The dreaded injury bug scurried into the Yankees-Blue Jays scrimmage yesterday when one of Toronto’s candidates for their last rotation spot, JA Happ, plunked outfielder Curtis Granderson on the arm. Granderson’s arm broke, thanks to the impact, and now the Yankees are going to be robbed of one of the Majors most prolific long ballers for an estimated 10 weeks. Luckily for the Yankees, if Granderson can make it back to full strength on that sort of timetable he should only miss 30-40 games, a sizeable amount no doubt but at least it’s not season-killing. The injury does bring up a series of interesting questions though. What are the Yankees going to do in left field? Should they look to the minors and give one of the youngsters a chance? Or should they swing a trade and potentially bring back a veteran with some pop?
The Yankees were already looking to replace plenty of outfield production from 2012 after losing the constant on-base machinations of Nick Swisher and the powerful Ibanez-Jones platoon. New York was the Majors 2nd highest scoring team a year ago and the team may struggle to plate runs as easily without the 100 combined homers Jones, Ibanez, Swisher, and Granderson combined to blast a year ago. But there is also a flip side to that. Ibanez and Jones ran around like the Frankenstein creation in the outfield, showing absolutely no range and limited ability. Granderson was also a boarder-line disaster for some reason on defense in center a year ago, constantly taking poor routes to fly balls. It’s been bizarre to watch as he basically hit 30 and ceased being a productive defender thanks to poor footwork and bad jumps. Take any known defensive statistic you want and they all same the same thing: the Yankees outfield was terrible at catching the ball a year ago.
That won’t be the case in 2013 though. Brett Gardner is one of the 5 or 10 best defensive outfielders alive right now and he’s going to be moving to centerfield. He’s got the ability to swipe 50 bases and he puts that speed to excellent use tracking down fly balls in the gaps. His reaction to the ball of the bat is also elite. Compared to Granderson’s clunky footwork tracking down flies, Gardner will look like a Ferrari. Ichiro should also be more comfortable moving back over to right field, where he won 10 Gold Gloves, the last of which was in 2010. He should handle the short porch in Yankee Stadium just fine. That leaves us with left field, where I’m of the opinion that the Yankees should promote from within, rather than adding another high-priced liability in the outfield.
The only real candidates currently on the market appear to be Vernon Wells and Alfonso Soriano. Wells is one of the most distasteful players to watch play in baseball. He provides absolutely nothing to a roster, other than a sagging amount of debt to a team’s finances. He’s hit .222 in his last 800 at bats and barely been able to draw a walk, sacrificing all manner of productivity for the lottery ticket chance at a homer. His defense has also sagged to the point of atrocious and Los Angeles appears to be willing to eat nearly all of his remaining $42 million dollar contract to move him, which should be another clear sign to stay the hell away.
Soriano is a little bit more appetizing, albeit not much. He’s still got some big pop in his bat, blasting 32 homers at windy Wrigley a year ago while driving in 108 runs. He shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near an outfield spot, and if you want a laugh, ask any Cubs fan about his terrible hopping habits in the outfield just to watch their head explode in rage. But Soriano at least has some offensive value and he has that ole’ time Yankee sentiment dripping all over him, thanks to an extremely productive 5 year stay with the franchise. Soriano’s 2002 season, when he came one homer shy of being the first ever 2nd baseman with a 40 steal-40 homer year, was a masterpiece, but he’s a long way removed from being that player. I don’t think New York should deal for him, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein work something out.
The Yankees’ in-house options look a fair bit tastier. Zolio Almonte, Ronnier Mustelier, and even Eduardo Nunez would be a better fit for New York and each would probably be fairly productive. Almonte, at 23, is the youngest of the three potential candidates, but that shouldn’t weaken his case for the job. He hit 21 homers in Double-A Trenton a year ago and his ability to steal the occasional base could offset the loss of some power. He also has a strong arm in the outfield and appears to be a better than average defender, something that could be a strength for the 2013 Yankees.
Ronnier Mustelier is a Cuban import who wasn’t signed until he was 26, but since then all he’s done is bombard minor league pitching. He’s right-handed and has hit .324/.378/.497 across all three levels which is impressive and should translate nicely to the Major Leagues. If he has a strong Spring, Mustelier is almost a guarantee to nab a roster spot and maybe more. Something tells me the Brian Cashman would like to see the righty light up pitchers over the next month because he could be a wild card for the Yankees.
Finally, the Yankees may just decide that it’s finally time to give Eduardo Nunez a real shot at some playing time. He’s stolen nearly 40 bases and hit .272 in 180 career games, which means the offensive talent is definitely there but the problem has been defense. Nunez has been a shortstop throughout his entire career but has really, really struggled with the nuances of the position when he’s been given a chance to play in Derek Jeter’s absence. He’s looked utterly uncomfortable fielding even the most routine grounders, which is why he spent the majority of 2012 in the minors. Nunez was able to get everyday reps at short but the demotion wrecked his confidence at the plate, as the righty hit just .228. Nunez also offers very little pop, and since I doubt the Yankees feel comfortable starting 3 outfielders who rarely leave the yard, I don’t think he’s going to get the job.
There are also a couple of veterans in camp on minor league deals. Matt Diaz probably stands the best chance of any to make the final roster. He’s spent most of the past 7 years in Atlanta as a part-time player where he hit .299. Last season was a struggle though as Diaz barely saw the field thanks to an appalling .222 average with just 2 homers in just over 100 at-bats. But he fits a need for the Yankees as a veteran right-handed bat of the bench, so his inclusion on the Opening Day roster wouldn’t be a surprise.
No matter who the Yankees choose, losing Granderson, even for 30-40 games is a big loss. He’s hit 108 homers in just 3 seasons in pinstripes, and those numbers are only matched by special players like the Josh Hamilton and the Jose Bautista. The Yankees will just have to embrace his loss and adapt to become a different sort of ball club this year. Defense will have to take precedent over power for once and on offense the Yankees will have to make every base count.