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Look At Me I Can Be...Center field?

By Jason A. Cohen

Going into the 2009 season, the New York Yankees have a solid lineup that could look like this:

Johnny Damon LF/CF
Derek Jeter SS
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Mark Teixeira 1B
Jorge Posada C/DH
Hideki Matsui DH/LF
Xavier Nady RF/LF
Robinson Cano 2B
Gardner/Cabrera CF

With this lineup, the Yankees appear to be stocked with talent at ALMOST every position. The position which leaves something to be desired is of course center field. With names like Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, and newcomer Nick Swisher having played time at the position in their careers, one wonders who will patrol the position during the upcoming season.

Ever since Bernie Williams turned his pinstripes in for a guitar, the Yankees have had an extremely difficult time filling his shoes. Their first attempt to replace Williams was with Damon, who was signed as a free agent prior to Bernie's final season with the club. Having provided his best effort in the field, it became clear that Damon was not a long term option at the position given his advancing age. Soon after, he was moved to left field but still plays center when needed.

Young Melky Cabrera, 21 at the time, would be his replacement in center. Cabrera was a shot in the arm for the Yankees, who have not had much success in developing prospects due to their pension for trading for veteran players past their prime. Not a huge threat offensively, Cabrera is known more for his defensive abilities as he possesses a cannon for an arm and great range. In Cabrera's three full seasons as the regular center fielder, he has posted a batting average of .268, with 385 hits, 160 RBI, and a sterling .990 fielding percentage. However, after a rough 2008 season in which he appeared in 129 games, he was sent down to the minors in favor of relatively unknown Brett Gardner.

Gardner became a favorite of Yankee manager Joe Gerardi, because of his gritty play and superb speed. After taking over for Cabrera, Gardner instantly provided a spark to the dormant Yankee lineup. In his 42 games played, Gardner stole 13 bases having only been caught once. To put this into context, over Cabrera's 415 total games played; he has stolen 34 bases and was caught 12 times.

I am not a mathematician but I can figure out that given Gardner's current steal ratio, assuming he appears in the same amount of games this season as Cabrera did last, he would compile approximately 40 steals. The Yankees, more known for their big boppers, could certainly use a player capable of stealing that many bases as Gardner’s presence on the base path would take pressure off other players by giving them more opportunities to hit with runners in scoring position. Although Gardner did perform quite well during his audition at the end of last season, he is still an unknown. Having never played a full season in the majors, it is difficult for many Yankee fans to envision Gardner as their everyday center fielder.

This leads to a less likely option, Nick Swisher, who the Yankees originally brought aboard to play first base. If Swisher is not moved, which has been widely speculated since the addition of Teixeira, he could be used as a solid platoon option with the players mentioned above. Viewed as more of a corner outfielder and first baseman by the Yankees, Swisher actually made most of his appearances last season in center. His versatility to play right field, left field, center field, and first base make him a valuable piece to the Yankees current plans and a solid trade chip.

The Yankees do have super prospect Austin Jackson waiting in the wings, but given that he is not expected to be ready to join the Yankees major league roster until the 2010 season, the real question is are the Yankees comfortable with the players they have currently on the roster to provide a stop-gap until Jackson makes his ascension to the majors.

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