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Observations From Cooperstown–To Trade Or Not To Trade

Should the Yankees continue to take "Melk" with their outfield cup of coffee? That was the question posed earlier this week in an interesting New York Sun article by the Yes Network’s Steven Goldman. An able and long time chronicler of the Yankees, Goldman feels the Yankees should shop Melky Cabrera, making him a key piece of a package for a pitcher that could cushion the blow caused by Chien-Ming Wang’s foot injury. I’m inclined to agree with Goldman, though I do think the Yankees should wait a few weeks until the timing is just right to move their starting center fielder.

At one time I was a major supporter of Cabrera, fully believing that he would become the next Roy White, but with a much stronger arm that would allow him to play center field on an everyday basis. I saw Cabrera as a player who could hit .280 with lots of walks, hit 15 home runs a year, steal 20 to 25 bases, and give the Yankees above-average defense in center field. I have my doubts now. Though still only 24, Cabrera just isn’t improving. He could still hit 15 long balls a year, but I’m starting to think he might be a .260 hitter who doesn’t draw as many walks (his bases on balls rates are going down, not up), and a defender who repeatedly takes bad breaks on balls hit over his head. I’m thinking more Roberto Kelly now than I am Roy White. That doesn’t make Cabrera a bad player; he just appears that much closer to average, making it imperative that the Yankees surround him with star players in left and/or right field. And given the age of Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu, who knows what the Yankees will be throwing out in left and right field as we move closer to 2010.

Inevitably, the question becomes: who replaces Cabrera? As Goldman points out, the Yankees have a solid candidate in Triple-A center fielder Brett Gardner, who has always been capable of getting on base, but has added more power and better defense to his minor league resume this summer. Some of the Sabermetric naysayers downplay Gardner, projecting him as no more than a No. 4 outfielder because of his lack of power. I’ve read at least one analyst predict that he’ll amount to nothing more than Jason Tyner. But Gardner’s numbers indicate to me that he could just as easily become another Brett—Brett Butler—who was one of the most underrated outfielders of the late 1980s and nineties. Butler never hit more than nine home runs in a single season, but he somehow managed to achieve a nearly .380 lifetime on-base percentage while playing capably in center field. Yes, I’ll take anything close to that from Gardner, who at last look was sporting a .414 on-base percentage with 30 stolen bases and three home runs for Scranton/Wilkes Barre.

According to all of the scouting reports I’ve seen, Gardner has far more speed and slightly more range than Cabrera, which should make up for the difference in arm strength. The fact that Gardner bats left-handed shouldn’t be a deterrent either. Although Cabrera is a switch-hitter, he has never hit particularly well from the right side, so he does nothing for the Yankees’ problems against left-handed pitching. Another part of Cabrera’s problem is his streakiness. When he’s hot, as he was earlier this season, he looks like a player on the verge of a breakthrough. But that is invariably followed by a long cold snap, which makes him a drain on the back end of the Yankee lineup. Cabrera finds himself in such a slump right now, which is why the Yankees should wait before pulling the trigger on a deal. A .254 hitter with middling power won’t draw much on the trade market, but a .280 hitter with that same level of power and a dose of speed might. If the Yankees are smart, they’ll wait for the next Cabrera hot streak, which might be timed to happen just before the July 31st trading deadline.

That brings us to our next problem, which is general manager Brian Cashman. Frankly, I’ve lost all confidence in Cashman’s ability to do anything but wait for the next pitching prospect to get hot at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre. Cashman really doesn’t make trades any more, now does he? Quick now, name the last trade of substance that Cashman has made. It took me awhile to remember that it was the Scott Proctor-for-Wilson Betemit exchange, a smart transaction by Cashman but one that has had little impact on the Yankees given Betemit’s frequent injuries and backup status. So quick now, what was the last major trade that Cashman made, one that did have an impact? If we don’t count the Gary Sheffield deal, which thus far has had no positive impact on the major league roster, then the answer would be the Bobby Abreu trade, which dates all the way back to July of 2006. Let’s face it, Cashman isn’t exactly Charlie Finley, Whitey Herzog, or Trader Lane when it comes to making swaps.

So what has happened with Cashman? I get the feeling that, much like former general managers Terry Ryan and Bill Stoneman, he just doesn’t like to make trades. Or perhaps he’s been burned by so many of his trades involving pitchers that he’s become gun-shy. Whatever the reason, he’d prefer to hold onto all of his prospects, especially his pitching prospects, which he hordes as if he were stocking up on canned goods during War of the Worlds. Heck, he won’t even trade pitching prospects for prospects who play other positions—like catcher and shortstop, where the Yankees could use future help—which explains why over 60 per cent of the Yankees’ 40-man roster consists of pitchers. Since trading Cabrera alone is not going to bring back a frontline pitcher, the inclusion of prospects will become a necessity to any trade.

Packaging Cabrera with one or two pitching prospects (guys not named Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy) might bring the Yankees the kind of frontline starter they will likely need to catch the Rays and maybe even the Red Sox in the American League East. Without such an addition (someone like C.C. Sabathia, Erik Bedard, or Joe Blanton), the Yankees might have to settle for third place. And third gets you nothing in baseball these days—except a cliched cry of "Wait ‘Til Next Year."

Bruce Markusen writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com.

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