Behind starters Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner, and Ichiro Suzuki, it was known heading into spring training that there was very little depth in the New York Yankees outfield. Now, less than one week into Grapefruit League games, the Yankees have already lost Granderson to a broken arm. A three-time all star who has slugged 84 home runs over the past two years for the Bronx Bombers, Granderson’s loss will certainly be felt until he is ready to return in May.
With no proven options in the organization to fill in for Granderson, Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman have to figure out where to go next. Both parties can look at the track records of veteran non-roster invitees Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz and realize that while both may be solid options to spell Brett Gardner or Ichiro Suzuki on occasion, neither is suited for starting on a regular basis, even if it is only for the first six weeks or so of the regular season. It remains likely that one of these two will break camp with the Yankees, but it is difficult to believe that either could win a starting role should a younger option show the potential to succeed.
This leaves several younger options for the Yankees to explore. One prime candidate among minor league options would be 23-year-old outfielder Zoilo Almonte. The switch-hitting outfielder has never played above the Double-A level, but did have an impressive season there in 2012. With the Trenton Thunder, Almonte produced a .277/.322/.487 line, and finished third in the Eastern League with 21 home runs. Almonte, who has primarily served as a corner outfielder throughout his minor league career, also has some experience playing center field. During the spring training opener against Atlanta, Almonte opened the coaching staff’s eyes, displaying a strong arm on an outfield assist and impressive power with an opposite field home run. Additionally, Almonte currently holds a spot on the team’s 40-man roster and has been graded as a “future everyday right fielder” by Brian Cashman’s scouting team.
The other option on the Yankees’ 40-man roster is Melky Mesa. Unlike Almonte, Mesa has spent the majority of his minor league career in center field. Mesa finally made it to Triple-A during the second half of last season, and would make his major league debut as a September call-up in 2012. Defensively, Mesa is ready to handle the major leagues, especially if he were to play in center field while leaving Brett Gardner in left field. Offensively, the 26-year-old possesses an intriguing power/speed combination that could play well in a Yankees lineup that will be clearly lacking power early in the season. However, Mesa has struggled to make consistent contact in the past, and the highest batting average he has mustered at any level was the .277 mark generated in 88 games with the Trenton Thunder last season.
While Almonte and Mesa stand a legitimate chance of making the Yankees out of spring training, the best odds to open the year in left field may lie with one player who does not have a spot on the 40-man roster. After making his minor league debut in 2011, Cuban defector Ronnier Mustelier raced through the New York Yankees farm system to become a force in the International League. In 114 games between AA and AAA last year, the 28-year-old produced a .314/.371/.488 line while hitting 15 home runs and 69 RBI. Despite being undersized at just 5-foot-10, Mustelier might have the best overall bat of the Yankees’ non-roster invitees. Though he is far from a great defender, Mustelier brings versatility with his glove, having shown an ability to play third base in addition to the corner outfield spots.
For Almonte, Mesa, and Mustelier, being an unproven option may turn out to be a good thing. While Joe Girardi may have preferred a veteran to serve as his team’s reserve outfielder, he now has two holes to fill, and it remains likely that a younger player will burst out in camp (or, in Mesa’s case, the World Baseball Classic) and show enough to earn a spot on the major league roster. The rare opportunity for a youngster to break into the New York Yankees line-up on a full-time basis is out there for these three Yankees prospects. Now, it is time for one of the three to step up and flash their skills to make people realize their potential.
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