New York Yankees 2014 Five Point Preview: Ken Singleton on the outfieldSingleton says Ellsbury + Gardner = a nearly impenetrable defense
When you talk about the best defensive outfields in baseball, the Yankees certainly have to go into that conversation. Right now, it seems as if Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran will rotate through that spot, but whether it's one of them, Ichiro, or a literal statue out in right, former MLB outfielder Ken Singleton agrees that the left/center combo of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury should make the outfield look a lot like a game of Pac-Man come opening day.
"I think it's very comforting to the pitchers, knowing that pretty much any ball hit in the air will be caught, within reason. Anybody who is going to displace Brett Gardner from center really has to have some game," Singleton says, "But when you put someone like Jacoby Ellsbury out there, who is a former Gold Glove winner in center, and move Gardner to left, where a couple years ago he was rated as the best defensive left fielder in the game, it's very comforting."
Gardner's offensive body of work doesn't scream the profile of a prototypical corner outfielder, but he did hit a career-high eight homers last year, and as Singleton notes, left field in the Bronx isn't a typical corner outfield.
"Left field in Yankee Stadium, as we know, is quite expansive, and you need someone to cover the territory out there," Singleton said. "It's a tough field to play with the sun, too, but he has a great arm, and he and Ellsbury alone can cover a lot of ground."
That speed in the outfield will translate, hopefully, into havoc on the base paths, too, as the Yankees now have, and likely hitting right next to each other, two guys who have led or tied for the league lead in steals in four of the last six seasons.
"Ellsbury led the league again last year, and from Gardner's standpoint, I look for an improvement from him in terms of numbers in stealing bases," Singleton said. "I think having Ellsbury gives him somebody to chase or somebody to chase him, depending on where they hit; together, they can push each other towards the league lead in stolen bases, and there could be a lot of scoring from first base on doubles behind them, so they have high run-scoring potential."
That duo, along with Beltran, will be together for a few seasons at least; Ellsbury got a seven-year deal this winter and Beltran a three-year pact, and combined with Gardner's four-year extension that kicks in next season, you're looking at the Yankees' starting outfield through at least 2016.
That's good for business and for the on-field product itself, says Singleton.
"They can relax a little bit and play their games, no contract negotiations to worry about. When I was a player, once we were signed, we'd go out and play, and now they're in go play mode for a few years," Singleton said. "So, I think all three can and will produce. Beltran has a borderline Hall of Fame career going, and maybe he can put himself over the top in these three years with the Yankees, and Ellsbury has had some great seasons with the Red Sox."
Alfonso Soriano is in that mix at least for this year, and because Joe Girardi has the ability to let he and Beltran rotate between DH and right every so often, Singleton thinks it will help both veterans continue to put up the numbers they've compiled over the last few years.
"Girardi can pick his spots with them, both with days off or with matchups against certain pitchers," Singleton says. "Soriano hit 34 homers last year and drove in over 100 runs, and Beltran drove in almost 90 with the Cardinals. It's not as if you want them out of the lineup, but if you do, it might keep them fresher, and everyone wins."
Of course, all of the above leaves out one glaring omission: Ichiro, who set a career low with 150 games played last year but is now shunted into the role of fifth outfielder. His likeliest role is as a pinch-runner, defensive replacement and part-time fill-in, but It's entirely likely that the Yankees will trade the free agent-to-be at some point - which might be best for all parties, says Singleton.
"You have to remember he's used to playing every day, always has, and I it's going to be tough for him because he's used to playing - and excelling - on an everyday basis," Singleton said. "He's trying to get to 3,000 hits here in the States, and when you're sitting on the bench, you can't get hits. It will be interesting to see what the Yankees do with him; you don't want a player on the bench who is unhappy, because that sort of thing can permeate throughout a club."
If Ichiro is moved, or if someone gets hurt, the Yankees have a lot of depth at the Triple-A level and beyond. Ramon Flores, Zoilo Almonte, and Slade Heathcott are all on the 40-man roster, top prospect Mason Williams is lurking in his final year before Rule 5 eligibility, and there are several others like Adonis Garcia who have made an impression.
if all goes well, none of them have a realistic chance of spending much time in the Bronx this year, but it's how they approach that scenario that could ultimately determine their fates.
"You just have to go out and play, whether it's in the Bronx or the minors, and go put up numbers," Singleton said. "You have to remind yourself as a young player that two things can happen: one is someone gets injured, and if you're playing well, you'll get the call; the other is that there's 29 other teams, and some of them do need outfielder. If you're playing well and the Yankees need to make a move to shore up some other area, you may be the one that another team wants, and all of a sudden, you're in the majors."
And if there's anyone who knows that first hand, it's Singleton, whose hot spring and great start in Triple-A in 1970 opened the door to a 15-year MLB career.
"In 1970, I had a real good spring, but I was the last guy cut. Tom Seaver came over and put his arm around me and said 'kid, go down to Triple-A, get off to a great start, and you'll be back in the Big Leagues by June'," Singleton recalled. "On June 24 I was called up and never went back to the Minors. The Mets had won the World Series the year before so I knew it would be difficult to crack the roster, but I opened some eyes, and when I left Triple-A, I was leading the league in average, home runs, and on-base percentage and was second in RBI by one."
Will Almonte, Garcia, or anyone else say the same come 2030?