Tuesday, March 18, 2014

2014 Season Preview: What We Know And What We Don't Know (The Outfield)

(Pretend the dude in the middle is Gardner.  Courtesy of the AP)

While the starting infield looks a lot different than it did at this time last year, I don't think I'd label the changes as a "makeover".  It's an impossible argument to make that this year's projected starting infield is better than last year's and I won't waste my time or yours trying to make it.  Moving to the outfield, however, that makeover label starts to fit a lot better.  This year's projected starting group, which includes 2 of the Yankees' premiere FA signings, looks much better and more well-balanced on paper than last year's.  There's above-average defense, better batting average and all-around on-base skills, fewer strikeouts, and enough pop in the bats to keep opposing pitchers honest.  After the jump, the knowns and unknowns for this remade starting outfield.

What We Know- There Will Be Plenty Of Speed

Which is not to say there wasn't speed in the outfield before.  But Curtis Granderson's transformation into a power hitter and his shaky reading and route taking skills in the outfield limited the positive effects of his speed the last few years, and Brett Gardner wasn't exactly running wild atop the batting order last season.  With Gardner shifting back to left and Jacoby Ellsbury sliding into center, the Yanks now have 2 of the premiere speed guys in baseball manning most of their spacious outfield and potentially the top of the batting order.  And while they aren't as spry as they used to be, Soriano and Beltran can still move enough to get the job done in right.  Gardner and Ellsbury are speed guys who use their speed as their greatest tool to generate value, something the Yankees haven't had regularly from multiple sources in a while.

What We Don't Know- Where It Will Pay Off More

The beauty of the speed tool is that it can help on offense and defense, and what remains to be seen is where Ellsbury and Gardner's speed will be a greater asset.  In a flyball park with flyball pitchers on the mound, their defensive range could prove to be more valuable in terms of preventing runs.  On the basepaths, more green lights to run and more successful steal attempts should generate more runs scored.  It will probably come down to Joe's strategy and how much he wants to let his guys run.  There's no reason why Ellsbury and Gardner can't each steal 40-45+ bases this season, but if Joe wants to let guys behind them swing away when they're on base, there might not be ample opportunities.  In a perfect world, they'd both be at that SB level and they'd both be in contention for Gold Glove and Fielding Bible Awards defensively.

What We Know- It's Still Lefty-Heavy

Even with C-Grand gone, the team's preference for left-handed hitters in the outfield hasn't wavered.  Both Ellsbury and Gardner are strict lefty hitters, and they give Joe a ton of options of how best to utilize their handedness and speed at the top and bottom of the batting order.  Carlos Beltran is a switch hitter, and over the course of his career he's been almost equally productive from both sides of the plate.  But in 2013 his platoon split shifted significantly towards the left-handed side (.377 wOBA from the left side vs. .315 from the right), and his greater power output came from the left side of the plate (17 HR vs. 7).  Make no mistake, the strength of this outfield is still its core of left-handed hitters.

What We Don't Know- How Those Lefty-Hitting Power Numbers Will Look

For all that Ellsbury's speed and defensive value brings to the table, he doesn't offer nearly the power potential that Granderson did.  His 32 HR from 2011 looks like a huge outlier given his average production in every other season, and even swinging for the fences more last year, Gardner only generated 8 HR and a .143 ISO.  Beltran's lefty-heavy platoon split in 2013 suggests he could be in for a power boost towards the short porch in right, but traditionally he's been more powerful from the right side of the plate.  How much will those shorter RF dimensions actually help his and Ellsbury's power output?  Will that be enough to make up for the loss of C-Grand's power and the potential decrease in Mark Teixeira's power production?

What We Know- The Yanks Could Have A Dynamite Right Field Platoon On Their Hands

I didn't talk about this at length in last week's "Platoon City" storyline post, but the Carlos Beltran-Alfonso Soriano tandem in right field could be killer.  Beltran hits for plus average, plus power, and still has enough of an outfield arm to make runners think twice rounding first base.  Soriano hits for plus power, plus-plus power when he's locked in, and is still athletic enough to cover ground in right and be an above-average defensive outfielder.  The only weakness to this duo is that neither draws a lot of walks, but 50-60 HR combined will make up for that.  They allow Joe to play to the favorable L/R matchup no matter who's on the mound for the opposing team, and the presence of each allows Joe to give both guys rest and DH at-bats when needed to keep their late-30s bodies fresh over the 162-game haul.

What We Don't Know- Who Will End Up Playing More Right Field

That freshness could come into play early in the season if Beltran's foot issue proves to be more than he's letting on right now.  And even if it doesn't, at some point Joe will have to make a decision on who gets more right field reps and that decision is likely to be influenced by the health of each player.  Soriano has been the more durable player over his career.  He's never played less than 109 games in a season since becoming an everyday player.  He's also the better defensive outfielder according to advanced metrics, but who knows?  Maybe playing in the smaller right field of YS3 helps turn Beltran's declining numbers around.  He had a positive UZR/150 and was worth +7 defensive runs saved in 2012.  Not a big deal either way, just something for Joe to pay attention to early if he's planning on setting up a regular RF rotation at some point.

** Coming up tomorrow- The Rotation. **

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