April is a tough month for intelligent baseball fans with no scouting background. We can’t offer any useful insight or make reasoned predictions because the sample sizes are so small. As the samples become greater, sure, we can start to put our powers to good use. But until then, scouts have a tight grip on the most important information to be gleaned from some 20 baseball games per team. They can tell whose arm action is slower, or whose hip rotation is off, not me. Heck, I might have just made up those terms. People like me want to have something interesting to say about a player or team, but for the most part, saying anything other than “it’s too early to tell” is probably just guesswork at this point. There are, however, diagnoses that we can make with a much greater degree of certainty than others. One such example is the focus of this post, and that is the Yankees’ situation in center field.
It’s too early to doom the Yankees’ starting pitching and bullpen, like so many are in the process of doing. It is not too early to gag violently at the thought of Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera manning the position for the entire season. A look at their respective minor and major league numbers reveals that neither has any business starting on a contending team, particularly one that is clearly trying to win the World Series immediately. If the Yankees are truly going all-in on this season – and the Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett signings indicate that they are – then they need to upgrade center field soon. Allowing the Gardner-Cabrera duo submarine a season after committing all that money to premium talents indicates either a total lack of understanding or plain old hubris. A brief examination of the two players will support this position.
After winning the center fielder’s spot in spring training, Gardner has been nothing less than terrible this season. His .220/.254/.271 line is painful to look at. He has the lowest on-base and slugging percentages of any center fielder in Major League Baseball. Gardner’s plate discipline – a huge part of his success at the minor league level – has evaporated in the major leagues; his walk rate is the third-worst at his position. Both statistics and scouting provide an intuitive reason for this disappearance. In the minors, Gardner could overcome his middling power and hit mediocre pitches hard. This prevented opposing pitchers from challenging him constantly, allowing Gardner to walk enough to be effective. In the majors, pitchers have better stuff and have no reason to believe that he can hit the ball with any authority. So they’re going right after him with hard strikes, making him prove he can hit and is therefore worthy of being thrown balls. Unfortunately, Gardner can’t hit, and his total inability to get on base is hurting the team.
Despite Cabrera’s hot start, he’s not much of an improvement. Cabrera has twice failed to build on his solid 2006 season, in which he provided respectable defense and a .360 OBP in center field. 2007 and 2008 saw sharp regression on both offense and defense, causing the Yankees to poke around elsewhere for a solution. None was available, thrusting Cabrera and his new partner-in-ineptitude back into the spotlight. While his 2009 numbers have been good thus far, nothing in his past performance suggests this is sustainable. People may not know or remember that Cabrera’s minor league statistics were never all that great. This fact combines with two straight years of declining play in the majors to suggest that Cabrera may have reached his ceiling of an acceptable fourth outfielder. There’s absolutely a place for that kind of player on a championship-caliber Yankees team. But that place isn’t starting in center field.
At the minimum, there are three possible solutions to this problem. They vary in advisability. The most advisable, in my opinion, is to re-open trade talks with the Milwaukee Brewers about Mike Cameron. The Yankees reportedly discussed a deal over the winter, but negotiations broke down. It’s time to sheepishly call GM Doug Melvin and ask what it will take to get something done. Cameron’s expiring contract, power, and defense make him an appealing option, and one for which the Yankees could overpay without hearing much complaining from me. Again, the Yankees’ goal is clearly to win the World Series this year, and that changes everything. Cameron is the safest bet. There’s no reason not to make a strong offer.
The second option is signing free agent Jim Edmonds. The old center fielder put up a .235/.343/.479 line splitting time with the San Diego Padres and Chicago Cubs last season, which is quite fine for his position. His defense has declined to unmistakably bad and I’d be worried about his transition to the American League after 10 years in its counterpart, but he’s worth investigating. He’d come cheaper than Cameron and cost no prospects, although he’s also unlikely to outperform the Brewers’ center fielder. Ultimately, Edmonds represents a lower cost but lower reward option. Even at 39 years old, he’s probably worth a couple wins more than Gardner and Cabrera.
The final option is the riskiest and by far the least advisable. The Yankees could conceivably call up top prospect Austin Jackson and throw him into the major league fire. Jackson is a true center fielder with offensive ability, hitting .357/.422/.464 in AAA so far. He is, however, 22 years old and just made the jump from AA. I fear it would be a terrible mistake to rush him to the majors without at least a half-season in AAA, and perhaps even that is too quickly. I’m reasonably certain that Jackson could surpass both Gardner’s current and Cabrera’s eventual production immediately, but rushing him could also stunt his growth. It would be a shame if the Yankees had to entertain this option.
No matter what the Yankees choose to do, they must do something. Center field is a much greater issue than the starting pitching or the bullpen, which have been popular targets so far in this young season. The Yankees simply cannot afford to have two bench players splitting a season’s worth of plate appearances. Divisional competition will be brutal this year, and will likely come down to the most marginal of advantages. Unfortunately, not having an adequate center fielder falls is a major disadvantage, one that could be the difference between qualifying for the playoffs and going home. Certainly, it is early in the season and perhaps Gardner or Cabrera will establish an acceptable level of performance. But given their histories, neither is likely to do so, which is why the Yankees should have little patience in addressing the matter. There is, after all, a signifiant difference between patience and wishful thinking.