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(Originally published at IIATMS/TYA)
As it does with the starting infield, the 2014 season marks a transitional period for the Yankee outfield. Even more than the infield, the outfield transition has been a major one and, unlike the infield, one that actually started last season. After 3 years of primarily Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher patrolling left, center, and right, the Yankees made the decision last offseason to let Swisher walk and hitched their cart to Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro had impressed the front office with his .322/.340/.454 slash line after being acquired in 2012 and he was rewarded with a 2-year/$13 million deal.
The Yanks found out what many of us feared and predicted after the signing, that Ichiro was essentially cooked as an everyday player, and their outfield production suffered as a result. When C-Grand went down and joined the likes of Jeter and Teix on the DL for the bulk of the season, the situation became even more dire and the attempts to patch up the outfield with Vernon Wells were comical at best. The Yankees followed the Swish path with Curtis this past offseason, making him a qualifying offer with no follow-up long-term proposal. This time when he left though, Cash made sure to replace him with a player who could actually play and then added another to replace Ichiro, essentially rebuilding the starting outfield on the fly.
The one holdover who remains from 2013 is Gardner. He was the one constant source of production from last year's outfield, finally making the transition to center field and to the top of the batting order. His production was good not great (.335 wOBA, 6 DRS, 3.2 fWAR), and now in his walk year he'll be moved back to left field. While he no longer has to prove his worth as an everyday player, last season was probably a sign that Gardner will never be a true upper-echelon outfielder. He doesn't hit for enough average or get on base enough to be an optimal leadoff hitter, and his defensive value is somewhat limited when he has to cover more ground in center field. I expect we'll see him hitting in multiple spots at the top and bottom of the order this season depending on who else is in the lineup, and I'd count on a big increase in stolen bases from last year's count of 24 as he tries to impress potential FA suitors.
From an elite defensive outfielder in the left field corner to a once great, now awful one in right. Carlos Beltran finally became a Yankee this offseason almost 10 years after not donning the pinstripes during his first attempt. Once one of the premiere all-around outfielders in the game, Beltran is a bat-only player now at age 36. While his offensive production remains above-average, his speed across the board (foot and bat) is in serious decline and there is a chance that he'll fall off that cliff this season. If he doesn't, look for him to tear up the short porch in right and balance the heart of the batting order with his switch-hitting. If his defense proves to be too bad to play him in right every day, Alfonso Soriano will be the next in line for the job. He won't be as insanely productive as he was after being acquired at last season's trade deadline, but he's a better outfielder than Beltran at this point and he has the right-handed pop this lineup desperately needs.
Now to center field, where we welcome the most surprising of all this offseason's signings. Yankee fans are very familiar with Jacoby Ellsbury's work, watching him for the last 6+ years as a member of the Boston Red Sox. I don't think many expected to ever see him in a Yankee uniform but that's exactly what's going to happen as a result of the 7-year/$153 million contract the Steinbrenners bestowed on him. That deal was in direct response to the loss of Robinson Cano, and it came after the Yanks were turned down by Shin-Soo Choo, so it's not like Ellsbury was their first choice. Still, in him the Yanks have one of the best center fielders in all of baseball, a textbook leadoff hitter, and someone who could see a spike in his power output thanks to the short porch. When he's healthy, Ellsbury is one of the top players in terms of WAR in MLB. He may not be worth $21.8 mil per year, but he's a helluva lot better than Ichiro or Wells.
This new outfield group may have more collective tools than any starting Yankee outfield in a while. They're very well-balanced, if not a little bit lacking in power, and barring injury problems they should be a very productive unit in 2014. The combination of Gardner and Ellsbury covering most of the outfield will dampen the blow caused by Beltran and Soriano's weaknesses in right, as will Beltran's still pretty good arm. Offensively, the sum of their parts adds up to address multiple lineup needs. Ellsbury gives the Yanks a prototypical leadoff hitter, Beltran a solid run-producing bat to drive him in, Soriano some middle-of-the-order thump, and Gardner the flexibility to create that "2 leadoff hitters" cyclical lineup that Joe loves.
This group is light years better than the outfield that started most of the 2013 season and also better than what that outfield could have been with a healthy C-Grand. It took a questionable decision in letting Swish walk and another one in signing Ichiro to get here, but it appears as though the outfield is back to being a strength for the Yankees. If everyone stays healthy and produces at, above, or near their recent levels, that will go a long way in helping get the Bombers back to the postseason.