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Outfield still a mystery

Could Gardner be the answer in center field?
12/31/2008 2:40 PM ET
By Steven Goldman / Special to YESNetwork.com

It might not be realistic to expect another .305 average from Xavier Nady in 2009. (AP)
TO THE MATS WITH READER MAIL

1: GODS AND GODDESES OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS I enjoy reading the Pinstriped Blog. An interesting thought came to mind after the Teixeira signing which I love. Who do you think is the most powerful person in baseball, Bud Selig or Scott Boras? Does Boras have too much influence on the game and should something be done to limit his control of the game, like a limit on the number of players he can represent in general or each year?

Also, what are the best options for the Yankees in the outfield short term and long term? If Cabrera and Gardner don't perform well in center field how soon could we see Jackson in there? Out of the current candidates of Swisher, Nady, Cabrera, Gardner who has the best arm (I leave off Damon and Matsui because I know they can't throw)? Thanks, Jeff

Thank you for writing, Jeff. The "power" of Boras is generally overstated. He's a very smart, very successful agent who does good things for his clients. He doesn't negotiate media rights contracts or decide who gets to own the Chicago Cubs, though maybe he should. He does his job, which is to drive a hard bargain for his clients. What power he has derives exclusively from teams wanting to hire the people he represents. If they refuse to bargain with him, he's pretty helpless, although they do pay a penalty for that in not getting hold of some very good players. Power seems to imply the ability to impose your will on others, and Boras needs complicit partners before he can even start talking. As for the outfield, I believe in Gardner's ability to get on base. The question is if he will do it often enough to overcome his utter lack of power.

As for Jackson, don't get too excited too soon. His indifferent Arizona Fall League performance and good-not-great performance at Double-A Trenton argues for some Triple-A seasoning before he gets a crack at a fulltime job. I expect you'll see a lot of him in spring training just so the major league staff gets familiar with him, and if he does well at Scranton, an injury call-up during the year is a distinct possibility. The center field job would seem to be something for 2010.

2: SOMETIMES YOU JUST FALL OUT OF LOVE (THERE DOESN'T HAVE TO BE A REASON)
Why is it that lots of Yankee fans don't like Gardner in center? He's very fast, an excellent defender, and wasn't half-bad with the bat in his second stint last year. Also, what happened to the Yankees fondness of Xavier Nady? It seemed like when they got him, the organization really liked him. But now they're thinking of trading him? Trading away a .305 AVG, 25 HR and 97 RBI from an offense that had trouble scoring runs last year? Does that even make sense? —Tucker

It makes a ton of sense, Tucker, because Nady isn't really a .305 hitter. In his career, he's been far closer to the hitter he cooled from his hot pinstriped start, a .268/.320/.474 hitter. As far as corner outfield production goes, it's subpar. If Nick Swisher gets back on track this year, he'll get on base much closer to 40 percent of the time and show comparable power. The value in Nady last season was that he was a huge in-season upgrade on Melky Cabrera, who he displaced from the lineup by allowing Johnny Damon to go back to center. That was a very nice move by Brian Cashman to staunch a bleeding wound, but Nady isn't someone a championship team plans on starting.

The knock on Gardner is that he's a banjo hitter, but as you point out he did a fine job in his second stint with the Yankees. He's a fine defender and an excellent baserunner, and if he can get on base with any regularity, he can show that there are more ways to contribute than hitting home runs. His upside is far superior to that of Melky Cabrera, who has but one skill right now, hitting for average, and that skill was absent this season.

3: MORE ON THE THEME OF THE DAY
Steve — In your PB column of today, you indicate the Yankees should keep Swisher and trade Nady. Certainly, last year's numbers would scream for the opposite course of action. You seem to be thinking that last year was an aberration for both players and that each will return to their prior form. I would prefer the Yankees use a six-man rotation of Matsui, Damon, Nady, Swisher, Melky and Gardner to cover the DH and three outfield spots. Unless the a Nady trade yields a significant prospect or an upgrade in centerfield, the only reason I could see trading Nady and not going with this six man rotation is financial. Do you agree?-Saul

Happy New Year, Saul. One problem I see right off the bat with the Six-for-One plan is that assuming a staff of 12 pitchers, the Yankees aren't going to be able to carry all those outfielders plus a reserve catcher and an extra infielder. Beyond that, it's not necessarily the best application of resources. First, Cabrera is guilty until proven innocent. He was not a great minor league hitter, and has yet to be even average in the majors. His big skill is that he can throw. Last year he killed the Yankees, punished them very badly given what an even subpar center fielder would have done. Many among the readership are ready to forgive and forget, but it's not clear that there's a good reason to expect a great deal more. Unless Cabrera develops an unexpected ability to knock balls over the wall or suddenly becomes highly selective, he's going to have to hit .300 to create any kind of offense. His major league batting averages are, in order,.280, .273, and .249. Wake me when the movie's over.

Matsui's knees may anchor him to DH, and given what we've seen of his defense that's not a bad thing. Between offensive and defensive deficiencies, there's no reason to ever play Cabrera, Gardner, or Damon in right field. Although every one of the players you list except for Nady has been a center fielder at some point in his life, only Cabrera and Gardner really have the ability to play the position at this point. Just to sort it all out, Nady would make a fine hedge against injury. Using him to rotate Damon or Swisher out of the lineup against select pitchers or for general rest would be a great thing. There are three problems: first, Nady might not want to spend his season that way. Second, given that he just spent half a season batting .330, his value will never be higher. Third, he's off to arbitration, so he's about to get expensive for a bench piece. Oh, and there's a fourth thing: at the end of the year he leaves and the Yankees have to start all over again. If he brings a more youthful body who will be under team control for several years, the greater utility might be in sending him away.

AND ON THAT NOTE...
...I send myself away for New Year's revelry. I wish each and every one of you a safe, happy, and loving new year, and I will look forward to seeing you in 2009. May it be a very good year for us all.

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Tuesday, December 30: Posted at 5:32 p.m. EST

SHUT UP, HE EXPLAINED

Now that Mark Teixeira is in the fold, it feels as if the Yankees can settle back, burp loudly, and wait for spring training to begin. No one would blame them if they felt a sense of completion, having picked up the two best players on the free agent market in Teixeira and Sabathia, and clearly some owners would be happier if they took the rest of the winter off, but it would be a mistake. There is still more work to do.

Before we run down the list of items that should still be on the agenda, is it possible we can a moratorium on owners calling for a salary cap because the Yankees just purchased a player on whom they weren't seriously bidding? Sabathia could easily have gone to the Dodgers, Teixeira to the Red Sox or even the bleeding Nationals, and these captains of industry wouldn't have made a peep. The playing field is not even. There are ways of fixing that have little to do with salary caps, which simply transfer dough from the players to the owners without changing the competitive balance even slightly. If redistribution of wealth meant that much, revenue sharing would have already done the job, but we know what those same owners do with the revenue sharing dough-they pocket it, or use it to pay down debt on their leveraged franchises.

Until such time as these owners are ready to truly address the issues of competitive balance, which will require revisions to basic assumptions about territoriality that go back to the business's earliest days, they can stop trying to fool the public about the need for a cap and try to beat the Yankees, which we've seen can be done by virtue of just being smarter. The Yankees spend, they win regular season games, but they haven't been to a World Series in five years, haven't won one in eight, and the Joe Torre run of great teams is a little, glorious island in a long sea of trying and failing, despite enough money to keep Steve Kemp in comic books and champagne for his next several lifetimes.

Meanwhile, the Yankees go about the work of trying to craft a winning team. I should stop there, but I won't, and not just because I get paid to go on at great length. In a winter in which the Yankees have made great strides in pursuing the obvious, like an ace pitcher for a staff that needs an ace and a first baseman to play first base-as opposed to a designated hitter, or a catcher, or a singles-hitting left fielder, or Miguel Cairo-now are looking to get their outfield in order. They don't have to trade Xavier Nady, but given that he's not the hitter that Nick Swisher is, or was, given that he's not the hitter that the average right fielder is, it makes sense to see what they can get for the overvalued corner-man. He'd make a nice reserve/injury insurance policy, but if they can get anything of long-term value for a player of his minor key skill set, arbitration eligibility, and impending free agency, they should certainly go for it. Current rumor has them doing just that. Again, it's pursuit of the obvious. Do that often enough, and you'll get better.

IN OTHER NEWS...

The Red Sox signed Brad Penny, who had a truly unpleasant year with the Dodgers, concealing an injury before breaking down altogether. His strikeout rates and general career path don't suggest that he gives the Red Sox much more than above-average depth, but that's something. What's most interesting in the signing is the vote of no-confidence it expresses in Clay Buchholz. One wonders if this is an effect of the Yankees' aggressive work this offseason-it is more typical of this regime to give the tyro pitcher another shot, and just chalk up the fifth spot in their rotation to development. Given other uncertainties in their rotation, such as the health problems of Josh Beckett, the wildness of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the 42-ness of Tim Wakefield, they needed more certainty. They apparently preferred the younger Penny to old hand Derek Lowe, and one supposes that if anyone knows about Lowe they do, but Penny still seems like a gamble. One can see why they wouldn't want another wild pitcher in Oliver Perez, but Ben Sheets would seem to have a higher upside. Perhaps the Red Sox, like the rest of us, are overleveraged.

TOMORROW To the mats with reader mail, so get your queries and comments into oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com.

Steven Goldman's Pinstriped Blog appears daily on YESNetwork.com. "Forging Genius," Steve's biography of Casey Stengel, and "Mind Game," the story of the Red Sox' 2004 championship, and "Baseball Between the Numbers," from the authors of Baseball Prospectus, are now available at Amazon.com. More Steve is available on YESNetwork.com in the Pinstriped Bible, and the Baseball Prospectus Web site. Your questions, comments, suggestions welcomed at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com. The opinions stated above are solely those of the author and should not be attributed to anyone connected in an official capacity with the YES Network.
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