The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports
There is little to get excited about in the battle for this spot. There are a pair of veterans who have had long, if not particularly distinguished, careers and some minor-league players who have been more suspect than prospects to this point.
The veterans are Matt Diaz, who was signed to a minor-league deal in December, and Juan Rivera, who inked a minor-league contract in late January.
Diaz missed much of 2012 with a wrist problem. He was limited to just 51 games and 118 plate appearances with the Atlanta Braves, during which he hit .222/.280/.333 with two home runs and 13 RBI.
But for his career, Diaz has devoured left-handed pitching. In 1,026 career plate appearances against lefties, Diaz has hit .324/.364/.498 with 31 home runs and 119 RBI. For his career, he has hit .291/.339/.431 with 45 homers and 225 RBI in 2,033 plate appearances.
Rivera spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The 12-year veteran hit .244/.286/.375 with nine home runs and 47 RBI in 339 plate appearances. He is a lifetime .274/.323/.443 hitter with 132 homers and 539 RBI in 3,787 plate appearances over his 12-year career.
This is also Rivera’s second tour with the Yankees; he made his major-league debut in pinstripes in 2001 and played in parts of three seasons (2001-03) with New York.
The alleged prospects that may get a look in this role include Ronnier Mustelier, Thomas Neal, Zoilo Almonte and Melky Mesa.
Mustelier is a Cuban defector who signed with the Yankees in 2011. He split 2012 between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he hit .303/.359/.455 with 10 home runs and 49 RBI in 385 plate appearances. That came after going .353/.412/.598 with five homers and 20 RBI in 114 plate appearances for Trenton.
But at age 28, he’s a bit long in the tooth to be considered a prospect.
Neal, 25, made his major-league debut last September for the Cleveland Indians, where he hit .217/.250/.261 in a nine-game cup of coffee, with two RBI in 24 plate appearances. Neal was released by the Indians on Jan. 12 and signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees six days later.
For Double-A Akron in 2012, Neal hit .314/.400/.467 with 12 homers and 51 RBI in 470 plate appearances.
The 23-year-old Almonte spent all of 2012 in Trenton, where he hit .277/.322/.487 in 451 plate appearances but showed some pop with 21 homers and 70 RBI. Of course, he also showed a lack of discipline at the plate with 103 strikeouts and just 25 walks. He also stole 15 bases.
Almonte homered in his spring-training debut against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.
Mesa, 26, made his big-league debut last Sept. 22 and was 1-for-2 with an RBI in three late-season games. He started the year at Trenton, earning a promotion after hitting .277/.344/.464 with 14 homers and 46 RBI in 88 games. At Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Mesa hit just .230/.271/.524 with nine homers, 21 RBI and 43 whiffs in 133 plate appearances.
Given manager Joe Girardi’s tendency toward veterans, it is likely that Mustelier, Neal, Almonte and Mesa would need to have monster springs to have a chance in this battle.
So that leaves Diaz and Rivera.
Rivera has more power, which may give him the edge in a lineup that lost a lot of it over the winter.
However, Granderson’s injury opens up another spot that either of these players could fill until Granderson comes back—presumably in May.
WINNER: Rivera, with Diaz likely earning the bulk of the playing time in left field