When the Yankees realized they weren’t going to re-sign Robinson Cano, their immediate reaction was to invest in the outfield. They had a solid center fielder in place already, but the Yankees decided that the best Cano-alternative on the market was a longtime rival who covers a ton of ground and bats at the very top of the order. For $153 million, center field should be locked down for the next seven years.
Top of the depth chart: Jacoby Ellsbury
Backup options: Brett Gardner (maybe Ichiro Suzuki)
Also coming to camp: Slade Heathcott, Mason Williams, Antoan Richardson, Adonis Garcia
Deeper in the system: Jake Cave, Aaron Judge
In some ways, the Yankees know exactly what they’re getting in Jacoby Ellsbury. They’ve certainly seen him enough. He’s a career .297 hitter with terrific speed and strong defense, and he’s done that while playing in the American League East. In other ways, the Yankees can’t be sure about their long-term outfield investment. Ellsbury has battled sometimes unusual injuries over the years, and his best season included a power spike that he’s never come close to repeating. Ellsbury should give the Yankees a left-handed bat at the top of the order for years to come, and if that happens, he could force some of the Yankees top prospects to switch positions (or become trade bait) down the road.
Lingering question: All about health
Really, there is no lingering question in center field. Not a typical offseason question, anyway. We all know Ellsbury is the everyday guy. We know Brett Gardner is still in place to play some center fielder when Ellsbury’s legs need a rest. We know Ichiro Suzuki has been able fill in at the position from time to time as well, and we know that two of the Yankees better prospects are left-handed center fielders similar to Ellsbury himself. The real center field question heading into spring training is just how many games Ellsbury will be able to play. He’s had more than 600 at-bats in two of his past four seasons (and, to be fair, in four of his past six). As a leadoff hitter, the Yankees are certainly counting on Ellbury to play at least that much. They have another perfectly good center fielder on the roster, but the Yankees invested in Ellsbury expecting some immediate bang for their buck.
Worth watching this spring: The guys you’ve heard all about
Getting adjusted to the sight of Ellsbury in pinstripes should happen fairly quickly. After that, he’ll play center and get ready for the season. Interesting and important, but nothing we haven’t seen before. There will be a different sort of curiosity around Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott. Generally accepted as two of the Yankees top prospects — and certainly two of their best upper-level prospects — Williams and Heathcott are left-handed leadoff types who play good defense in center. The absolute ceiling for each of them is probably something similar to Ellsbury. Both have had somewhat uneven careers marketed by injuries and a few off-the-field problems, but both are talented, and both have been on the prospect radar for years. This would be a good year for a breakout season, and it might as well start with a strong showing in big league camp.
Best-case scenario: MVP candidate up the middle
The Yankees lost their usual MVP contender when Cano signed with the Mariners, but Ellsbury has been in the MVP conversation in two of the past three years, and the could give the Yankees another up-the-middle MVP candidate this year. Even a season like he had in 2013, when Ellsbury was a kind of bottom-of-the-ballot possibility, would be productive and helpful. If he can get closer to his 2011 numbers — maybe run into a few more homers because of Yankee Stadium’s short porch — that would be even better. With Ellsbury and Gardner covering a ton of ground in the outfield and providing a one-two speed punch on the bases, the Yankees could have an exciting dynamic to their everyday lineup, but it needs to start with Ellsbury being a true standout.
Worst-case scenario: Back of his baseball card
For each position, it’s easy to say that an injury is the worst-case scenario. Obviously that’s always true. In Ellsbury’s case, though, it seems especially relevant. The back of his baseball card shows he played just 18 games in 2010, and that he played less than half of the games in 2012. In fact, I’ll point to 2012 as Ellsbury’s most reasonable worst-case scenario. That season, he played just 74 games, but that’s only half of the problem. The other half is that he hit just .271/.313/.370. He has to get on base more often than that to utilize his speed and become something close to the impact player the Yankees envisioned when they gave him such a massive contract.
Keep and eye on this year: Where’s Aaron Judge playing?
Amazing that a guy who hasn’t played a single professional game can already stir such excitement and anticipation, but that’s certainly the case with Aaron Judge. He was the Yankees second pick last year — a supplemental selection — but he didn’t play because of a quad issue. Even so, the Yankees have acknowledged the possibility of pushing Judge all the way to High-A Tampa for his professional debut. He’s a huge guy — 6-foot-7, built like a strong safety — and his power potential is immense. Most expectation is that Judge will settle into right field, but there could be some chance of testing his athleticism in center.
Associated Press photo