Over the last several years, the Yankees have garnered a reputation for not using a true designated hitter. Joe Girardi, Brian Cashman, and others have stated on more than one occasion that they view the position as a means to give a player a half-day, so as to rest his legs without removing his bat from the lineup. And, as is the nature of the beast, the team has taken flack for not going out and signing a traditional thumper to be the full-time (or a full-time-ish) DH. However ... that is not necessarily true. Or, it is not true over the last couple of seasons. Prior to the 2013 season, the Yankees signed Travis Hafner and Ben Francisco to platoon at designated hitter, and supplemented that platoon by acquiring Vernon Wells. It was ineffectiveness and injury that doomed the platoon, as the trifecta of Hafner, Francisco, and Wells started 89 of the team's first 95 games at DH - and 67 of those were started by Hafner. And the 2014 season was a similar story, as Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran were set to rotate between RF and DH, and they did so; at least, until Beltran was hurt and the team realized that Soriano no longer remembered how to play baseball. Thirty of the team's first 33 games saw one of this duo start at DH.
What does this mean for 2015? We should expect the team to do something with either RF or DH, as the team determines what to do with Beltran. While it is difficult to state the degree to which a player's health can be affected by playing in the field every day, we do know that Beltran's injury came as a result of him running into the wall, and that he has a history of lower body injuries that may be mitigated by not running around in the outfield. And, looking at how the Yankees used him after he returned from his injury, I am working under the assumption that Beltran will be the team's full-time(ish) DH. What does that mean for right field, then?
As was the case at second and third, Martin Prado may be the best internal option for right field. His bat is less than ideal for the position, and he has limited experience in that corner - but his steady offense and fine defense in left suggest that he could be a reliable option out there.
There are a couple intriguing options in the minors, although none are without warts. Ramon Flores has hit at every level, performing quite well at Triple-A last season despite turning 22 just before the season began. His power output has been inconsistent, but he offers a good glove in right, a healthy walk rate, and a high-contact approach. Unfortunately, Flores suffered an ankle injury last season and missed roughly half the year - though, he did hit .226/.305/.566 with 4 HR in 15 games after returning in mid-August, which is encouraging.
Tyler Austin regained some of his lost luster this season, particularly in the last month and a half when he hit .341/.400/.556 with 10 2B and 5 HR in 34 games. He is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .258/.361/.323 in 36 PA. Austin spent the entirety of 2014 at Double-A, so he seems an unlikely candidate to open the season with the team. With a strong showing in the Spring and a hot start at Triple-A, he could find himself on the roster come June. Austin is my dark horse to play an integral role on the team next season, in fact.
The other internal choices are the players that we know already - Zoilo Almonte, Zelous Wheeler, Antoan Richardson, etc. These are all fourth outfielder types with limited upside, and something will have gone terribly wrong if they are starting on Opening Day.
The free agent crop of outfield/DH types is fairly deep. Melky Cabrera and Nelson Cruz were All-Star caliber players this year, and are likely to receive qualifying offers. Mike Morse, Colby Rasmus, Michael Cuddyer, Alex Rios, and Torii Hunter offer various degrees of upgrades, as well, and I am not sure that any of those players garner the $15 MM-ish QO from their respective teams. Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas lingers, as well.
All of these players are, for better or worse, known commodities. If I had my druthers, I would be extremely happy with Colby Rasmus patrolling RF on a platoon basis for the Yankees. His swing is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium, and he would give the team droolworthy outfield defense without being a zero with the bat (sorry, Ichiro). At 28, however, Rasmus will probably be viewed as a buy low candidate by everyone, thereby becoming fairly compensated (if not overpaid). I do not know what sort of contract he could demand, but I do think that he gives the Yankees the sort of raw power that they have lacked the last couple of years.
Another option may well be cobbling together a platoon - which could be invaluable to a team that has a few players that struggle mightily against LHP (including Beltran). Josh Willingham, Jonny Gomes, Chris Denorfia, Chris Young, and Scott Hairston are all available, and all have made a career of bludgeoning southpaws, and all four should be relatively cheap. Putting one of these fine gents in a platoon with Rasmus or Nate Schierholtz could be incredibly effective on the field and in the checkbook. And, for whatever it's worth, many of these players have the feel of a Yankees reclamation project.
And, as it pertains to DH, Alex Rodriguez bears mentioning as a platoon candidate with Beltran. He struggled against LHP in his injury-shortened 2013, but he fared quite well against them in 2012 (.924 OPS), as he has throughout his career. This could be the way to maximize both players' value without sticking their largely porous gloves in the field.
Despite the more glaring holes in the infield, I do feel that the RF/DH opening represents an area where the team can most improve - particularly on offense. Soriano and Ichiro combined to give the Yankees a paltry .260/.291/.350 in 623 PA, which was only 'bested' by the team's shortstop combination. And, given the names available, it seems to be a fairly easy (and affordable) fix.