. Montgomery began 2012 with the High-A Tampa Yankees, where he was 4-1 with a 1.34 ERA. He also struck out an unbelievable 61 batters in 40 1/3 innings.

He carried that power stuff to Trenton, where he was 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 15 games. He saved 15 games overall in 2012 and to say that Montgomery figures to be a long-range prospect as a future major-league closer would be putting it mildly. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, he may not seem like your typical closer. But neither was Robertson and look where he is now.

Montgomery’s progesss is worth watching in 2013.

The Yankees 2013 bullpen prospects, much like their starting staff, appears to be in pretty good shape and fairly set. I do not expect Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild to be begging Cashman for additional help here. Soriano walked out but with Rivera back for one last season and depth at the back end the Yankees’ bullpen should remain one of its strengths.

Girardi has been a master at building a bullpen and utilizing it in a proper way. Other than Logan, no one was really overused in 2012 and that should be the trend again in 2013.

Not many teams can boast a bullpen this good and this deep.

NEXT: STARTING LINEUP

 

Ichiro Final Piece To Yankees’ Explosive Outfield

The New York Yankees have reached the end of the regular season as champions of the American League East and they have the best record in the league. It was not easy but they are now ready for the playoffs. It is time to look at the players that got them there and give them grades for the season.

RIGHT-FIELD – NICK SWISHER  (24 HRs, 93 RBIs, .272 BA)

CENTER-FIELD – CURTIS GRANDERSON (43 HRs, 106 RBIs, .232 BA)

LEFT-FIELD – ICHIRO SUZUKI (9 HRs, 55 RBIs, .283 BA, 77 Runs, 29 SB)

Sometimes the outfield you leave spring training with is not the one you end up with. That us true for the Yankees this season.

Left-fielder Brett Gardner,29, played in only nine games before a diving catch in left resulted in a right elbow injury that eventually required surgery and wiped out pretty much his entire season. With his loss the Yankees also lost his 40-plus stolen bases and his Gold Glove-quality defense.

So the Yankees improvised and used 40-year-old Raul Ibanez and 35-year-old Andruw Jones to fill the hole Gardner left. Since Ibanez and Jones were expected to be the team’s platoon designated hitters, it allowed manager Joe Girardi to use veterans like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on more occasions at DH.

It worked pretty well.

Though the Yankees lacked speed on the bases and lost some defense in left, Ibanez and Jones combined to hit 18 home runs and drive in 51 runs in the team’s first 81 games. But because of their advanced age and because the Yankees kept hoping Gardner would return, the Ibanez-Jones platoon in left was expected to be only temporary.

When Gardner was unable to return after a second rehab stint, the Yankees decided they had to make a move and they obtained All-Star and multiple Gold Glove-winning outfielder Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners in a trade completed on July 23.

Suzuki, 38, immediately brought all the elements to the Yankees that Gardner was expected to provide. Suzuki agreed to come to the Yankees to play left-field, hit eighth in the lineup and to sit against some left-handed pitching.

Suzuki had been a shell of his former self in Seattle. He hit a career low .272 in 2011 and he was hitting just .261 with four home runs and 28 RBIs with the Mariners when he was obtained. General manager Brian Cashman hoped a change in scenery and an opportunity to play for a contender would re-energize Suzuki.

It did, too.

Suzuki immediately meshed in the clubhouse and, as he got more comfortable in pinstripes, his bat heated up and he took off.

Suzuki hit .297 in August and an amazing .385 in September. He also was so instrumental in the Yankees’ late-season push to the American League East title that Girardi moved him to the No. 2 spot in the order and kept him in the lineup against left-handers.

With Derek Jeter batting leadoff, the Yankees have the two best singles hitters of their generation in one lineup. Between the two of them, they have 5,910 major-league hits and a career batting average of .317.

They may have seen their better days on the bases but both are capable to stealing a bag when it is necessary.

Since becoming a Yankee, Suzuki has hit five home runs, drove in 27 runs and batted .317 with 14 stolen bases. With a chance to win his first championship since coming from Japan in 2001, Suzuki is playing as if he wants it real bad.

This deal by Cashman was a real gem and it could pay off big this postseason.

Meanwhile, in right, just call Nick Swisher “Mr. Consistency.”

In his four seasons with the Yankees, Swisher, 31, has hit between 23 and 29 homers and driven in between 82 and 93 runs each season. In the first half of this season, Swisher hit 12 home runs and drove in 46 runs. In the final 81 games, Swisher hit 12 home runs and drove in 47 runs.

How about that for numbers you can count upon?

That has been a Swisher hallmark throughout his career and the Yankees needed him to deliver this season in the absence of Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira for big stretches of the second half. Swisher even hit .273, which is his second highest average in the majors since he hit .288 for the Yankees in 2010.

Swisher also was forced to move from right-field to play first base when Teixeira was injured and he played above-average defense there.

This was an important time for Swisher because he is in the final year of his contract and he can become a free agent at the end of the season.

With the Yankees committed to reducing payroll by the start of the 2014 season and with Robinson Cano looking for lucrative multi-year deal to stay in pinstripes, there is a good possibility Swisher may be playing his last season for the Yankees.

That would be a shame because Swisher’s ability to provide power, production, work pitch counts, play solid defense and his enthusiasm for the game are valuable assets to the team. He would be very hard to replace.

The same goes for Curtis Granderson in center-field.

Granderson followed up a career year in 2011 with 41 home runs, 119 RBIs and a league-leading 136 runs scored with another powerful season in 2012. He hit 43 home runs, drove in 106 runs and scored 102 runs.

Of course, with Granderson you have to take the bad with the good. Granderson hit a respectable .262 in 2011, which is exactly what his career average is. But this season, Granderson hit a career-low .232 and he struck out a career-high 195 times.

Pitchers gave him a steady diet of breaking balls in the dirt and fastballs away and Granderson seemed reluctant to go to the opposite field, particularly with the short porch in right-field of Yankee Stadium a tempting target.

So when Granderson slumps, he can go into long periods where he can’t buy a hit. After a first half in which hit 23 home runs, drove in 48 runs and hit .241, his average dropped nine points while he hit 20 home runs and drove in a much better 58 runs.

Again, with Granderson you take the bad with the good and give Granderson credit because he did lead the team in home runs and RBIs. His contract expires after the 2013 season so the Yankees have to do some head-scratching to figure out how to please Cano, Swisher and Granderson without breaking the bank.

Though the plan when Suzuki was acquired to play Ibanez and Jones less in the outfield, injuries forced Girardi to use both a lot more in the second half than he would have liked.

When Swisher moved to first base to replace Teixeira, Ibanez and Jones were platooned in left-field while Suzuki played right.

Ibanez finished with some pretty good numbers.

He hit 19 home runs, drove in 62 runs and hit .240. He fell off a bit from his first-half numbers (11 homers, 35 RBIs and .237) but that was mostly because he played a bit less and also because he went into a terrible slump at the end of August that extended until he finally caught fire again in the final 11 games he played.

Jones, on the other hand, was a much different story in the second half.

After hitting seven home runs, driving in 16 runs and hitting .230 in the first half, Jones went AWOL pretty much for the entire second half.

He hit another seven home runs, drove in 18 runs but his average dipped an alarming 33 points and he finished at .197. Late in the season Girardi opted to use Eduardo Nunez at DH rather than start Jones against a left-hander.

As a result, Jones was given the word that he will not be on the postseason roster and his days in pinstripes are likely over.

MIDSEASON GRADES:

GARDNER – I

GRANDERSON – A-

SWISHER – B-

IBANEZ – B

JONES – C

SECOND-HALF GRADES:

GRANDERSON – B+

SWISHER – B+

SUZUKI – B+

IBANEZ – C

JONES – D

OVERALL GRADES:

GRANDERSON – B+

SWISHER – B+

SUZUKI – B+

IBANEZ – C+

JONES – D+

The Yankees also played Nunez, Jayson Nix, Dewayne Wise, Chris Dickerson and Melky Mesa in the outfield this season.

Nix and Nunez are primarily infielders, but Nix has played some outfield in the past and acquits himself well in left. The Nunez experiment in the outfield was declared over after some awful misplays early in the season proved he was not suited to play the outfield.

Wise, 34,was released at midseason when Suzuki arrived and he was later picked up by the Chicago White Sox. He got more playing time there and ended up hitting .259 with eight home runs and 30 RBIs and 19 stolen bases for the Yankees and Chisox combined.

Dickerson, 30, has spent the past two seasons with the Yankees, mostly at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Dickerson was recalled on Sept. 1 and hit .286 with two home runs and five RBis in 14 at-bats.

Mesa, 25, was also recalled on Sept. 1 when the rosters expanded and hit .500 in two at-bats in three games.

Dickerson hit .316 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs and he stole 17 bases in 69 games. Mesa hit .230 with nine home runs and 21 RBIs in just 33 games after being promoted from Double-A Trenton.

Colin Curtis, 27, struggled in his comeback season at Scranton after suffering a separated shoulder in spring training in 2011. He hit only .220 with one home run and 23 RBIs in 71 games.

Cole Garner, 27, hit .258 with six home runs and 25 RBIs in 64 games.

Neither Curtis or Garner figure much in the Yankees’ future plans.

However, the Yankees do have a boatload of good young outfield prospects below Triple A.

Mason Wiiliams, 21, is a five-tool center-fielder who hit a combined .298 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in 91 games with Class-A Charleston and High-A Tampa of the Florida State League. Williams is the Yankees No. 2 prospect behind catcher Gary Sanchez. A torn labrum in his right shoulder ended his season in August but the Yankees are high on his future.

Tyler Austin, 21, followed up a season in which he hit .345 in 2011 by hitting a combined .322 in 110 games as he advanced from Class-A Charleston to Double-A Trenton. He also hit a combined 17 home runs and drove in 80 runs this season. Austin was used at first and third base in previous seasons but played exclusively in right-field this season. Austin is ranked third right behind Williams.

Former 2009 No. 1 pick Slade Heathcott, 22, caught fire this season at High-A Tampa and hit .302 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 60 games. Heathcott is a lefty hitter who slashes at the plate and has very good speed. Heathcott is ranked fifth as a prospect for the Yankees.

In spring training this past March, Zoilo Almonte, 23, caught Girardi’s eye with his bat. Almonte hit .277 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs in 106 games at Trenton. Originally thought of as a potential fourth outfielder in the majors, if Almonte’s power continues to improve he could change that opinion. Almonte is ranked seventh.

When you think Ramon Flores, 20, think of a very raw Ichiro Suzuki. Flores hit a robust .302 with six homers, 39 RBis and 24 stolen bases in 131 games with High-A Tampa. Flores is the 10th-rated Yankee prospect but he is rising like a bullet.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B+

With a postseason outfield of Granderson, Suzuki and Swisher you have an excellent mix of power (76 homers), production (254 RBIs), some speed (41 stolen bases) and some range and ability on defense, particularly with Suzuki in left.

You add outfield backups in Ibanez, Gardner and Nix and you have a pretty solid veteran bench, too.

Swisher and Granderson provide premium power and Suzuki is a perfect table setter with Jeter in the first two spots of the batting order.

Give Cashman credit for striking the perfect deal to replace Gardner in left with Suzuki and the Yankees enter the postseason with the most productive outfield of all the teams who made it to the playoffs. Offensively and defensively it is hard to match this trio.

It has been a strength of the Yankees for most of the season, particularly since Suzuki was added to the mix on July 24 to replace the defensively inferior tandem of Ibanez and Jones.

This may be an older group but in the playoffs experience counts for a lot.