The double whammy of Alex Rodriguez dropping his lawsuits and Masahiro Tanaka being introduced to the press all but a put a bow on the 2013-2014 offseason. In a few short days it'll be back to baseball. The focus will shift back to the diamond and the gaggle of new players that will be gracing it in Yankee pinstripes this season. The outfield is arguably the most revamped part of the roster, with Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran taking over for Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells, Brett Gardner shifting back to left field, and a full season of Alfonso Soriano to look forward to.
The regular 4-man outfield rotation is set, which could leave very little playing time for Ichiro as the 5th outfielder and even less for Zoilo Almonte as the emergency 6th. With this boost in outfield depth, it may seem like the Yankees have reason to pump the brakes on developing their group of top outfield prospects. Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott are both coming off underwhelming seasons and are blocked in center by Ellsbury, and Tyler Austin is focused on getting and staying healthy and getting back on track offensively after starting his pro career mashing. I don't say it that way though. If it were me calling the shots on the farm, I'd say this is the perfect time to keep pushing these guys, maybe even more aggressively than before.
For all the depth the Yankees built up in their outfield this offseason, it's not long-term depth. Soriano and Ichiro are on the last years of their current deals and it's a very good bet that neither will be re-signed after this season. Gardner is in his final arbitration year and would be wise to test the free agent market if he has another 3-4+ WAR season. Beltran is close to cooked as a regular right fielder as it is and could start his transition to a more full-time DH role as early as this season. When the final out is recorded and the next offseason begins, it could just be Ellsbury left out there.
This is why the Yankees can't afford to dial it back with their top prospects. The need for their contributions is still very real and the opportunity to make it to the Majors and win a starting job is not that far away. The overcrowding in the outfield isn't quite as severe at the top levels of the system as it was at this time last year, but there's enough to make aggressive assignment/promotion decisions worthwhile. Williams and Austin should start the year back in Trenton and I think they will, but Ramon Flores and Ben Gamel will be there as well. Rather than try to work out a system to give those 4 and Heathcott enough playing time, why not start Heathcott in Triple-A? He's the oldest of the group at 23, and even though he didn't tear the cover off the ball last year he's probably the most prepared to make the jump. A starting Triple-A outfield of him, Zoilo, and Adonis Garcia wouldn't be too shabby and it would set him up for a possible late-season call up and early audition for a starting job in 2015.
And it shouldn't stop there. If Zoilo rakes in Triple-A again and Ichiro isn't doing much, dump him and give the 5th outfielder bench job to Zoilo. If Austin stays healthy, shows no lingering effects of last year's wrist injury, and gets back to hitting like he was in High-A ball, bump him up to Triple-A as soon as there's an everyday spot for him. If Williams starts to put things together at the plate in his return to Double-A, move him up to SWB late in the year to get his feet wet. The window of opportunity is still wide open for these guys despite the offseason spending spree, and it behooves the Yankees to find out if they're capable of flying through it sooner rather than later.
Gardner worked his way into a regular job under similar circumstances years back. If he moves on after this season, maybe Heathcott follows his path and takes over in left field in 2015. That'd be a step in the right direction for the Yankee farm system and it'd be one less introductory press conference they'd have to hold next offseason.
(Photo courtesy of Princeton Magazine)