(Awww, friendship. Courtesy of Reuters)
Players continue to trickle into Yankee camp this week, but they all have to officially be there by Sunday, when Spring Training will really get started. The final group of players to take a look at are the outfielders. The Yankee outfield in 2013 will look, and probably play, much different than the one that started last season. Nick Swisher is gone, replaced by the re-signed Ichiro in right field, and Brett Gardner returns to left (or possibly center) after missing pretty much all of last season. The backup OF spots are not as clearly defined as they were last spring, and one of the main roster battles in camp will be for that coveted 4th outfield bench spot. Let's meet our contestants.
Brett Gardner- BG will be back on the field somewhere to start 2013, whether that's the left or center part of the outfield remains to be seen. The Yankee decision makers are still discussing the option of moving Gardner to center, where his defensive skills are best suited, but even in left he will be a big help to some of the more flyball-heavy pitchers. His count working skills and speed will also be a welcome addition to a lineup that missed those things last year when he went down, regardless of where he hits in the lineup.
Curtis Granderson- C-Grand isn't getting nearly the ink about him being in a contract year this year as Robbie Cano is, and maybe that's because there's already the assumption that the Yanks will let him walk, but Granderson is still the biggest power threat in the lineup and a 40-HR guy playing for a new contract is a great thing to have in the middle of a batting order. Curtis has expressed his desire to return to New York, but I doubt we'll hear about any new contract talks during the season.
Ichiro Suzuki- Pre-trade Ichiro and 2011 Ichiro were players barely worthy of playing every day. Post-trade Ichiro was one of the most consistent players in the Yankee lineup after they acquired him last season, and a repeat of that performance would be incredibly valuable to a team that needs to make up for lost production. Even if he doesn't hit that well, Ichiro has value on the basepaths and on defense, and I believe Hughes and Nova will benefit from having him and Gardner in the outfield corners.
Matt Diaz- He hasn't been fully healthy or productive since 2009, but the Yankees see something in him. Diaz was the first cheap bench option New York signed in the offseason, and when he is healthy he is a very capable right-handed bat. I'm willing to bet the Yanks give him a lot of reps in the spring to see how good his thumb is feeling and if he is going to be able to hold up, even in part-time duty. If he doesn't win a roster spot, Diaz can bail and go look for a Major League job elsewhere.
Juan Rivera- The long ago former Yankee makes his return to the Bronx as the other non-roster veteran outfielder competing for the 4th spot. His career tripleslash is very similar to that of Diaz, but Rivera offers more power, better outfield defense, and a better recent track record with injuries. Like Diaz, he has an opt-out clause in his MiL deal if he doesn't win a roster spot, but I would give Rivera a slight advantage over Diaz for the spot heading into camp.
Melky Mesa- I'm higher on Mesa as a 4th OF option than either of the 2 vets just because he offers more roster flexibility. Mesa can play all 3 outfield spots if needed, could be used as a pinch runner or pinch hitter for the Yankee catchers late in games if they need a run, and the biggest part of his game at the plate is power, which is what Joe will want as a possible righty platoon partner for Gardner or Ichiro. If there's one internal MiL guy who should get a long look for the bench spot, it's Mesa.
The Rest- Ronnier Mustelier and Thomas Neal have the best chances to steal a roster spot, and should be in the rotation in Triple-A at worst if they don't. Zoilo Almonte and Adonis Garcia are longer shots, and are fighting more to secure an everyday role in Double or Triple-A. Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin are the future, and the Yankee coaching staff will be paying close attention to them in camp as they could conceivably get called up in September. And don't sleep on Ramon Flores. Never sleep on Ramon Flores.