More on the center field merry-go-round
Jon Heyman of SI.com had an interesting tidbit in a recent posting about the Yankees shopping Nick Swisher and Xavier Nady:
Johnny Damon isn’t in the trade mix, as the Yankees need him to be their leadoff hitter and part of a center field rotation. The other in-house candidates for center field are Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner.
That’s interesting, though not in the basic meaning of it — even though Damon is in the last year of his contract and is coming off something like a career season, it seemed unlikely the Yankees would try to move him, given the two roles he plays on the team, leadoff hitter, as Heyman mentions, as well as defensively overqualified left fielder. Many observers tend to focus on Damon’s poor arm, but his speed makes for a corner outfielder who can cover an unusual amount of ground.
Now, if you think about it, the most potent offensive outfield the Yankees could field next year would be Nady in left, Damon in center, and Swisher in right, rather than the presumed alternative, Damon in left, some combination of Gardner and Cabrera in center, and Xavier Nady in right — and Swisher playing the Ghost of Christmas Past, or Hamlet’s Father, or something. The problem with doing that, beyond the misuse of Swisher, is that at Damon’s current stage of the lifecycle, he’s better off not being overtaxed. Further, while his speed still does wonders in left, it’s not quite as spectacular in center — Damon had already slid off his peak the position before the Yankees moved him.
That said, being part of a center field rotation, as per Heyman above, makes all kinds of sense in that it gives the Yankees a great deal more flexibility in being able to waltz other players in and out of the corners. The more positions a star can play without compromising the defense, the better off the team is, because the club begins to close off openings for the replacement-level players that are so damaging to the winning effort. Similarly, Joe Girardi needn’t be married to any one center fielder.
There is yet another hand, which is that the Yankees might want to get married to a center fielder. Damon is in the last year of his contract, and as good as he was at 34 and may be at 35, asking him to keep it up at 36 and 37 will likely be pushing it. Given that the class of free agent center fielders next winter is going to be no fun, the Yankees will be in much better shape going into 2010 if they have the next center fielder lined up now. That could mean getting Gardner established, finding some way to electrify Melky, or even giving Austin Jackson a shot in the second half of the season, should his work at Scranton demand such an audition. Obviously the needs of 2010 have to be balanced against the goal of winning in 2009, with any luck the two goals will be mutually compatible.
One supposes the Yankees will need another leadoff man after 2009 as well. Traditional images would suggest that Gardner is the man, but Gardner may never have enough sock to justify taking up so many plate appearances, regardless of how many bases he steals. The Yankees will need to remember that your leadoff hitter need not match the picture of the singles-hitting speedster. That way lies madness. That way lies Juan Pierre. Remember, Wade Boggs was a great leadoff hitter, and he almost never stole a base. It’s about how often you’re on, not about how fast you can run. In an era of home run hitting, the rest takes care of itself.
SO LET’S TAKE THIS TOPIC ON THE AIR
Later today (6:30 EST) I’ll be appearing from the Bunker on the Yes Network’s Hot Stove show. As usual, I’ll be asked to summarize what we’ve been discussing this week. Let’s try a simple vote, which I’ll relay to the fellers on the air: who should be the starting center fielder in 2009? Damon? Gardner? Cabrera? A rotation split roughly in equal thirds? Or a write-in candidate of your choice? Jim Edmonds is still out there, and he murdered the ball for the Cubs last year. He’d be a heck of a platoon player in center. Argue it out in the comments section below, and I’ll tally up your responses while waiting for smilin’ Bob Lorenz to cast his dancing spell my way.