The position of left field tends to bring in all kinds of different players. It also seemed to be the one starting position during the late '90s Yankees dynasty that they could never quite lock down. Since the left fielder often has to cover a wide range with righthanded hitters slashing drives all over that area, teams seem to like having players out there who they know can track them down. Then again, left field is a corner outfield spot, so a number of clubs could very well stick a hit-first defender out there; hell, there are better examples of that idea than Ted Williams, who was about as interested in his glove as a little kid is in eating his vegetables. (Imagine what Mark Teixeira's kids have to eat...)
Regardless, it can be tricky finding the right balance in left, and the Yankees have a pretty awesome one on their side. What about the rest of the AL East?
Likely starting left fielder: Michael Saunders
2014: 78 G, .273/.341/.450, 11 2B, 8 HR, 126 wRC+, 2.4 WAR
The British Columbia-born Saunders came home to Canada in an off-season trade with the Mariners that sent starter/Yankee nemesis J.A. Happ to Seattle. Saunders had a weird 10-year relationship with Seattle dating back to when they drafted him in the 11th round of the 2004 Draft. He spent six seasons in the pros, though he exceeded 100 games just twice due to both injuries and early ineffectiveness. Last season, he was limited to just 263 plate appearances because he suffered an oblique strain and shoulder inflammation.
Saunders' unfortunate list of injuries drew criticism from GM Jack Zduriencik shortly after the season, as he noted that while some of them were freak injuries, some might have resulted from a poor off-season regimen. Obviously, Saunders and his agent weren't exactly pleased as punch with these public comments and it quickly because apparent that they would try to move him despite generally solid numbers and two years of team control over a 28-year-old. Jack Z gonna Jack Z. Perhaps to Jack Z's credit, Saunders is already on the disabled list due to a torn knee meniscus that required surgery in February, but Toronto expects him to be back within the next couple weeks. Saunders is an underrated threat in the lineup, so when he's able to suit up for the Blue Jays, he should be a big step up over Kevin Pillar.
Likely starting left fielder: Alejandro De Aza
2014: 122 G, .252/.314/.386, 24 2B, 8 HR, 94 wRC+, 0.7 WAR
Boy, what an odd career it's been for Alejandro De Aza. Signed by the Dodgers as a 17-year-old in 2001, he puttered around the bottom levels of the organization for a few years before the Florida Marlins claimed him in the minor league Rule 5 Draft. After an impressive '06 season in Double-A Carolina, the Marlins aggressively promoted him to the majors in 2007 as their Opening Day center fielder despite only 69 games above A-ball. He briefly played well, but his career was sent for a loop when he suffered an ugly fractured ankle injury in mid-April that put him on the shelf for four months and eventually required surgery. The procedure made him miss the entire 2008 season, and when healthy, he had to spend most of the next few years in Triple-A clubs. The White Sox selected De Aza off waivers after the '09 campaign, but he wouldn't get a shot at playing everyday in the pros until late 2011.
He excelled down the stretch, and he's been a regular ever since. Seeking outfield help late last August, the Orioles acquired him for a couple minor leaguers. De Aza made a great impression on O's skipper Buck Showalter by catching fire with a .293/.341/357 triple slash and a 145 OPS+ in his 20-game run in orange, so he was comfortable naming De Aza the Opening Day left fielder in 2015. De Aza has a solid defensive reputation as well (dWAR be damned) as speed that has enabled him to steal about 20 bases a season since 2014 despite a shaky success rate. The lefty can also hold his own with the bat, as evidenced by his career 100 wRC+ and surprising power that once helped him hit 17 homers. Complete ineffectiveness against southpaws will force him into more of a platoon role, but he should still be a fine player leading off for the O's in 2015.
Likely starting left fielder: Desmond Jennings
2014: 123 G, .244/.319/.378, 30 2B, 10 HR, 105 wRC+, 3.3 WAR
Top prospects sometimes become superstars. Many more will crash and never really reach their potential. Then, there are some like Desmond Jennings, who will just become... average big league regulars. Rated three times by Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus as one of the game's top 20 prospects and seventh overall in 2010. Jennings took over in left field when Carl Crawford departed, then shifted to center after Melvin Upton Jr. moved on after 2012. Now that the superior defenders Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Souza Jr. are aboard though, Jennings has moved back to left.
Jennings is a righthanded hitter whose performance has certainly been affected by playing half his games at the pitcher-friendly Trop. He's a .263/.338/.427 career hitter on the road, and he slugged .441 away last year compared to a measly .305 home slugging percentage. So overall, he's only produced a career 105 OPS+, but at age 28, he could be primed for a breakout. Jennings has stolen as many as 31 bases in a season with solid power and defense, so something special could be there yet. As of now though, he's only okay. Hey, that's still better than any position player the Yankees have produced since Brett Gardner anyway.
Likely starting left fielder: Hanley Ramirez
2014: 128 G, .283/.369/.448, 35 2B, 13 HR, 135 wRC+, 3.5 WAR
I remember first hearing about Hanley Ramirez over a decade ago in some magazine that previewed the 2003 season. Although he was just 19 years old heading into that year, the baseball community was already abuzz about the absurdly talented shortstop, who ran roughshod over his New York-Penn League and Gulf Coast League competition. It seemed that everywhere he played, he was the most talented prospect on the field. His stock only rose from there, and by the time he made his MLB debut with the Red Sox in September 2005, he was the 10th best prospect in the game. In a bold move, interim GMs Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington decided to move Ramirez and some other prospects during Theo Epstein's brief gorilla suit-aided departure from the front office, reeling in Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and the incomparable Guillermo Mota.
General fans of baseball already know what's happened to Ramirez in the decade since then. It was a win/win for both teams, as the Red Sox excelled while Han-Ram exploded onto the scene with a Rookie of the Year performance under Joe Girardi in 2006, then hitting .319/.394/.532 with a 141 OPS+ between 2007 and 2010, winning the '09 batting title to boot with a .342. Since then though, it's been very weird. Questions about his hustle and defense endlessly followed him, and since 2011 with the Marlins and Dodgers, he's averaged just 116 games per season due to a number of injuries all throughout his body. When healthy though... man, what a hitter. Now away from the infield tasked with defending the shallow Green Monster area, Ramirez should defend at least as well as another famous Boston Ramirez, and the Red Sox are hoping that maybe he can stay healthy and hit at MVP-type levels. Sure, there's considerable risk involved, but the reward could be incredibly valuable for the prodigal son.
Likely starting left fielder: Brett Gardner
2014: 148 G, .256/.327/.422, 25 2B, 17 HR, 110 wRC+, 4.0 WAR
Brett Gardner is a helluva guy
whose glove will make hitters cry.
When he steps up to bat,
he makes pitchers go "Drat!"
Then smashes balls into the sky.
Poorly-written limericks aside, Gardner is just a terrific asset on a very affordable four-year extension, and he might just the Yankees' most reliable everyday player. Some people could consider that an indictment on the state of things in Yankeeland, but 4.0 WAR players don't grow on trees. Gardner can defend with the best of them, work the count, run the bases, and even provide some power. What's not to like?