Centrefield seems to have been clearly identified as a major problem for the Yankees last season (second only to starting pitching). Consequently, come spring training it will be an area that is closely watched – that is unless the Yankees make a trade before then which settles the matter. It is somewhat surprising then to realise that they only used four men in that role in the whole of 2008 and that they didn’t spend the whole year casting around for a suitable occupant. Here’s the runners and riders:
Melky Cabrera (129 games). Of those 129, a 115 were spent in the centre of the outfield. He batted .249 during 2008 which was a 24 point drop off on his performance in the preceding year. Whilst this is a worrying development, it is significantly ahead of Brett Gardner (see below) who would be Cabrera’s nearest rival if there was no trade made before the season started (this seems far more likely than chasing a free agent). This wasn’t a season where Cabrera’s fortune rose and fell frequently as the months passed. Whilst he hit .299 in April, there was little to smile about after that. His average fell to .234 in May and then to a lowpoint .206 in June. He rose again to .272 in July but by August was out of favour and headed for the minors. Interestingly, he performed well at Scranton-Wilkes Barre and when he returned to the Bronx in September, he batted .462 over the 12 games in which he appeared. It does seem though that he has lost the confidence of the management of the New York team and that is a notoriously difficult thing to regain. Expect him to be gone before opening day.
Johnny Damon (143 games). Only 34 of Damon’s games saw him occupy centrefield at some stage in the ballgame. See my analysis of the leftfielders for some comments on his campaign as a whole.
Brett Gardner (42 games) Gardner spent time in centrefield in 22 of his appearances. The Yankees showed more and more enthusiasm for Gardner as the season progressed in 2008. It seems likely though that this enthusiasm was created by their lack of confidence in Cabrera (see above) than by anything in Gardner’s ability to fill this role in the long term. A reality check is required when we realise that Cabrera topped him not only in batting average but in slugging and on-base percentage too. Gardner has better speed on the base paths, not least shown in his 13 stolen bases to Cabrera’s 9, which were delivered in far fewer appearances. He also is the better fielder and his throwing arm has a greater range. The fact remains, however, that it is more likely that Cabrera might regain lost ground offensively than Gardner deliver something that just doesn’t seem to have ever been there. Expect Gardner to be the back-up outfield on opening day. For my money he is the third most likely player to occupy centrefield on a regular basis for the Yankees in 2009.
Justin Christian (24 games). Christian played in centrefield for only 3 games in 2008. For some thoughts on his season, please see my leftfield analysis. Since that was written, the Yankees have decided not to tender Christian a contract for 2009 which makes him a free agent. This is no surprise and falls into line with my prediction.
So where to for centrefield? Well, the big money remains on Mike Cameron arriving from the Brewers and becoming the resident in that role. If that doesn’t happen look for Cabrera and Gardner to run-off for that spot during Spring training with Cabrera an unlikely winner.