We’re nearly two weeks away from opening day, and the Yankees haven’t designated a third or fourth outfielder yet. In recent days, Zoilo Almonte, Tyler Austin, and Ramon Flores have been optioned down, Adonis Garcia has suffered an injury, Matt Diaz has looked awful, and Ronnier Mustelier and Juan Rivera have been getting looks in the infield. The front office did acquire Ben Francisco earlier this week, but Cashman called him a bench option. Slade Heathcott, Thomas Neal, and Melky Mesa are all that remain.
On paper, Heathcott seems like an unlikely choice. He’s been in the Yankee system since 2009, but he has just 869 plate appearances thanks to a number of injuries. The highest level of the minor leagues he’s seen is High-A, where he hit very well this year, but would be in a rare position to jump from such a low level to the major leagues. Regardless, Brian Cashman called him a “dark horse candidate” for the outfield job. Heathcott was briefly sidelined with a thumb injury, but he’s still left a lasting impression with his defense in center field. Though he hasn’t hit, the outfielder has shown defensive tools that Cashman called major league ready. If Cashman was sincere about the organization’s evaluation on Heathcott, the left-hander seems to offer everything you’d want on defense, and upside in the bat. The only problem is that you risk some developmental time in the minor leagues, and there’s always worry about a player’s confidence if they fail.
Thomas Neal might be the most prepared of the three candidates. The 25 year old has experience at Triple-A, and 24 plate appearances with the Indians. Offensively, he offers a decent amount of upside, good patience at the plate, and a little bit of power, though he did hit 22 home runs in 2009. Neal hit .314/.400/.467 for Double-A Akron last season, in a home ballpark that is very unfriendly to right-handed hitters. Statcorner has his park adjust wOBA at .405, which isn’t far off from the .421 wOBA of Double-A prospect Mike Olt. Most fans viewed the Neal pickup in a positive light, but few see how underrated he was due to the ballpark he played in. This Spring, Neal has hit .333/.391/.524 with a home run and two stolen bases in 23 plate appearances. He’s looked like the best offensive option in the outfield, but outside of a strong arm, his defense is questionable. If the team does pick Neal, they’ll have to move him to the 40-man roster.
Finally, Melky Mesa has seen the most time in the field, yet he’s struggled with the bat. In 37 plate appearances, Mesa is hitting just .200/.243/.371. Small sample size is something to keep in mind, but apart from 2 home runs, Mesa has continued his strike out heavy approach. In 2012, Mesa traveled through Trenton, Scranton, and the Bronx, but only saw a combined 135 plate appearances above Double-A. In comparison to Neal, Mesa had a .369 park adjusted wOBA for the Thunder, and a .334 wOBA for Scranton. The outfielder offers much better defense than Neal, and as a center fielder, and Mesa could save a considerable amount of runs with his glove.
Personally, I’m not a huge fan promoting Heathcott so early in his career, but the Yankees have much better resources to work off of than I do. The choice comes down to Mesa and Neal for me, for which each have their own pro’s and con’s. I would rather have both of these outfielders on the roster than Ben Francisco, who’s offense has been barely average, and defense below average. Deciding between Mesa and Neal for the third outfield spot becomes a choice between picking offense or defense, and the team is certainly lacking offense at this point.