Up next in our position-by-position look at the Yankees organization is a position that has a long-term solution already in place at the major-league level. It’s also a position with quite a bit of depth — and a good amount of both disappointment and production — within the minor league system. The Yankees have a lot of young center fielders who might or might not work out, but right now there’s not really a place to put them even if they do emerge as immediate big league options.
Signed through 2020
The Yankees lineup didn’t have much in 2013, but one thing it did have was a speedy, left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder. And so, of course, when the Yankees got into the offseason and needed to find a high-end position player, they gave seven years and more than $150 million to a speedy, left-handed, leadoff-hitting center fielder. For the most part, Ellsbury lived up to expectation in his first season with the Yankees. He had a 113 OPS+ in 2013, then a 111 in 2014. He had 246 total bases in 2013, 241 in 2014. Home runs were up, stolen bases were slightly down, but ultimately this was a reasonable and productive year for Ellsbury. Whether the contract will still be reasonable and productive at the end of the decade remains to be seen, but for the time being, the Yankees seem to have gotten the player they expected. And having Ellsbury in center field has allowed the Yankees to move Brett Gardner back into left field, giving them a ton of outfield range and a double-dose of speed near the top of the order.
On the verge
I’m using Richardson’s name here mostly to make a point about the uncertainty of all the organization’s upper-level center fielders. The Yankees have a lot of center fielders who could push themselves onto the big league roster early next season — Can Slade Heathcott get healthy? Mason Williams has the defense, what about the bat? Will Jake Cave keep moving up? Is Taylor Dugas for real? Are Adonis Garcia and Ramon Flores good enough in center? — but this September, when the Yankees wanted a speedy center field type to bring up in September, they called on the veteran Richardson. Even with a lot of center field talent in Double-A and Triple-A, Richardson was the choice. Ideally, one of the true center field prospects will push for that sort of call-up next year. Williams is Rule 5 eligible this offseason. Heathcott and Flores are already on the 40-man. Cave and Dugas had great 2014 seasons. Both Garcia and Flores are intriguing hitters who primarily play in the corners but have center field experience. With both Ellsbury and Gardner on the big league roster, the Yankees have ready-made depth in center field, so the development of a center fielder isn’t overwhelmingly important. But the Yankees have a lot of upper-level talent at the position, and they’ll surely need some of that talent to play some sort of role going forward.
Two things are at play here. The first is all about Cave himself. The 21-year-old missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, but he made a strong showing with Low-A Charleston in 2013, and he did so well with High-A Tampa this season that he forced a mid-July promotion to Double-A Trenton. When he got there, Cave’s power numbers actually spiked. He finished the year with a .294/.351/.414 slash line between the two levels. He can run, but he hasn’t stolen a ton of bases. He has some power, but it mostly plays out in a lot of doubles. He’s noted for a strong arm in the outfield. Good as Cave has been these past two years, though, some of his move to the top of the organizational pecking order at center field is because of the decline of both Williams and Heathcott. Williams hit just .223/.290/.304, which was another a step backwards after a disappointing 2013. His speed, defense and upside might be enough for a 40-man spot this winter, but Williams’ prospect stock is falling fast. Heathcott, on the other hand, remains one of the highest-potential players in the organization, but he had yet another surgery this season. He simply missed too much time and remains too injury prone to still consider him the top center field prospect in the system.
Deeper in the system
The Yankees top five draft picks this year were all pitchers. The first position player they selected was Payton, a University of Texas center fielder who made a strong first impression by hitting .320/.418/.497 between Low-A and High-A. Just like almost all of the other center fielders in the system, Payton is a left-handed hitter, and most scouting reports suggest a fourth-outfielder upside. He seems to be one of those guys who does a lot of things pretty well but no one thing extremely well (could say that about a lot of the Yankees other center field prospects as well). Have to assume Payton will head back to Tampa next season, looking to basically follow Cave’s footsteps with a mid-season bump to Double-A. Also coming up from the lower levels, Dustin Fowler hit for some power in Charleston this year, but Leonardo Molina is the name to watch. He’s just 17 years old and put up bad numbers in rookie ball, but the Yankees see considerable potential. Needs time to develop.
Getting things right
It’s not unusual or surprising to see a lot of left-handed center fielders in the organization. Most high school teams tend to stick their best players at shortstop, but if that best player is left-handed, center field seems to be the best alternative. And it seems the Yankees organization is seeing the trickle-down impact. Ellsbury, Gardner, Cave, Dugas, Flores, Heathcott, Williams and Payton are all left-handed hitters. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a redundant thing. With Ellsbury and Gardner locked into multi-year contracts, the Yankees most immediate opening for a young center fielder is in fourth outfielder role, and it would be convenient to have that fourth outfielder bat right-handed (if only to balance the two guys already in place). At some point the Yankees might have to trade away some of this center field depth to find a player who’s not so repetitive within their own system. Problem is, Heathcott and Williams have lost considerable trade value, and guys like Flores and Dugas (and probably even Cave) aren’t likely to headline a particularly significant deal.
Associated Press photo