Where Did the Yankees' Outfield Depth Go?

Mike Stobe

A short history of recent moves, along with some out-of-left-field solutions for Curtis Granderson's absence.

You might have heard by now that the Yankees won't have Curtis Granderson for the first six weeks of the season due to a fractured ulna. As my fellow Designated Columnist Mike Bates wrote earlier today, that's not a major loss. Granderson is a key part of the Yankee offense, yes, but six weeks is only a quarter of the season. In 2009, the Yankees lost Alex Rodriguez for the first five weeks of the season following his first hip surgery, but Rodriguez still got enough of the season in to make 535 plate appearances, hit 30 home runs, drive in 100 men, and help the Yankees to a 103 wins and their 27th World Series victory.

The catch is that the 2013 Yankees simply aren't as good as the 2009 squad. Not only is Rodriguez also out again, for something closer to 15 weeks than five and sure to return as a far lesser player than he was four years ago, but when one looks at the Yankees' 40-man roster for the fourth outfielder who will slot into Granderson's vacated position in left field (Brett Gardner's move to center having been solidified by the injury), there isn't one. A year ago, the Yankees arrived in Tampa with extra outfielders Andruw Jones, Raul Ibañez, Chris Dickerson, and Justin Maxwell competing for a pair of bench spots. This year, the rostered players angling for those jobs are Melky Mesa, Zoilo Almonte, and Ramon Flores, a trio of non-prospects who have combined for 135 plate appearances above Double-A, all of them by Mesa (who hit .234/.274/.523 in that sample, with that slugging percentage being the part of that line that was most out of character).

So what happened? Where did that outfield depth go? Well, Maxwell and Dickerson were out of options last year and thus had to pass through waivers when Jones and Ibañez were given the major league reserve jobs. Dickerson made it, much to my surprise (more on that in a moment). Maxwell didn't; he was claimed by the Astros and, in his age 28 season, finally had the combination of health and opportunity required to establish himself at the major league level, hitting .229/.304/.460 (105 OPS+) with 18 home runs in 352 at-bats for Houston last year and entering camp this year as the team's starting center fielder.

Dickerson rode out most of his age-30 season in Scranton hitting .316/.417/.515 with 17 steals (at an 85 percent success rate), then before making 17 similarly-productive plate appearances as a September call-up. As a lefty platoon bat (.269/.354/.424 in 505 major league plate appearances against righties) who combines plate discipline with above-average speed and defense at all three outfield positions, I figured Dickerson, a player I've liked since his he first broke through with the Reds, could be a valuable bench player for the suddenly cost-conscious Yankees.

Then, on January 4, the Yankees designated Dickerson for assignment when they picked up four-corner man Russ Canzler off waivers from the Indians, ultimately releasing Dickerson a week later. Canzler was in turn designated for assignment to make room for Travis Hafner and was claimed by the Orioles, who happen to also be the team that gave Dickerson a minor league contract with an invite to spring training. Over the last four seasons, Hafner, who turns 36 in June, has hit .268/.361/.453 and played zero games in the field. Again, Dickerson has hit .269/.354/.424 against righties, can play all three outfield positions, and adds speed on the bases. If the Yankees platoon Hafner (.282/.383/.475 against righties over those last four years), that exchange is an upgrade. If they don't, and without Eric Chavez or a healthy Rodriguez the only real platoon option for Hafner is Eduardo Nuñez, it's not.

Speaking of Nuñez, while the search for a potential Granderson replacement has thus far focused on big-name trades (the equivalent of swatting a fly with an H-bomb), players on other teams' 40-man rosters who are out of options (the shoe is on the other foot this spring), and the underwhelming outfield options the Yankees have in camp (veteran non-roster righties Juan Rivera, Matt Diaz, and Jayson Nix, 28-year-old Cuban defector Ronnier Mustelier, and the aforementioned trio of Double-A non-prospects), one alternative might be to make Nuñez part of the solution by moving Kevin Youilis, who has played 148 innings in left field in the majors, though none since 2009, Nuñez himself (he made three starts in left last year and two in right in 2011), or even Derek Jeter (yeah, I know, but I thought I'd mention it) into left field against lefties, whom Nuñez has hit to a .298/.332/.436 tune in 202 major league plate appearances. Yes, the Yankees are that hard up to find even a replacement-level solution in left field for six weeks.

You can't blame the Yankees for not re-signing the 40-year-old Ibañez, a brutal fielder who, late-season heroics aside, was essentially replacement level last year after being forced into action due to Gardner's elbow injury. Nor can you blame them for not bringing back Jones, who was just as bad last year, turns 36 in April, and had to go to Japan to find employment for the coming season, and you can't blame them for losing Maxwell on waivers either, particularly given his general inability to stay healthy. I do blame them for dumping Dickerson, however, as well as for not being able to develop so much as a decent fourth outfielder in the last half decade.

In 2005, the Yankees drafted Austin Jackson and Brett Gardner, both of whom were major league starters by 2010. Since '05, however, not a single player the Yankees have drafted or signed as an amateur has developed into a major league-ready outfielder. The good news is that should change shortly as three of the Yankees' top four prospects, per our own John Sickles and just about everyone else, are high-ceiling outfielders. However, until Tyler Austin, Mason Williams, and Slade Heathcott are ready, something that won't happen for a couple more years, if ever, the Yankees need to do a better job of stocking their bench and Triple-A roster with toolsy mid-career players like Dickerson and Maxwell instead of taking upside gambles on aging one-dimensional players like Rivera and Diaz.

Cliff Corcoran is one of SBN's Designated Columnists. His work also appears at SI.com. Follow him at @cliffcorcoran.

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