Following an offseason of relative inactivity, the Yankees reported to spring training with questions about their age and overall durability. CC Sabathia (elbow), Mariano Rivera (knee) and Derek Jeter (ankle) are all coming off surgery while new imports Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner have combined for nine DL trips in the last three seasons. Ichiro Suzuki is among baseball's most durable players, but he turned 39 in October.
Despite all those concerns, it was Curtis Granderson who suffered the first significant injury of New York's season. The team's center fielder was hit by an errant J.A. Happ pitch during his first Grapefruit League at-bat on Sunday afternoon, a pitch that fractured his right forearm and will sideline him for 10 weeks. That puts his expected return in early May.
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Granderson, 31, is the Yankees' top power hitter thanks to his back-to-back 40-homer seasons. His batting average (.232) and strikeouts (195) were an issue in 2012, but his overall production (116 OPS+ and 2.7 WAR) will be impossible to replace at this point. All the free agents have signed and teams are well aware New York now needs a starting outfielder. Trade prices, like the one for Alfonso Soriano of the Cubs, have suddenly gone up.
Luckily for the Yankees, the injury occurred early enough in spring training that Granderson will only miss about a month of the regular season. If he had suffered the fracture in his first at-bat on opening day, well that would be a much bigger problem. The Yankees need a 30-game replacement, not a 162-game replacement. Still a problem, but not a season crippling problem.
Following the injury, GM Brian Cashman said they will go internal for their outfield solution and will "have to adjust," according to Erik Boland of Newsday. Those internal solutions include veterans Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz, who are in camp on minor league contracts and competing for a job as a right-handed bat off the bench. Neither is much of an everyday player these days but both could wind up on the team by default.
The farm system doesn't offer a ton of immediate help either, at least in terms of impact talent. Outfielders Mason Williams, Tyler Austin and Slade Heathcott are all top 100 prospects in the eyes on Baseball America, but they have a combined eight plate appearances above Class A and can't be counted on to replace Granderson this year. I suppose they could wind up as trade bait, but Cashman his never been one to panic and rush into a move. His bosses, however ...
Anyway, 26-year-old Melky Mesa is likely first in line among farm system options. He made his MLB debut last September after hitting .264 with 23 home runs and 22 steals in 121 games split between Double-A and Triple-A, though he will spend most of March playing with the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Cuban defector Ronnier Mustelier, 28, has done nothing but hit since signing with the team in 2011, producing a .324/.378/.497 line in 150 minor league games. He isn't much of a defender, however. Fellow Cuban defector Adonis Garcia drew rave reviews in winter ball but only played 57 minor-league games after signing last summer. Cashman & Co. have options, just not very appealing ones.
Regardless of how the Yankees plug their outfield hole, that player(s) will be a downgrade from Granderson. The club lost its best power hitter on top of letting Nick Swisher (24 HR), Russell Martin (21 HR), Raul Ibanez (19 HR) and Eric Chavez (16 HR) walk as free agents this winter, meaning manager Joe Girardi will have to switch gears and rely on some small ball. Players like Ichiro, Jeter and Brett Gardner are certainly capable of playing an NL-style of baseball, but it has been a very long time since a club bunted and hit-and-run its way to the top of the ultra-competitive AL East.
The short-term impact of Granderson's injury is significant for the Yankees because their offense already took a big enough hit in the offseason. They're going to have to rely on their veteran pitching staff to win some close games in April and hope their center fielder (left fielder?) misses no more than the 10 weeks. The health of Youkilis and Hafner has become that much more important, ditto Ichiro proving his September hot streak was a career revival and not a fluke. It's only a month of the regular season, but Robinson Cano is the only position player on New York's roster that is more irreplaceable.
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