With the Grapefruit League schedule kicking off on Wednesday, I wanted to take these last two day of inaction to take a look at the key position battles being waged in Yankee camp. I’ll start today with the most significant: the center-field battle between Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner.
First the tale of the tape:
|Melky Cabrera||Brett Gardner|
|Age (DOB)||24 (8/11/84)||25 (8/24/85)|
|Height – Wt||5’11” – 200||5’10” – 180|
|ML career (PA)||.268/.329/.374 (1,608)||.228/.283/.299 (141)|
|mL career (PA)||.296/.347/.420 (1,621)||.291/.389/.385 (1,738)|
Cabrera is theoretically the incumbent, but Gardner started in center in 12 of the Yankees’ last 15 games of 2008 after Cabrera effectively lost the center field job in early August. Cabrera made just five starts in center after August 3 and was even demoted to Triple-A for three weeks and recalled only after rosters expanded in September. In that sense, Gardner is the incumbent, but really, despite the large discrepancy in their major league service time, neither player entered camp with the upper hand in this battle.
This battle is topsy-turvy in other ways. For example, the less experienced Gardner is the win-now player given his minor league promise of solid on-base numbers (.389 mL career OBP), excellent defense, and spectacular speed on the bases (153 minor league stolen bases at an 83% success rate, 13 for 14 on the bases in the majors). Meanwhile, the appeal of Cabrera, the experienced major leaguer, is his potential. Cabrera has shown flashes of power at the plate, particularly early last season when he slugged .505 with six homers through May 4. Cabrera is unlikely to ever develop into a serious home-run threat, but Gardner is a pure slap hitter, with just nine career home runs as a pro and an isolated slugging in the minors of just .094. Gardner seems unlikely to ever hit for much power, but there remains some hope that Cabrera, who is a year younger, may yet blossom into a complete hitter.
The problem is that Cabrera’s performance on the field has been heading in the opposite direction. Cabrera hit .280/.360/.391 as a rookie left fielder in 2006, displaying solid plate discipline for a 21-year-old as well as some doubles power (26 in 524 PA) and falling just short of a league-average performance overall. In 2007, however, his plate discipline melted away without a corresponding increase in power (.273/.327/.391), and last year, after that hot start, he simply stopped hitting, batting .235/.280/.286 from May 5 through the end of the season, a line worse than Gardner’s seemingly pathetic rookie showing.
Given that Gardner was just breaking into the majors last year, been reliably productive in the minors, and seemed to heat up at the end of last season, hitting .294/.333/.412 in 73 PA his second of two major league stints, there’s every reason to believe that Gardner will significantly improve on his overall major league line if given the chance this season, but given Cabrera’s steady regression, there are far fewer reasons to continue to believe in Melky. It’s not as though Melky does anything else better than Gardner. Melky can steal bases, but he might steal 15, while Gardner could easily steal more than 50 and lead the league if he starts every day, and he’ll do it at a higher success rate than Cabrera’s. Melky has shown flashes of brilliance in the field, but Gardner, thanks in part to his superior speed, is going to turn more balls into outs in center, just as he’s likely to make fewer outs at the plate.
According to Dave Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range, Melky was the best defensive left fielder in baseball in 2006 but has displayed merely average range in center over the last two years. Gardner did not play enough to register on Pinto’s major league-only system, but per Ultimate Zone Rating, Gardner’s defense in center was worth 9.1 runs to Melky’s pedestrian 0.6 last year, a remarkable stat given that Gardner played just 160 2/3 innings in center for the Yankees, while Melky played 973 2/3. Of course, the small sample warnings about Gardner’s major league statistics are particularly acute when it comes to fielding, both because he spent a significant chunk of his first major league stint in left, and because fielding stats are so suspect to start with. It would be cherry-picking to write off Gardner’s poor performance at the plate in the majors as a small sample while emphasizing his absurd advantage over Cabrera in UZR. That said, what I saw watching the games supported the statistics’ assertion that Gardner has the superior range in center. Cabrera still has the better arm, but not by as much as one might think; Gardner recorded four assists in his 22 major league games in center, showing a strong and accurate throwing arm that opposing runners would be ill-advised to test.
So Melky’s case comes down to power and potential, and it seems unlikely that he has shown enough of either to outweigh Gardner’s advantages on the bases, in the field, and in getting on-base. Melky’s 2008 season cracked the lenses of the rose-colored glasses that looked at his first two seasons and saw shades of fellow switch-hitting center fielder Bernie Williams’ early-career struggles. Bernie didn’t really start to come on until his age-25 season, which would give Cabrera another year, but it’s hard now look at the stocky, stumbling Cabrera and see any resemblance to the fawn-like awkwardness of the blossoming Bernie.
Hitting coach Kevin Long seems to believe that he can get Gardner to hit with doubles power by increasing the involvement of Gardner’s lower body in his swing. If Gardner shows any signs of proving Long right this spring, the job should be his. The catch is that, due to Cabrera’s pennant-race demotion last year, Melky is now out of options, meaning the Yankees would have to either keep him on the 25-man roster as a fifth outfielder (a platoon with Gardner wouldn’t work–Melky hit just .213/.279/.299 against lefties last year and has hit just .251/.319/.329 against southpaws in his major league career, while Gardner actually had a reverse split in Triple-A last year), or expose him to waivers in an attempt to outright him to Scranton. The latter would almost surely result in Cabrera being claimed by another team. The Yankees avoided arbitration by signing Cabrera to a $1.4 million contract last month, which would seem to strongly indicate that the Yankees have no intention of divesting themselves of Cabrera, but as a fifth-outfielder, Cabrera would be a drain on the roster and would stand little chance of restarting his development. Then again, perhaps that $1.4 million price tag is just enough to prevent the sort of team that might make a claim on Cabrera from doing so. If Cabrera can’t win the center field job in camp, that may be a chance the Yankees have to take, particularly with Austin Jackson headed for Triple-A already having already unseated Cabrera as the team’s Center Fielder of the Future.