Despite spending copious amounts of cash this offseason, the New York Yankees do enter spring training with a number of question marks at up-the-middle positions. Will Jorge Posada‘s shoulder hold up? (and if not, do you really want Jose Molina and his career .270 wOBA getting regular duty?) Will Robinson Cano bounce back offensively and defensively? Can Derek Jeter stave off decline?
Perhaps the most unsettled aspect of all is the situation in center field. The Bronx Bombers received precious little from the position in 2008, receiving a combined .261/.320/.391 line (the average MLB CF hit .268/.333/.419). The main culprit, Melky Cabrera, will return to battle another farm product in Brett Gardner.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, Cabrera appeared in the majors at the age of 20, and has seen fairly regular playing time over the past three seasons. The problem is, the 24 year-old has declined at the plate in each of those three campaigns. Cabrera’s initial showing with the Yankees was actually quite impressive: as a 21 year old in 2006, he batted .280/.360/.391 with a .333 wOBA. A player that young showing that good of a grasp of the strike zone (10.9 BB%, 22.3 O-Swing% 12.8 K%) usually portends to better days down the road.
In 2007, however, Cabrera actually regressed. He slugged exactly .391 again, but is OBP fell over 30 points, down to .327. His wOBA, about league average in ’06, also dropped to .317. The switch-hitter showed less restraint at the dish, drawing walks at a 7.3% clip and swinging at 29.5% of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone.
After an intriguing debut and a mildly disappointing follow-up season, Cabrera saw his production crater in 2008. The Melk-Man authored a grisly .285 wOBA, hitting .249/.301/.341. Some of that dip in performance can be explained by a lower-than-expected BABIP (.273). However, Cabrera once again drew fewer free passes (6.5%) and often fished for offerings out of the zone (28.4 O-Swing%).
Cabrera’s steady decline is confounding. It’s not very often that a player debuts at such a young age, shows a polished approach and then subsequently becomes more raw as the years go by. The Santo Domingo native also hasn’t done himself any favors with his glove work in center field. Cabrera has a career -9.8 UZR/150 in center (though he did manage a +0.9/150 rating in ’08). That might not affect his fantasy value, per se, but it does make the Yankees less apt to stick with him.
The main competition for Cabrera will come from Gardner. Selected out of Charleston in the 3rd round of the 2005 amateur draft, Gardner has used a discerning eye and blazing speed to climb the minor league ranks. The 5-10, 180 pounder has a career .389 OBP in the minors as well as an 83% success rate on the base paths. Fresh off a AAA season in which he hit .296/.414/.422, Gardner made his Yankees debut last summer, posting a .282 wOBA in 141 PA.
While Gardner’s OBP skills and speed might make him appear as an ideal catalyst, there are some concerns about how his game will translate to the major league level. He does work the count very well, but Gardner also swings and misses a good deal more than your average water bug player (about 23% over the past two seasons in AAA). The 25 year-old also possesses very little pop, with a .126 ISO at AAA in ’08 and an even lower .094 career mark in the minors.
Gardner’s combination of skills (good eye, higher K rates, little power) is a tough one to project- it’s possible that some of those walks will dry up in the big leagues (think Michael Bourn), as pitchers are less likely to pitch Gardner so cautiously. Why not challenge him, if the worst possible outcome upon contact is a single? Pitchers did challenge the lefty during his initial big league action, as Gardner saw a fastball nearly 71% of the time.
Of course, both Cabrera and Gardner could just be keeping the CF seat warm for someone else. Austin Jackson, 22, is one of New York’s most well-regarded prospects. An 8th round selection in the 2005 draft, Jackson is coming off of a solid showing at AA (.285/.354/.419) and possesses an interesting blend of skills. The 6-1, 185 pounder doesn’t have one particular talent that jumps out at you, but he works the count decently, has gradually shown a little more power at each minor league stop and can swipe some bases as well.
Whether Cabrera or Gardner can hold onto the job long-term remains to be seen, but the Yankees need someone to solidify the position in 2009. In an AL East division that figures to be fiercely competitive (PECOTA projects 90+ wins for Boston, New York and Tampa), the Bombers can ill-afford to have a black hole in center.