Tuesday, March 25, 2014

AB4AR 2014 Season Preview: The Outfield

(Courtesy of the AP)

The Yankee outfield never came close to reaching its full potential last season due mainly to the injuries suffered by Curtis Granderson.  That being the case, even a healthy Granderson wouldn't have been enough to make the outfield truly a strength.  The projected starting outfield had become very rigid in its individual skill sets.  C-Grand hit for power and got on base but didn't hit for average and had no defensive value.  Gardner got on base and was a plus-plus defender but hit for very little power.  Ichiro was a plus defender with good speed but didn't get on base or hit for enough average or power to make the most out of it.

2 of those 3 starters from last year will no longer be a part of the starting picture in 2014.  As part of the offseason makeover, the Yankees added more well-rounded players to center and right field and shifted the newly-extended Gardner back to left field, where he's had the most success in the past.  There are still some things that need to be ironed out with respect to this new outfield alignment, but collectively they should be much better and much more balanced in their overall offensive and defensive makeup than they were last season.

The elder statesman of the new-look outfield, in terms of tenure, is Brett Gardner.  No longer expected to be the second best offensive player on a gutted lineup card, Gardner is moving back to his familiar surroundings of the spacious left field in Yankee Stadium and a spot at or near the bottom of the batting order.  Gardner has proven himself to be incredibly valuable since becoming an everyday player and what he was able to do last year should give Joe a ton of confidence that he can play or bat Gardner wherever he's most needed.  There will be days that we'll see him in one of the top 2 spots of the lineup and there will be days when he's batting 9th.  The biggest thing for Gardner this year will be getting back to being a menace on the basepaths. There's no reason he can't steal 40+ bases this season and a return to that form will create more scoring opportunities no matter where he is in the lineup.

The man responsible for Gardner's role shiftiness is former Red Sox enemy and biggest money position player offseason signing Jacoby Ellsbury.  Clearly committing to defense and speed over patience and power, the Yankees gave Ellsbury 7 years and $153 million to replace C-Grand as the starting center fielder and they're hoping for he and Gardner to team up become a speedier version of the Bash Brothers (Dash Brothers?).  While Ellsbury won't touch C-Grand's power output, he will give the Yanks a prototypical leadoff hitter at the top of the order.  He hits for plenty of average, steals a ton of bases, and scores a lot of runs, and he's done that consistently despite a pedestrian 6.9% career BB rate.  With any luck, being a part of the Yankee system will boost that number and hitting to the short porch in right will boost his HR total back into double digits.  There's always going to be some injury risk associated with Ellsbury, and his calf problem is worth monitoring, but if he stays healthy and plays 140-150 games this season, a 6-7 WAR year is definitely in play.

Pumping the brakes on the speed and defense parade, things start to look more traditionally Yankee-ish in right field.  I guess the third time really is the charm because the Yanks finally signed Carlos Beltran to play for them this offseason in response to losing Robbie Cano.  Beltran isn't what he was in the field, and to a much lesser degree at the plate, at age 37 and the front office knew that when they went back on their original cut-off point and gave him a 3rd year.  What he is, however, is still a very good all-around hitter, and like Ellsbury he should see an uptick in production thanks to the short porch in right field.  Last year he experienced a sizable shift in his platoon splits, with the left side becoming the more powerful and productive side.  If that trend holds in 2014, he may have enough pop left to reach the 30-HR plateau.

Pairing Beltran with fellow late-30s outfielder Alfonso Soriano could give the Yankees the best right field production they've had in a while.  Soriano absolutely MASHED after being acquired at the deadline last year, and while the Yankees don't need him to maintain that pace this season, they are counting on him to be the right-handed power bat their lineup needs.  To start the season, Joe has said that Beltran will be the primary right fielder and Soriano will be the primary DH.  Rest, L/R matchups, and DH commitments to other players will all combine to give Soriano some time in right though, and he could eventually see more time out there if he ends up being the more durable and better defensive option.

However the playing time rotation works out in right, the Yankees are covered 2-deep at every outfield position this year.  It should be no problem to give any of these guys a day off when they need it and the team should see no major drop off in day-to-day production when one guy sits.  They've got players who can hit for average (Ellsbury and Beltran), players who can hit for power (Soriano and Beltran), players who can draw walks (Gardner and kinda Beltran), players with great speed (Gardner and Ellsbury) and players who are upper echelon defensive outfielders (Gardner and Ellsbury).  The infield is a major area of concern and probably will be for the majority of the 162 games.  The outfield is being counted on to carry them and be the driving force of the lineup.

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