An iconic position in the Bronx, center field is currently a source of short-term stability and long-term potential. It’s also a position of short-term debate (how good is Brett Gardner, anyway?) and long-term questions (are any of these touted center field prospects going to actually make it to the big leagues?).
Final year of arbitration
There was a lengthy stretch during the season when Gardner was the Yankees second-best offensive weapon. Their short-handed lineup was built around Robinson Cano, but Gardner was a strength at the top of the order. That said, there was also the month of August when Gardner hit .238/.319/.356, and lefties gave him some trouble, and he suffered yet another relatively minor injury at the end of the season. Gardner has generally established himself as more than a fourth outfielder — though there are still some who are unconvinced — but he remains streaky. This year’s increase of power came with an increase of strikeouts and a decreased number of walks. His overall OPS+ was a career high, even better than his 2010 season, but his stolen base total was less than half of what he had in 2011 when he led the league. Gardner has his obvious strengths, and he’s proven he can be a strong center fielder and solid-but-streaky leadoff hitter. Barring a trade, he’ll be back next season for his final year before reaching free agency. Whether the Yankees keep him beyond 2014 might depend on the development of some of their outfield prospects.
The short answer is, the Yankees don’t have a ready replacement for Gardner. Melky Mesa was released at the end of last season, and even he brought significant questions about whether he could make enough contact to be a viable Major League center fielder. Zoilo Almonte has played some center field in the past, and I suppose Ichiro Suzuki would be considered the second string center fielder — unless Curtis Granderson comes back — but the minor league system doesn’t have a center fielder who’s knocking on the door. At least not yet. Two names, though, to keep in mind as possible center field options at some point in 2014: Adonis Garcia and Slade Heathcott. Garcia is the Cuban outfielder who’s a kind of upper-level wild card. He hit just .256/.312/.357 in Triple-A last season, but he slugged .492 in limited Double-A at-bats the year before. There’s something interesting about Garcia, but he hasn’t done nearly enough to suggest he’s a trusted or even key part of the minor league system. There’s more intrigue with Heathcott, who’s long been considered a high-potential center fielder — sometimes referred to as a more powerful version of Gardner — and he hit .279/.339/.514 in his last 111 Double-A at-bats last season. He needs to stay healthy enough to get a bunch of at-bats, but he’s close enough to the big leagues (should be added to the 40-man this winter) that he belongs on the short-term radar.
Neither one had a great year, but the Yankees top center field prospect is still either Heathcott or Mason Williams. Both are legitimate defenders — few people doubt their ability to stay in center — but it’s still uncertain whether their bats will be enough to provide production in the big leagues. Heathcott is the closer of the two, but a year ago, Williams was considered by many to be the top prospect in the Yankees system. At the time was coming off a .298/.346/.474 slash line between Low-A and High-A (in an injury-shortened 2012). Now he’s coming off a .245/.304/.337 slash line between High-A and Double-A, so clearly his steps this year weren’t in the right direction. That said, Williams just turned 22 in August, so he’s still awfully young for a Double-A outfielder. And the Yankees sent him to the Arizona Fall League for additional work. Heathcott and Williams have climbed into the upper levels of the system, and now it’s time for the Yankees to see some consistent results to support those high expectations.
STATE OF THE ORGANIZATION
Barring a trade, it’s not a center field transition year just yet. The Yankees moved Gardner into center field this spring, and the change will likely carry into 2014 when Gardner returns as an everyday player and likely leadoff hitter. But Gardner is going to hit the open market soon, and the Yankees top center field prospects are getting close to the big leagues. Transition could come soon, especially if either Heathcott or Williams has a strong season in Double-A or Triple-A. Deeper in the system, there are other center fielders who are intriguing for one reason or another. Former eighth-rounder Tayler Dugas had a .405 on-base percentage this year. Former sixth-rounder Jake Cave is coming off a strong season in Low-A Charleston. The Yankees used a couple of fairly high draft picks on center fielders — Michael O’Neil, Brandon Thomas — and there is still vaguely some hope for Ravel Santana, but for now the focus remains on Heathcott and Williams. Their progress could determine how seriously the Yankees need to think about re-signing Gardner after his contract expires.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Gardner, Heathcott, Williams and Cave