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Trio playing way into Yanks' outfield picture

Trio playing way into Yanks' outfield picture

TAMPA, Fla. -- The names being floated to take over Curtis Granderson's outfield spot in April may not be of the household variety, but the Yankees have not panicked, insisting that they may already have their answer in uniform.

As the club continues to evaluate its choices, dark-horse candidates like Zoilo Almonte, Melky Mesa and Ronnier Mustelier are demanding attention. As a group, they are pleased to have complicated the decision-making process for manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman.

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"It's really exciting, especially with this team," Almonte, the Yankees' No. 10 prospect, said through an interpreter. "It's just a very competitive team and a team anyone in the Major Leagues would like to join. Everyone wants to be a Yankee."

The Yankees typically lean toward players with big league track records like Juan Rivera and Matt Diaz, who reported into camp as non-roster invitees fighting to serve as a bat to face left-handed pitching. Both are very much alive in competition to make the club.

Cashman said early in the spring that Diaz and Rivera had "a huge leg up" on the younger players, but with Granderson expected to be sidelined until May with a fractured right forearm, there could be an additional opening even if Diaz or Rivera make the club.

The most heart-warming tale belongs to Mustelier, a 28-year-old slugger who left Cuba in 2009 and signed with the Yankees for the relatively paltry sum of $50,000.

Mustelier said that his 5-year-old son, Ronnier Jr., remains with the rest of his family in Santiago. Though he calls home every day, he said that he has not seen his son since deciding to pursue his big league dream.

"It's a very difficult time, especially because I'm missing out on him growing up," Mustelier said through an interpreter. "It's part of the sacrifice. I'm doing all of this specifically for him."

An infielder in Cuba, Mustelier has shown a live bat in the States, hitting .314 with 15 homers and 69 RBIs at Double-A and Triple-A last year before stroking four hits in his first nine spring at-bats with the Yanks.

Despite his stocky, solid 5-foot-10 build, Mustelier said he feels "very comfortable in the outfield" and bristles at those who suggest that he would be a defensive liability.

"I don't care about my size or the things that people are saying about me," Mustelier said. "The only thing I care about is that I'm a good player. I can get the job done and I have a place on this team.

"All these people are saying that I have no position on the team, it's not true. I can play the field, I can do a job, I can play the outfield, I can play the infield. If anyone is saying that I have no position on this team, it's not true."

If the Yankees make a choice based on defensive potential, Girardi has said that Mesa, 26, is the best glove man of anyone in camp.

"If they need me at some point, I'm going to be here," said Mesa, who briefly appeared in the big leagues last September with the Yankees. "I just try to work hard. I can't control the results; I'll just be here."

Mesa hit .264 with 23 homers and 67 RBIs at Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last year. Girardi said he might play Mesa in center field with Brett Gardner moving back to left field.

"I'm just working hard, like I do normally," said Mesa, who bowed out of the World Baseball Classic because he sniffed an opportunity to make the Yankees' roster. "I can't control the result. Whatever happens, happens."

Mesa has a worthy contender in Almonte, a 23-year-old switch-hitter whom Cashman said the Yankees "have future everyday right fielder scouting grades on."

Almonte slugged an opposite-field home run and gunned down a runner at third base with a strong throw from right field in his first exhibition game, prompting Cashman's assistant, Jim Hendry, to remark that he has never seen Almonte have a bad game.

"He's got a pretty good total package," said Hendry, the former Cubs GM. "To play in the outfield, unless you're just a great center fielder, you've got to hit. He's got the tools to be a Major League hitter and he's been pretty solid the last couple of years.

"He's got some bat speed and he's got some versatility, he's a solid defender and an accurate thrower. There might be more power in there; usually the power comes a little bit later. It's starting to come a little."

Almonte hit .277 with 21 homers and 70 RBIs last year at Trenton. Almonte said that he can play all three outfield positions but feels most comfortable in right field.

He said that Robinson Cano and Francisco Cervelli have been helping him with the mental aspect of the game, teaching him to improve his focus on the everyday aspects of big league life.

"If you have the possibility to be a Yankee at 23 years old, it's a great thought, but I have to work for it," Almonte said.

It is still possible, as Cashman has said, that an opportunity pops up later in the spring and the Yankees find another name to plug into the mix. But for now, they've been pleased by what the lesser-known talents have shown in camp.

"The old saying we've always gone with is, they tell you when they're ready," Hendry said. "You don't have to force it. If you hit, you'll find a place to play."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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