A little more than a year ago, the Yankees sacrificed their perceived center fielder of the future to obtain a proven center fielder of the future (and the present). Within months of the trade, the Yankees watched Austin Jackson get off to a terrific start in Detroit while Curtis Granderson struggled in New York. By the end of the season, the tide had shifted, and now the Yankees are left hoping Granderson’s second-half momentum carries into 2011.
In the big leagues
The Yankees gave up a lot to land Granderson. He was seen as a plus defensive player with unusual power for a center fielder, and he was also significantly more proven than Jackson, whose lack of power and strikeout totals were obvious concerns. Granderson finished last season by hitting .261/.356/.564 in his final 48 games, and he carried that into a terrific postseason. The Yankees are one of the few teams with two legitimate big league center fielders — Brett Gardner is also more than capable in center — but there’s no question Granderson will be the everyday man at the position. The only question is whether he’ll continue to improve as he steps further into what should be the prime of his career.
On the verge
Greg Golson and Colin Curtis are able to play a role in the big leagues right now. They proved that last season, and although neither got much time in center field at Yankee Stadium, both are able to play the position. Curtis and Golson seem likely to go into spring training competing with Jordan Parraz to be the Yankees fifth outfielder (if the Yankees carry five outfielders). Coming up behind them is one of the great wild cards of the Yankees system. Melky Mesa has tools to spare — arm, speed, power — but he also struck out 297 times the past two seasons, and his .260 average and .338 on-base percentage last season were both career highs, by a lot. If he makes progress, Mesa could be a legitimate everyday player in the big leagues. If not, he could top out at Double-A.
Deep in the system
Abraham Almonte is still on the prospect radar after a injury shortened season in Tampa — my friend Patrick Teale has always been very high on Almonte  — but most of the Yankees young center field talent is coming up from the very lowest levels. Slade Heathcott, the Yankees first-round pick in ’09, didn’t put up big numbers in Charleston last year, but he’s still very young with considerable tools and talent. If Heathcott returns to Charleston this season, he could be joined in the outfield by Eduardo Sosa, a natural center fielder who’s bat has yet to match his glove. A half step behind them is last year’s fourth-round pick Mason Williams, another super-athletic kid taken out of high school. There is a lot of raw talent and athleticism here, but that talent has a long way to go. It’s just as you’d expect from this position in the lower levels.
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: Curtis Granderson
Scranton/WB: Greg Golson
Trenton: Melky Mesa
Tampa: Abe Almonte
Charleston: Slade Heathcott
The true center field depth chart in New York is two names deep: Granderson and Gardner. Both are plus defenders, and the Yankees showed last season that if Granderson gets hurt, Gardner will immediately slide over from left field. Golson and Curtis can certainly handle the position, but as long as at least one of Granderson and Gardner is healthy, there will be no reason for anyone else to see significant time in center field.
As for the minor leagues, the system is full of outfielders who are able to handle center field, it’s a matter of prioritizing that playing time. Curtis will get some center field time in Triple-A, and Damon Sublett could get some time in Double-A. It gets a little more tricky in the lower levels depending on assignments. Whether he’s in Tampa or Charleston, Heathcott will almost certainly be the priority in center field, but Sosa, Williams and Gumbs are coming up behind him and also need time at the position. If the Yankees decide Heathcott needs a little more Low A time — that’s how I have it predicted, at least to start the season — Sosa could see significant time in the outfield corners for the first time. If Heathcott does open in Charleston, the best-case scenario would be for him to finish in Tampa.
Associated Press photo of Granderson and Gardner, headshots of Granderson, Mesa and Almonte