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Wells, Suzuki, and Gambling on the Upside

Sorting out the Yankees outfield is a problem for now, not later.


The Yankees have had a charmed season. Now we get to see how nimble they can be in reacting to a shift in their fortunes. They have managed to stay at or near the top of the American League East with players who could charitably be described as "Plan B." Now, as those players reveal their true value, will the Yankees stick with them, or opt for Plan C, and is Plan C even possible?

At the end of April, the Yankees offense ranked fifth in AL with .261/.330/.432 rates. In May the bats sank, hitting only .233/.286/.376, which put them near the bottom of the circuit. Despite their winning the last two games, June looks to be more of the same -- Mark Teixeira can't hit a home run every game, and he's provided the bulk of the offense in both wins. It's fascinating to see how much different the team looks with a functional, top-quality hitter in the lineup, and if Kevin Youkilis starts to hit, the lineup could really have a dramatically different feel to it.

Having said that, there are still more than enough soft spots to go around. Some of them couldn't be helped -- with Chris Stewart ailing, Austin Romine had to play (the alternative is seeing career .208/.272/.321 hitter Bobby Wilson in pinstripes). Others may represent veterans playing hurt (Travis Hafner), being themselves (Stewart), returning to form (Vernon Wells), or showing that they may be ready for retirement (Ichiro Suzuki).

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The fascinating cases are Wells and Suzuki. The Yankees made a two-year commitment to each, the former by taking on a contract scheduled to run through 2014, the latter by re-signing him to a two-year contract last December. Wells seemed like a great get in the early going, a still-talented player who had merely lost his way in Anaheim before being salvaged by Kevin Long and company. He was still hitting over .300 as late as May 15 (.301/.357/.538), but he's almost completely disappeared since then, going 7-for-61 with three doubles and one walk in 17 games (.115/.129/.164). His .245/.292/.426 rates for the season are now not too far off from his .222/.258/.409 rates with the Angels. The challenge for the Yankees now is to try to guess if what they saw early was just a never-to-be-repeated fluke or something that Wells can get back to doing.

Overall Yankees outfield production ranks 11th in the American League and is about on a part with that of the White Sox, A's, and Twins.

The Wells acquisition was one born of desperation after all the injuries hit. Ichiro was more of a premeditated decision based on small samples and affordability. That he had spent almost three years looking various shades of done before having a good 67 games for the Yankees was probably a consideration, but apparently not enough to deflect the team from offering him two years. With Lyle Overbay trying his hand at playing right field, we can see what the team now thinks of that decision. Only Curtis Granderson's second injury had kept Ichiro off the bench until now. Ironically, Suzuki is "hot" right now: he's hit in 10 of 11 games, the one miss being an 0-for-1 on May 30. He was 12 singles and one triple in that span for rates of .361/.395/.417. Take that for what it's worth; for the time being, he should probably be a very famous defensive substitute.

The "for the time being" qualifier is there because (a) Overbay might not be able to play right field, and (b) there's likely some regression in store for him as well. He's slugged .540 against right-handers so far this year, but we know that he doesn't really have that kind of power and isn't likely to have developed it at age 37. Sometimes a player can have a lucky year. At other times, as seems likely with Wells, the genie grants his three wishes and is gone.

The problem is, if you accept that Wells or Suzuki is done, where do you get more outfielders? Thomas Neal has hit quite well at Triple-A (.343/.435/.460), though it's mostly been singles. Zoilo Almonte is hitting .309/.393/.503 from the left side of the plate. Maybe Brennan Boesch, who was just sent down, has another life in him. Melky Mesa is the random weird right-handed hitter who can't hit left-handed pitching. So much for Triple-A.

The top outfield prospects at Double-A Trenton, Tyler Austin and Slade Heathcott, would seem to be struggling, but perhaps that's not really the case. Trenton is a tough place to hit, and Austin has struggled there, batting .208/.318/.281 in front of the home fans. On the road he's been the guy the Yankees expected, hitting .304/.402/.510. It might be wise to get him out of there to Scranton so that he might experience more success than the Trenton ballpark allows.

It's harder to spin Heathcott's performance, and he's missed so much time with injuries that he probably needs the reps at Double-A.

Look, I realize it's the Yankees and they're boringly predictable in certain ways. They never rush a kid if they can find a reason to avoid it, and they never choose a young player when an old one will do. Having said that, if they want this season to continue to mean something, they have to act decisively and choose whether to let their vets play through their slumps, in the hopes that they're just having a momentary (if 3-5 weeks qualifies as momentary) cold snap, or find some way, any way to move on. The third choice, deciding that they are in fact going to stay cold, having reverted to 2012 type, but sticking with them anyway, means throwing away all they have achieved thus far this season.

Make no mistake, it is an achievement. Thanks to the combination of good pitching and just enough hitting from unlikely sources like Wells, they've made contenders of an aged and broken roster that had every right to fail. Now they can capitalize on that or they can play back what they've won. I don't envy them -- I don't pretend to know what the right answers are. My temperament is such that I'd always prefer to gamble on the high upside, the unknown player who might give you something unexpected versus the known mediocrity who almost certainly won't.

In a season in which the Dodgers have called up Yasiel Puig, in which Evan Gattis, 26, has been a boon to the Braves, Marcell Ozuna has proved to be the only thing worth watching in Miami, in a year in which that same team got a 4-for-4 on Sunday from a 31-year-old rookie named Ed, why do they have to be the one team that drowns under the weight of the same old same old? Why not gamble again, but this time on the young, not the old?

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