By the time Spring Training starts, odds are good that the Yanks will head into Tampa with five outfielders for four positions. Although Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera are currently behind Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher on the Yanks’ depth charts, the team wants to bring Johnny Damon back at the best price and will look at Mike Cameron before the winter is out.
Therefore, the Yanks have a good problem to have: They have a trading chip. Either Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera will draw interest from other clubs. The question, then, concerns the expendable one: Of Gardner or Cabrera, which one should the Yanks try to move?
Over the last four seasons, Yankee fans have grown quite familiar with Melky, for better or worse. As a 21-year-old in 2006, he inherited the starting left field job when Hideki Matsui went down with a wrist injury and was a pleasant surprise with the bat. He hit .280/.360/.391 with a 95 OPS+. While 2006 was a decent showing for Melky, the next two years would show him trending in the wrong direction. Over his next 1065 plate appearances, he hit .263/.316/.369 with just 16 home runs. With more Major League experience, he should have been getting better, but his only redeeming quality was his arm, and by the end of 2008, he had lost his starting job.
This year, facing some competition for his outfield spot, Melky seemed to turn it on early. He hit .285/.347/.439 in the first half with a few key clutch hits. He faded during the second half, but still managed to put up a 99 OPS+ season. For those of us in the anti-Melky camp, 2009 was a very pleasant surprise.
Still, we don’t know what to expect out of the youngster going forward. The 2010 season will be his age 25 year, and after 2148 Major League plate appearances, he has a career line of .269/.331/.385. He doesn’t have much speed or power but has a strong arm. He seems to be an ideal candidate for a fourth outfielder spot on a good team or a starting job on a lesser team but could still improve.
Then, we have Brett Gardner. A year older than Melky, the speedster has just 425 Major League plate appearances and three fewer years of service time. This year, Gardner hit .270/.345/.379. He covers a lot of ground in center field but doesn’t have Melky’s arm. He has a lot of speed but hasn’t gotten on base at a high enough clip at the Major League level to be a game-changer. We don’t know what Melky’s eventual ceiling will be, but Gardner’s may very well be what we saw this year. He’s a fast slap hitter, valuable as a late-game pinch runner but needs to find another 15 to 20 OBP points to stick.
And so the rumors. When Curtis Granderson arrived, many figured the Yanks would be able to trade one of their young center fielders. So far, rumor has it that both the Royals and White Sox have called to ask Brian Cashman about Gardner. Is the outfielder I find more expendable actually in greater demand than Melky? It would seem so.
Right now, we don’t have a sense of the potential returns. Maybe the Yanks could get Brian Bannister from the Royals, but then again, maybe he’ll be non-tendered today. The Yanks fleeced Ken Williams and the White Sox last year when they acquired Nick Swisher for a bunch of nothing. Could they do it again with Gardner? It’s nice to dream.
As it stands, the Yanks have the luxury of holding a strong hand made stronger by the Rule 5 arrival of Jamie Hoffmann. So far, Cashman has been able to capitalize on that advantage. Let’s see how he does now with a glut of young outfielders. If I were a betting man, I’d say we’ve seen the last of Gardner in pinstripes. But then again, if the Yanks sign another outfielder, Gardner may be more useful than Melky as a bench player. And so it goes.