(Failboat... Courtesy of Getty Images)
The departure of Nick Swisher and the re-upping with Ichiro Suzuki has left the Yankees with an all-lefty starting outfield for 2013. That's not the worst thing in the world considering the benefits of having 81 games at home for those guys to swing for the short porch in right field (well, maybe not for Gardner) and the fact that most pitchers are still right-handed. But it does create a greater need for a useful, right-handed 4th outfielder on the bench. Andruw Jones filled that role for the previous two seasons, with varying levels of success, and as part of the early payroll crunching plans the Yankees decided to stay cheap and low-risk in their search for his replacement rather than trading away prospects for someone like Michael Morse. The added internal MiL candidates for the job makes depth a non-issue, but how do all of these guys shake out in the competition hierarchy now that we know who has opt-out clauses?
The Favorite- Juan Rivera
The things the Yankees need most from this role are power and solid corner outfield defensive skills, and those are the two things Rivera has most over his MiL deal competition. His overall offensive numbers from the last two seasons aren't much to look at (.309 wOBA in 2011, .287 in 2012), but Rivera was still effective against southpaws with a .260/.312/.433 slash and a sub-10.0% K rate last season. He isn't going to make anybody forget how good Gardner and Ichiro are defensively if he's in for them, but Rivera's fluctuating year-to-year defensive ratings speak more to the inaccuracy of the metrics themselves and he still rates as above-average for his career according to UZR. Rivera has also played 100+ games in each of the last 4 seasons, something that neither of his main competitors can claim.
The Underdog- Matt Diaz
I'm admittedly not very high on Diaz, and left to my own devices I would put the Melkman above him, but the Yankees giving him an opt-out clause in his MiL deal, and Rivera's, gives a strong indication that they are going to try to get what they can out of their cheap veterans before turning to the younglings. Diaz has been brutal offensively the last two years as he's dealt with his recurring thumb problems. Even though he and his agent said he was fully healthy before he signed, I'm going to need to see that translate to the field before I hop on his bandwagon. Diaz did have a decent split against lefties in 2012, similar to Rivera's line, but it was in a limited sample size (78 PA). He rates as a below-average career defensive outfielder, strikes out a little more than Rivera, and walks a little less. Basically, he's a JV version of Rivera, which puts him second in the pecking order.
The Sleeper- Melky Mesa
Mesa's claim to Major League fame at this point in time is still missing third base in that crazy game against the A's last September, but he's got a great opportunity in front of him to erase that memory this season. There's no Major League track record to look at or compare to Rivera or Diaz, but Mesa offers greater power potential than both of them based on his MiL SLG and ISO percentages and is a hands down better defensive outfielder. Mesa's speed and athleticism makes him a candidate for all 3 outfield positions and gives him the added feature of being a pinch running option, something that neither Rivera nor Diaz would be used for. Like the other MiL sleepers in this series, he's really going to have to shine to leap over his Major League competition, but he has to be considered more than just a token candidate.
Also In The Mix- Thomas Neal, Ronnier Mustelier
They'll get reps in camp, but both are more than likely going to be looked at as emergency depth and ticketed for Triple-A.
** Coming up tomorrow- Utility Infielder. **