When J.A. Happ broke Curtis Granderson‘s arm in the latter’s first spring training at-bat, it opened up a chasm in the middle of the Yankees defense and lineup, at least for the start of the 2013 season. There have been plenty of angles taken on how the Yankees might replace Granderson, with suggestions ranging from current left fielder Brett Gardner sliding over to center followed by a trade for a veteran corner outfielder such as Alfonso Soriano or Vernon Wells, or additional playing time for non-roster invitees like Matt Diaz and/or Juan Rivera.
But should the Yankees choose to leave Gardner in left field (where he is exceptional, defensively), their best internal candidate to hold down the fort in center field may be Melky Mesa. Let’s get to know him, shall we?
The now 26-year-old Mesa has been in the Yankees farm system for a relative eternity from a prospect standpoint. Extremely raw when he signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2003, Mesa didn’t even make it stateside until 2006, when he was 19. Because of the slow developmental track Mesa has been on from the start, he has been old for every league he’s played in. That would be only a small caveat if he had dominated those leagues, but his .244/.315/.436 career line despite playing against younger competition makes it even more of a red flag that he was brought along slowly.
But Mesa, in what should be his prime, still oozes tools, the kinds of tools that continue to get a player chances.
With a power/speed combo that not a lot of players have, Mesa has been able to accumulate some pretty impressive counting numbers over his seven minor league seasons. If you were in a minor league fantasy league, his 20/20 ability (a plateau he reached last season between Double and Triple-A) would carry enough value to offset his low batting average. Of course, that’s irrelevant here, but it’s a testament to what will help a player continue to get opportunities.
Mesa does hit his share of home runs, having hit 19 or more in three of the past four minor league seasons. He also runs well, stealing at least 18 bases in each of the past four years, despite missing time with injuries. What he also does a lot of is strike out while conversely not drawing anywhere near enough walks. That last sentence, more so than anything else, is why he is 26 and has two major league plate appearances.
Despite 2,479 minor league plate appearances stateside, Mesa remains a raw player—or perhaps at this point it’s no longer accurate to call him raw. More likely, he’s simply a flawed player. But he can do enough things right to help fill in for the Yankees while Granderson is on the mend.
What Mesa can do is go get the ball in center field. He has always had plus-speed and knows how to use it in the outfield. He also has a strong arm. The Yankees already have two defense-first outfielders penciled in as starters in Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki and certainly weren’t aiming to have a third out there, but at this point, they may not have much of a choice.
Much of their decision-making will come down to how much time Granderson will miss. The initial timetable said a 10-week recovery, which gets into the beginning of May. If it drags on longer than that and doesn’t factor in a rehab stint in the minors—meaning Granderson won’t be back until somewhere closer to Memorial Day—then perhaps the Yankees need to look further into the Soriano-esque options.
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs.com has a great breakdown of the effect the time missed by Granderson will have on actual wins and losses, so I won’t get into it here. The Yankees will need to make a decision in the next week or two about whether they plan to take this problem on internally or go outside the organization to fix it. I’d expect Mesa to get plenty of at-bats this spring to help them make that decision.
Realistically, however, for a time period of a month or so, Mesa can do enough things right that he can probably handle the job. He’s not a good hitter—that we know for certain—but his at-bats won’t be completely empty. Offensively, he’s proven that he will run into a home run or two and will steal some bases. Because he’s spent just 33 games in Triple-A, there’s no way the Yankees would be considering him for a major league role of any kind if it weren’t for their new-found predicament, but alas, that’s the situation in which they find themselves.
The Yankees need to—and I’m sure they will—do their due diligence to see what it will cost them to get a player like Soriano or Wells, and if the cost is low enough, that’s probably what they’ll do. But at least in the case of Soriano, the price is likely to be high enough to make them hesitate, and make it worth giving Mesa a strong look this spring.
Mesa is far from a perfect player, and it’s likely that he’ll never warrant everyday playing time, but he does enough things well on the field that he shouldn’t kill the Yankees as a fill in for a month and a half.