To sign or not to sign? (Image: Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE)

New York Yankees Upcoming Outfield Opening(s) (Part One)

If you’ve followed the New York Yankees at all then you know that in the near future – maybe this season, in fact – the team needs to figure how to fill some of the positions in the outfield. As of right now, right fielder Nick Swisher‘s contract is expiring at the end of this season. Meanwhile, center fielder Curtis Granderson has a $13M club option ($2M buyout) for 2013. So what do the Yankees do?

The franchise occasionally molds a player in the minors to someday take over at the major league level. However, more often than not they have just let other teams do the legwork and then the Yankees swoop them up in free agency. That’s changed in recent years after George Steinbrenner passed the torch to his son, Hal, who has instituted a $189M soft cap for the 2014 season and beyond. Meanwhile, general manager Brian Cashman has put more of an onus on developing talent not to use as trade bait, but to assume vacant positions left by those lost in free agency and retirement.

The main reason for this issue, Nick Swisher‘s contract, is up at the end of this year and the fanbase is divided on how the Yankee brass should handle it. I will attempt to tackle this in a two-part series with the first post detailing who the Yankees will at least look at this offseason (other than Swisher). The second post will examine prospects in the minors who could take a run at the potentially vacant right field spot in 2013 and whether the Yankees should just sign Swisher outright. I’m not shy about moving players around, I assume (never a good thing) that if the right player came along, Granderson could move to right field. It might not be ideal, but it could make the most sense given his production at the plate compared to his numbers with the glove. At any rate, let’s begin.

Test Free Agency

Ahhh, in the good ol’ days of George Steinbrenner (RIP), this was the answer for everything. If you watched Swisher in the past, you know he’s a streaky player. He’s age 31 and will be 32 by next season, so time is not on his side. The 90′s and early 00′s didn’t tell us this, but you don’t get better as a player when you past your prime (age 28-32), your talents decline. However, the tricky part for teams is that they pay for a player’s prime years, and if they excel, well, they’re stuck either giving him a raise for declining numbers or watching him walk and let some other team overpay for his twilight, albeit mildly productive years.

There are a few players out there set to become free agents after the 2012 season. Let’s quickly run down each one and see if they make sense for the Yankees. Before thinking I’m a complete idiot, this is all speculation! (Not in any order):

Michael Bourn
The Yankees just swept the Atlanta Braves last week, but the top of the order featured Bourn who went 4-14 with one stolen base.

Pros:
On the year he’s hitting very well (.319/.368/.459), which is well above his career marks (.276/.339/.369) by quite a bit. He’s a speedy guy (averages 52 stolen bases per year) and he’s a four-time Gold Glove winner. The Yankees could possibly sign him, move Granderson over to RF and have an all-speed outfield. Bourn could take over leadoff duties if /when Derek Jeter retires after his contract expires after 2013. With this setup, the Yankees could potentially lead the league in stolen bases with both Bourn and Brett Gardner in the lineup.

Cons:
He’s turning age 30 before next season, which is smack dab in the middle of a player’s prime years, but legs have a funny way of slowing down as time passes and that’s the enticing factor concerning Bourn: Speed. Meanwhile, the Yanks will likely need to overpay for his service given he has hit so well this season and Scott Boras is his agent. Lastly, he’s not exactly known for having the best arm in the league for center fielders (-0.4 ARM in 2011, which was middle of the road with the best being Adam Jones at 5.4), so having three outfielders with below average-to-average arms may not be good.

Melky Cabrera
The Milkman has bounced around since his days with the Yankees. However, in the past two seasons, he has started to put things together at the plate.

Pros:
He went from a .269/.331/.385 career hitter in five years with the Yankees, to a .282/.336/.409 hitter overall. That includes the killer season he’s having with the San Francisco Giants this year (.363/.402/.534). Cabrera is a switch hitter who hits better from the right side. He would most likely be slotted in right field to take advantage of his arm, but it’s not something to write home about.

Cons:
While his defensive skill set suits him best in right field, he can play each outfield position. However, with a -9.7 UZR/150, -3.0 ARM, and -6.3 RngR (all of which are near the bottom of the league for center fielders) he’s best suited in one of the corner spots. Speaking of right field, it’s predominately a power-hitting position and since Cabrera makes the defense worse, if he plays centerfield and moving Granderson to right, and he’s not a middle-of-the-lineup guy, he might not be a good fit.

Carlos Quentin
Quentin can destroy baseballs with his power. He’s been doing it since his White Sox days, but he could never really seem to stay healthy for an entire season.

Pros:
Power. Quentin owns an ISO of ~.250, which means he’s cream of the crop in terms of raw power. His .366 wOBA indicates he’s an above average hitter who gets on base at a good clip. If we directly compare him to Swisher, Quentin has more power and strikes out less, but walks and gets on base fewer times.

Cons:
He’s right handed. That could be a problem considering Yankee Stadium is set up for left-handed hitters. Plus, he’s injury-prone and a player who can’t stay healthy only puts the team in more of a rut. Finally, he’s an awful fielder who garners negative ratings in all major fielding categories.

Angel Pagan
Another San Francisco Giant outfielder will be hitting free agency next year. Pagan, former New York Met and Chicago Cub, is surprisingly similar to his Giant teammate, Melky Cabrera.

Pros:
If you ever watched Pagan play, he’s a top-of-the-lineup guy who gets on base and tries to snag a bag. He’s a career .283/.334/.423 switch hitter who hits better from the left side. He doesn’t strikeout a ton as evidence by his 14.7% career strikeout rate. In short, he’s an average hitter who can swipe a bag.

Cons:
Not a patient batter at all (7.3 BB%), which doesn’t fit the prototypical mold for a Yankee hitter. He was dead last in center field defense with a -16.7 UZR/150 rating, which wouldn’t bode well in moving Granderson to right field. Also, he turns age 31 by the start of 2013, so his skill set (average offense with above average speed) is set to decline pretty quickly.

Honorable Mentions:

Here are a few other players that are set to become free agents at the end of the 2012 season. They are slated as honorable mentions because, well, the Yankees will either completely pass on them, they are too old, or there’s no way they are coming to the Bronx. (Age at the start of 2013 season)

Ichiro Suzuki (39)- He’ll never leave the Mariners, if he does it’ll be because he’s retiring.

Shane Victorino (32)- His age means his skill set will quickly diminish, not to mention he’s an older Brett Gardner, which is redundant for the Yankees.

B.J. Upton (28)- Incredibly streaky, strikes out a ton, rarely walks, good speed, decent with the leather. Will likely price out of the Yankees plan.

Come back tomorrow for the second half of this piece where we examine if the New York Yankees have anyone on the farm ready for full time MLB duties and whether they should just go ahead and re-sign Swisher and forgo the free agent market altogether.

Thanks to Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference for the statistics. A special thanks to Chris Carelli, who also contributed to this report.

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Tags: Angel Pagan BJ Upton Brett Gardner Carlos Quentin Curtis Granderson Ichiro Melky Cabrera Michael Bourn New York Yankees Nick Swisher Shane Victorino Yankees

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