After a largely disappointing 2010 season, it would have been difficult to imagine — even in a best-case scenario — that Curtis Granderson would emerge as an MVP candidate in 2011. Would have been nearly as difficult to predict, after that terrific 2011 season and a strong first half of 2012, that Granderson’s on-base percentage would plummet the way it did in the second half of last year. That said, Granderson might not even be the Yankees center fielder this year (and he almost certainly won’t be next year).
The Yankees haven’t announced who their center fielder will be, but the best-case scenario seems to be Brett Gardner taking over the position. However they line it up, the Yankees regular outfield is going to have Gardner, Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki. Might as well put Gardner in center for two reasons: 1. He’s probably better than Granderson defensively, and 2. It makes sense to transition in center in preparation for Granderson’s free agency (should be easier to find a replacement corner outfielder than a new center fielder).
If Gardner lives up to expectation defensively (he’s been considered by many to be the game’s best left fielder), gets on base regularly (he has a career .355 OBP) and makes things happen on the bases (he led the league with 49 steals in 2011), the Yankees will have a dynamic player who doesn’t have to hit 40 home runs to have an impact. Put Gardner in center this year, sign him through his final arbitration season in 2014, and the Yankees could have a perfect center field bridge to either Slade Heathcott or Mason Williams (might even have a player worth signing beyond 2014 to serve as a proven table setter while the younger guys adjust to the bigs).
Of course, those younger guys are key to the Yankees best-case scenario in center. Both Heathcott and Williams have enough upside to suggest significant impact down the road. A healthy and productive Double-A season from Heathcott could put him on the verge of a big league role — Damon Oppenheimer has gone so far as to say Heathcott could push for a big league job this year — and Williams was terrific last season before a shoulder injury sidelined him in late July. If he brings those Low-A results to High-A and gets a mid-season promotion to Double-A, he could solidify himself among the top outfield prospects in baseball. Add a return-to-form from Ravel Santana, and some sort of big league impact from Melky Mesa, and the Yankees will have both high-end talent and enormous depth at the position.
Prospects are suspects
For years, Gardner has built a strong group of believers, but he’s never broken through as a guy who everyone believes in as an everyday, big league leadoff hitter. Why is that? Maybe this is the year we find out. Maybe Gardner is finally give the opportunity — everyday job in center field, a chance to hit at the top of the order — and it just doesn’t work. The Yankees tried to use him as their leadoff hitter in the very beginning of 2011, but that experiment was scrapped very quickly when Gardner hit just .146/.222/.220 through 13 games. Tiny sample size, sure, but the Yankees obviously felt they’d seen enough to pull the plug. What is that carries into this season?
If Gardner isn’t up to the task and leaves the Yankees constantly benching him against left-handed starters, the team will likely go back to Granderson as the everyday center fielder — won’t want to keep Granderson changing positions from game to game — and Granderson’s tendancy to swing and miss could carry over from last year, leaving the Yankees, once again, with an all-or-nothing center fielder who no longer does those things he did especially well in Detroit.
As for another option in center? Triple-A is likely to have Mesa playing the position, and while the tools are there, Mesa’s high strikeout totals — sound familiar? — have consistently left him unable to fully utilize his power and speed. Regardless of last year’s strong comeback, Heathcott is still a guy with two shoulder surgeries already under his belt. And Williams is still just a 21-year-old kid who’s proven nothing above Low-A. And Santana is still a guy who hit for no average and no power in Staten Island.
Associated Press photos