Alfonso Soriano would help replace some of Granderson's lost power but the Yankees may not want to pay the cost of bringing their former All-Star back to the Bronx. (Reuters)
The exhibition season is only a few games old, but already, we have the first major injury. Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson was hit on the right forearm by Blue Jays starter J.A. Happ in the first inning of Sunday's game, suffering a fracture that will sideline him into early May, a period of roughly 10 weeks. The injury robs New York of a slugger who has ranked second in the American League in home runs in each of the past two years, with 41 in 2011 and 43 in 2012, and it exposes the team's lack of depth on a roster that already had a half-finished feel.
The Yankees led the majors with 245 home runs last year, 31 more than any other team, but over the winter, they let Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones — a quintet who combined for 94 of those blasts — depart as free agents. They also lost Alex Rodriguez, who hit 18 homers in an injury-plagued season, to hip surgery that will keep him out for at least the first half of the season. Prioritizing pitching and constrained by the team's sudden desire to cut costs, general manager Brian Cashman didn't address that power drain with much sense of urgency. He decided to rely upon light-hitting catchers Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli to pick up the slack left by Martin, brought in Kevin Youkilis to fill in for Rodriguez at third base, added Travis Hafner as a platoon DH, re-signed Ichiro Suzuki to a two-year deal with the plan of him taking over the lion's share of at-bats in rightfield, and planned for speedster Brett Gardner, who missed most of last season with an elbow injury, to return to regular duty to round out the outfield. For backups and platoon partners, he signed Matt Diaz and Juan Rivera, former lefty-mashers who have fallen on hard times at the major league level, to minor league deals; meanwhile, he turned down the more expensive and versatile Scott Hairston, who signed a two-year, $5 million deal with the Cubs — an amount that seems like pocket change on a $207 million payroll.
The incoming players combined for much less offense than their departed counterparts last year, magnifying the loss of Granderson, whose performance fell off by more than 100 points of OPS from the previous year (.262/.364/.552 in 2011, .232/.319/.492 in 2012) due to contact woes that led to a career-high 195 strikeouts. This ledger doesn't match up perfectly, but you can get a sense of what's gone and what remains:
Incl. Rodriguez& Granderson
Incl. 2011 Gardner& Cervelli
The five players who have departed combined to hit .243/.329/.448 with one home run every 22.5 plate appearances; throw in Rodriguez and Granderson and the group's line improves by a couple points in each category. The players most likely take over their spots combined to hit .254/.315/.389 with a homer for every 40.2 plate appearances, and even if you swap in the 2011 lines of Gardner and Cervelli to overcome their small 2012 samples, that line doesn't really improve; the net is a loss of about 60 points of slugging percentage and another 10 of on-base percentage, though that's without adjusting the performances of the incoming players for hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium.
Granderson has manned centerfield for most of his major league career, but the team planned to experiment with him in leftfield this spring, a position where he has played just 22 major league games, with Gardner returning to center, the position where he served as the Yankees' regular back in 2009. Driving that decision is a variety of defensive metrics suggesting that Grandeson's play in centerfield has declined in recent years, while Gardner's metrics have been off-the-charts spectacular while manning Yankee Stadium's larger-than-average leftfield.
The injury will deprive Granderson of the opportunity to familiarize himself with the new position in spring training, but because he's expected back relatively early in the season, Cashman is likely to spend the spring evaluating the team's internal options and waiting for someone to shake loose from somebody else's roster rather than taking a second swing at solving a problem he should have fixed already. He's not a GM who tends to panic when injuries hit, as his approach to filling the voids created by a whole handful of short-term losses has shown. The current shape of the roster at least makes finding a corner outfielder a bit easier than a centerfielder, but none of the team's internal options are all that compelling. Here's a quick rundown:
Matt Diaz: A productive platoon player for the Braves from 2006-2010 (.305/.353/.461 in an average of 303 plate appearances per year), Diaz hit just .222/.280/.333 in 118 PA for Atlanta last year, and didn't fare much better with Pittsburgh and Atlanta the year before. He's now 35 years old, and his .281/.328/.426 line against lefties over the past three seasons is beefed up by a strong 2010 showing that hasn't been repeated.
Juan Rivera: A Yankee from 2001-2003, the now-34-year-old Rivera has had his ups and downs with the Expos, Angels, Blue Jays and Dodgers since being traded away. Last year, he hit a meager .244/.286/.375 in 339 PA for the Dodgers, and since his last good season in 2009, he has hit .252/.308/.389 overall and .270/.329/.434 against lefties.
Melky Mesa: A 26-year-old righty, Mesa has climbed through the Yankees' system at a glacial pace since being signed as a 16-year-old back in 2003. He made his major league debut late last September — all of two plate appearances in three games, highlighted by a baserunning mistake — after hitting a combined .264/.325/.480 split between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Empire State, with 23 homers but a less appealing 118/35 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio in 502 PA. At the latter stop, he was particularly worse: 43/7 in 133 PA.
Given his age, Mesa isn't exactly a prospect; Baseball America's 2013 Prospect Handbook ranked him just 18th in the Yankees' system. He's a toolsy player with speed (22 steals last year) and a strong arm; his natural position is centerfield, and he has more rightfield experience (153 minor league games) than left (eight). He's shown a drastic reverse platoon split over the past two years, batting .216/.285/.357 in 249 PA against southpaws, compared to .271/.343/.465 in 695 PA against righties, but that might actually work in his favor as a fill-in, if not as a platoonmate for Suzuki, who has hit just .292/.319/.343 in 686 PA against lefties in that span.
Zoilo Almonte: Though he's just 23, Almonte is regarded as even less of a prospect by BA, which didn't rank him among the organization's top 30; nonetheless, Cashman has said, "We have future everyday rightfielder scouting grades on him." Almonte is a switch-hitter who spent last year at Trenton, hitting .277/.322/.487 with 21 homers in 451 PA; he missed four weeks early in the season due to hamstring woes. Like Mesa, he's a free swinger with an unappealing strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio (103/23), and he's stronger against righties (.286/.345/.497 in 640 PA over the last two years) than lefties (.268/.323/.440 in 279 PA). He has some speed (15 steals last year) and more experience in leftfield than Mesa (122 career games) but he has yet to play in Triple-A, let alone the majors.
Cashman has already ruled out Eduardo Nunez as a potential replacement for Granderson; manager Joe Girardi has used him in a pinch — a total of eight games — at both corner outfield spots over the past two years, but the organization wants him to focus on his defense at shortstop instead of bouncing him around the diamond. He already figures into the team's plans as a potential lefthanded complement to Hafner, with Derek Jeter DHing at least some of the time against southpaws.
Beyond those options, New York will have to look outside the organization. Former Yankees Johnny Damon (39 years old, .222/.281/.329 in 224 PA for the Indians last year) and Bobby Abreu (39 in March, .242/.350/.342 in 257 PA for Abreu with the Angels and Dodgers) may be unemployed, but neither figures to get a call given the combination of their offensive declines and inabilities to play competent defense. Scott Podsednik is a bit younger (37 in March) and better afield, coming off a .302/.322/.352 showing in 216 PA with Boston last year, but he has battled a slew of groin and foot problems over the past three years, bad news for an aging player for whom speed is a calling card.
The most obvious trade candidate is one I discussed in this space last week: former Yankee Alfonso Soriano. The 37-year-old Cub hit .262/.322/.499 with 32 homers last year, his best season since 2008 on both sides of the ball, and has hit .276/.346/.522 in 440 PA against southpaws over the past three years, which would make him a potential fit with Ichiro once Granderson returns, though he doesn't have any real experience in rightfield. Until that point, he could cover the more familiar leftfield while working on getting up to speed in right. A potentially major sticking point: The Yankees might have to pick up as much as $10 million of the $36 million remaining on Soriano's deal over the next two seasons while surrendering a prospect of note in order to acquire him.
A more interesting target would be Philadelphia's Domonic Brown, a toolsy 25-year-old lefty ranked by Baseball America as one of the game's top five prospects as recently as two years ago. He's now more suspect than prospect after hitting a combined .236/.315/.388 in 492 PA over the past three years, with a spring 2011 hamate fracture contributing to his power outage. The Phillies have resisted trading him while his value is down, but they've done plenty to depress that value even further by yo-yoing him between the minors and majors, and most recently subjecting him to the indignity of being surpassed on the depth chart by Delmon Young. Brown comes with defensive questions as well as offensive ones, and the Phils aren't going to give him away, particularly with Young still working his way back from offseason microfracture surgery.
A less inviting but less costly option is Brennan Boesch, a 27-year-old lefty who appears to be on the outside looking in for the Tigers after his performance collapsed from a solid .283/.341/.458 with 16 homers in 472 PA in 2011, to .240/.286/.372 with 12 homers in 503 PA last year. His defense was so bad that his WAR slid from 2.3 to −1.4 over that span. He's got a favorable split against lefties during his major league career (.286/.348/.420 in 336 PA, compared to .250/.305/.412 in 1,113 PA against righties), but that performance is propped up by a blazing 2010 showing that he hasn't come close to repeating; last year, he hit just .230/.292/.333 in 137 PA against southpaws.
Beyond those players, the Yankees are likely to get into the same kind of waiver wire merry-go-round that briefly brought them the likes of Russ Canzler and Steven Pearce, players who are out of options but unlikely to accept assignments to the minors given their ages, and less likely to get much of a shot even if New York did pick them up.