Ichiro Final Piece To Yankees’ Explosive Outfield

The New York Yankees have reached the end of the regular season as champions of the American League East and they have the best record in the league. It was not easy but they are now ready for the playoffs. It is time to look at the players that got them there and give them grades for the season.

RIGHT-FIELD – NICK SWISHER  (24 HRs, 93 RBIs, .272 BA)

CENTER-FIELD – CURTIS GRANDERSON (43 HRs, 106 RBIs, .232 BA)

LEFT-FIELD – ICHIRO SUZUKI (9 HRs, 55 RBIs, .283 BA, 77 Runs, 29 SB)

Sometimes the outfield you leave spring training with is not the one you end up with. That us true for the Yankees this season.

Left-fielder Brett Gardner,29, played in only nine games before a diving catch in left resulted in a right elbow injury that eventually required surgery and wiped out pretty much his entire season. With his loss the Yankees also lost his 40-plus stolen bases and his Gold Glove-quality defense.

So the Yankees improvised and used 40-year-old Raul Ibanez and 35-year-old Andruw Jones to fill the hole Gardner left. Since Ibanez and Jones were expected to be the team’s platoon designated hitters, it allowed manager Joe Girardi to use veterans like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on more occasions at DH.

It worked pretty well.

Though the Yankees lacked speed on the bases and lost some defense in left, Ibanez and Jones combined to hit 18 home runs and drive in 51 runs in the team’s first 81 games. But because of their advanced age and because the Yankees kept hoping Gardner would return, the Ibanez-Jones platoon in left was expected to be only temporary.

When Gardner was unable to return after a second rehab stint, the Yankees decided they had to make a move and they obtained All-Star and multiple Gold Glove-winning outfielder Ichiro Suzuki from the Seattle Mariners in a trade completed on July 23.

Suzuki, 38, immediately brought all the elements to the Yankees that Gardner was expected to provide. Suzuki agreed to come to the Yankees to play left-field, hit eighth in the lineup and to sit against some left-handed pitching.

Suzuki had been a shell of his former self in Seattle. He hit a career low .272 in 2011 and he was hitting just .261 with four home runs and 28 RBIs with the Mariners when he was obtained. General manager Brian Cashman hoped a change in scenery and an opportunity to play for a contender would re-energize Suzuki.

It did, too.

Suzuki immediately meshed in the clubhouse and, as he got more comfortable in pinstripes, his bat heated up and he took off.

Suzuki hit .297 in August and an amazing .385 in September. He also was so instrumental in the Yankees’ late-season push to the American League East title that Girardi moved him to the No. 2 spot in the order and kept him in the lineup against left-handers.

With Derek Jeter batting leadoff, the Yankees have the two best singles hitters of their generation in one lineup. Between the two of them, they have 5,910 major-league hits and a career batting average of .317.

They may have seen their better days on the bases but both are capable to stealing a bag when it is necessary.

Since becoming a Yankee, Suzuki has hit five home runs, drove in 27 runs and batted .317 with 14 stolen bases. With a chance to win his first championship since coming from Japan in 2001, Suzuki is playing as if he wants it real bad.

This deal by Cashman was a real gem and it could pay off big this postseason.

Meanwhile, in right, just call Nick Swisher “Mr. Consistency.”

In his four seasons with the Yankees, Swisher, 31, has hit between 23 and 29 homers and driven in between 82 and 93 runs each season. In the first half of this season, Swisher hit 12 home runs and drove in 46 runs. In the final 81 games, Swisher hit 12 home runs and drove in 47 runs.

How about that for numbers you can count upon?

That has been a Swisher hallmark throughout his career and the Yankees needed him to deliver this season in the absence of Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira for big stretches of the second half. Swisher even hit .273, which is his second highest average in the majors since he hit .288 for the Yankees in 2010.

Swisher also was forced to move from right-field to play first base when Teixeira was injured and he played above-average defense there.

This was an important time for Swisher because he is in the final year of his contract and he can become a free agent at the end of the season.

With the Yankees committed to reducing payroll by the start of the 2014 season and with Robinson Cano looking for lucrative multi-year deal to stay in pinstripes, there is a good possibility Swisher may be playing his last season for the Yankees.

That would be a shame because Swisher’s ability to provide power, production, work pitch counts, play solid defense and his enthusiasm for the game are valuable assets to the team. He would be very hard to replace.

The same goes for Curtis Granderson in center-field.

Granderson followed up a career year in 2011 with 41 home runs, 119 RBIs and a league-leading 136 runs scored with another powerful season in 2012. He hit 43 home runs, drove in 106 runs and scored 102 runs.

Of course, with Granderson you have to take the bad with the good. Granderson hit a respectable .262 in 2011, which is exactly what his career average is. But this season, Granderson hit a career-low .232 and he struck out a career-high 195 times.

Pitchers gave him a steady diet of breaking balls in the dirt and fastballs away and Granderson seemed reluctant to go to the opposite field, particularly with the short porch in right-field of Yankee Stadium a tempting target.

So when Granderson slumps, he can go into long periods where he can’t buy a hit. After a first half in which hit 23 home runs, drove in 48 runs and hit .241, his average dropped nine points while he hit 20 home runs and drove in a much better 58 runs.

Again, with Granderson you take the bad with the good and give Granderson credit because he did lead the team in home runs and RBIs. His contract expires after the 2013 season so the Yankees have to do some head-scratching to figure out how to please Cano, Swisher and Granderson without breaking the bank.

Though the plan when Suzuki was acquired to play Ibanez and Jones less in the outfield, injuries forced Girardi to use both a lot more in the second half than he would have liked.

When Swisher moved to first base to replace Teixeira, Ibanez and Jones were platooned in left-field while Suzuki played right.

Ibanez finished with some pretty good numbers.

He hit 19 home runs, drove in 62 runs and hit .240. He fell off a bit from his first-half numbers (11 homers, 35 RBIs and .237) but that was mostly because he played a bit less and also because he went into a terrible slump at the end of August that extended until he finally caught fire again in the final 11 games he played.

Jones, on the other hand, was a much different story in the second half.

After hitting seven home runs, driving in 16 runs and hitting .230 in the first half, Jones went AWOL pretty much for the entire second half.

He hit another seven home runs, drove in 18 runs but his average dipped an alarming 33 points and he finished at .197. Late in the season Girardi opted to use Eduardo Nunez at DH rather than start Jones against a left-hander.

As a result, Jones was given the word that he will not be on the postseason roster and his days in pinstripes are likely over.

MIDSEASON GRADES:

GARDNER – I

GRANDERSON – A-

SWISHER – B-

IBANEZ – B

JONES – C

SECOND-HALF GRADES:

GRANDERSON – B+

SWISHER – B+

SUZUKI – B+

IBANEZ – C

JONES – D

OVERALL GRADES:

GRANDERSON – B+

SWISHER – B+

SUZUKI – B+

IBANEZ – C+

JONES – D+

The Yankees also played Nunez, Jayson Nix, Dewayne Wise, Chris Dickerson and Melky Mesa in the outfield this season.

Nix and Nunez are primarily infielders, but Nix has played some outfield in the past and acquits himself well in left. The Nunez experiment in the outfield was declared over after some awful misplays early in the season proved he was not suited to play the outfield.

Wise, 34,was released at midseason when Suzuki arrived and he was later picked up by the Chicago White Sox. He got more playing time there and ended up hitting .259 with eight home runs and 30 RBIs and 19 stolen bases for the Yankees and Chisox combined.

Dickerson, 30, has spent the past two seasons with the Yankees, mostly at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Dickerson was recalled on Sept. 1 and hit .286 with two home runs and five RBis in 14 at-bats.

Mesa, 25, was also recalled on Sept. 1 when the rosters expanded and hit .500 in two at-bats in three games.

Dickerson hit .316 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs and he stole 17 bases in 69 games. Mesa hit .230 with nine home runs and 21 RBIs in just 33 games after being promoted from Double-A Trenton.

Colin Curtis, 27, struggled in his comeback season at Scranton after suffering a separated shoulder in spring training in 2011. He hit only .220 with one home run and 23 RBIs in 71 games.

Cole Garner, 27, hit .258 with six home runs and 25 RBIs in 64 games.

Neither Curtis or Garner figure much in the Yankees’ future plans.

However, the Yankees do have a boatload of good young outfield prospects below Triple A.

Mason Wiiliams, 21, is a five-tool center-fielder who hit a combined .298 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in 91 games with Class-A Charleston and High-A Tampa of the Florida State League. Williams is the Yankees No. 2 prospect behind catcher Gary Sanchez. A torn labrum in his right shoulder ended his season in August but the Yankees are high on his future.

Tyler Austin, 21, followed up a season in which he hit .345 in 2011 by hitting a combined .322 in 110 games as he advanced from Class-A Charleston to Double-A Trenton. He also hit a combined 17 home runs and drove in 80 runs this season. Austin was used at first and third base in previous seasons but played exclusively in right-field this season. Austin is ranked third right behind Williams.

Former 2009 No. 1 pick Slade Heathcott, 22, caught fire this season at High-A Tampa and hit .302 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 60 games. Heathcott is a lefty hitter who slashes at the plate and has very good speed. Heathcott is ranked fifth as a prospect for the Yankees.

In spring training this past March, Zoilo Almonte, 23, caught Girardi’s eye with his bat. Almonte hit .277 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs in 106 games at Trenton. Originally thought of as a potential fourth outfielder in the majors, if Almonte’s power continues to improve he could change that opinion. Almonte is ranked seventh.

When you think Ramon Flores, 20, think of a very raw Ichiro Suzuki. Flores hit a robust .302 with six homers, 39 RBis and 24 stolen bases in 131 games with High-A Tampa. Flores is the 10th-rated Yankee prospect but he is rising like a bullet.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: B+

With a postseason outfield of Granderson, Suzuki and Swisher you have an excellent mix of power (76 homers), production (254 RBIs), some speed (41 stolen bases) and some range and ability on defense, particularly with Suzuki in left.

You add outfield backups in Ibanez, Gardner and Nix and you have a pretty solid veteran bench, too.

Swisher and Granderson provide premium power and Suzuki is a perfect table setter with Jeter in the first two spots of the batting order.

Give Cashman credit for striking the perfect deal to replace Gardner in left with Suzuki and the Yankees enter the postseason with the most productive outfield of all the teams who made it to the playoffs. Offensively and defensively it is hard to match this trio.

It has been a strength of the Yankees for most of the season, particularly since Suzuki was added to the mix on July 24 to replace the defensively inferior tandem of Ibanez and Jones.

This may be an older group but in the playoffs experience counts for a lot.

 

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