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The spring centerfield debate

By Dustin Racioppi

With Alex Rodriguez spending spring training in the snow-capped mountains of Vail, Colo., the focus in Yankee camp — if there really can be any other focus while A-Rod is still in pinstripes — is on who will start the season in centerfield: Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera. 

            It’s a good problem manager Joe Girardi has on his hands, far from the situation he was in last year when a shallow pitching rotation forced him to rely on prospects Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to fill out the starting five. But Happy-Go-Lucky Joe isn’t tipping his hand as to which young player he’s leaning toward entering the season with in center. Girardi has maintained that both will get a fair shot to prove themselves in spring training. That’s fair, but when it comes down to it, both players had their shot to show and prove last season and Gardner won.

            Gardner, one year old than Cabrera, has had less time on the field but has proven himself to be more of an asset to the team right now than Melky has the last two seasons.

It comes down to speed on the base paths, something the Yankees haven’t had since the days of Rickey Henderson or the short-lived tenure of Alfonso Soriano. It doesn’t hurt that Gardner has been hitting well so far this spring training.

In 127 at-bats last season, Gardner scored 18 runs and stole 13 bags. Melky, on the other hand, swiped nine in 414 at-bats and homered only eight times.

            So really, what is it that Melky Cabrera can prove to separate himself from Gardner to be the leader in the race? The lineup, even sans A-Rod for a few weeks, is still loaded with power and the ability to drive in runs. Melky has a little more power than Gardner, but that’s a luxury at this point. But if the Yankees want to add more complexity against great A.L. East pitching, Gardner and his speed are the way to go.

            With Gardner at the bottom of the order  it will give the opposing pitcher something extra to think about. It also gives the Yankees the ability to do what they haven’t done before when the RBI guys don’t show up when it counts — he can create scoring situations. That will come in handy too when the Yankee pitching falters.

            There’s one reason I would start Melky this season if I were Joe Girardi. Let the guy get out there and prove what he’s capable of so he can be a bargaining chip when trade talks arise. Maybe the Yanks can ship him off to another team and get a durable middle relief guy — there’s never enough pitching — or snag a utility infielder.

            Girardi told Mike Francesa on 660AM-WFAN on March 9 that he believes there’s room for the two young centerfielders on the roster, but one of them will obviously be on the bench. I don’t think Melky belongs on the bench for most of the season. A team would benefit with him starting in the outfield, just not the Yankees.  

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