2013 Season Preview: The Center Fielders

Sherman: Carlos Lee's agent contacted Yankees
Gardner wearing new device to protect left thumb

Had things gone according to plan, Brett Gardner would have been manning center field all year rather than during the first four of five weeks of the season. Curtis Granderson‘s fractured forearm put an end to the position switch experiment before it really even had a chance to start, as Joe Girardi confirmed Granderson will return to his usual center field spot when healthy. Given how much offense the Yankees have lost to free agent defections and injury, getting their top homer hitter back in the lineup as soon as possible will be the priority, not the position switch.

The Starter
It will be Gardner for the first few weeks of the season, but he’ll slide back to use usual spot in left as soon as Granderson is healthy. The soon-to-be 32-year-old is coming off a .232/.319/.492 (116 wRC+) line with a team-best 43 homers in 2012, though his season can be split into two halves: .248/.352/.502 (130 wRC+) with 23 homers and a 25.9% strikeout rate in the first half, then .212/.278/.480 (98 wRC+) with 20 homers and a 31.8% strikeout rate in the second half. His miserable postseason showing — 3-for-30 with 16 strikeouts — was the icing on the cake.

The root cause of Granderson’s second half slide is so unclear the Yankees sent him to an eye doctor after the season. Tests came back showing unusual. His first/second half BABIP split (.282/.233) was propped up by an increase in fly balls (38.3%/51.1%), though pitchers did throw him fewer fastballs (57.2%/53.7%). Not a ridiculous amount though. Whatever happened in the second half, I can’t really explain it. Could be something obvious I’m not seeing or it could be something completely under-the-radar. I’m guessing the latter. Whether it’s correctable is something we won’t know until he actually gets back on the field.

Regardless of why the second half slump happened, the Yankees need Granderson’s power and that’s something he provided even when struggling. He hits homers at home (56 since revamping his swing in August 2010), on the road (41), against righties (64), against lefties (33), with men on-base (42), with the bases empty (55) … pretty much all the time. Granderson is one of the few batters who bats with a man in scoring position all the time — even when the bases are empty — because his ability to go deep at any moment is a game-changer. The Yankees have been known for that kind of offense basically forever, but this season will be different and that makes the Grandyman that much more important.

In addition to all of that, this is Granderson’s walk year. He’ll become a free agent after the season for the first the in his career, and his power production will get him paid regardless. Whether he has a big year like 2011 (145 wRC+) or just a merely above-average year like 2012 (116 wRC+) will determine if he gets Michael Cuddyer money (three years, $31M) or Nick Swisher money (four years, $56M). The Bombers could sure use a nice big contract push from their center fielder, but more importantly, they just need to get him back in the lineup as soon as possible.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The Backup
Technically it is Gardner even though he’ll open the year playing center everyday. The Yankees showed last season they’re willing to play Ichiro Suzuki in center on occasion, so he’s a backup option as well. There’s also Melky Mesa, who could open the season with the big league club and is another legitimate center field candidate. Despite losing Granderson, the Bombers have no shortage of capable center fielders at the Major League level.

Knocking on the Door
Before Granderson’s injury, it was likely Mesa was going to open the season as the everyday center fielder with Triple-A Scranton. He is third on the center field depth chart — I do the Yankees would play Melky2.0 out there everyday before Ichiro Suzuki if both Granderson and Gardner got hurt — and is sorta like a poor man’s version of a right-handed Granderson offensively. Mesa has power and speed and contact issues, but he’s a much better defender with a very strong arm. If he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training as Granderson’s replacement, Melky will wait in Triple-A and assuredly resurface in the Bronx at some point this simmer.

The Top Prospect
You can make a very strong case that New York’s two best prospects are both center fielders. Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott ranked second and fourth on my preseason top 30 prospects list, respectively, but not many would argue if I had them one-two in either order. Williams, 21, hit .298/.346/.474 (~125 wRC+) in 397 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa last season before needing season-ending left shoulder surgery — he hurt himself while diving for a ball in the outfield — in late-July. He’s a ballhawk in center with big-time speed and range, though his arm is just okay and his routines need to be refined. Williams signed for $1.45M as the Yankees’ fourth rounder in 2010, but he needs to work on a number of things. The raw tools are as impressive as they come though. He’ll open the season back at High-A Tampa and will hopefully stay healthy and get a ton of at-bats as the leadoff man.

Heathcott is a danger to himself and others. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Heathcott (flying) is a danger to himself and others. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Heathcott, meanwhile, returned from his second left shoulder surgery at midseason to hit .307/.378/.470 (142 wRC+) in 265 plate appearances with High-A Tampa in 2012 before catching some extra at-bats in the Arizona Fall League. The 22-year-old has the best all-around package of tools in the organization, with power and patience from the left side of the plate to go with high-end speed and defense in center. Heathcott can over-swing at times and struggle to make contact, but that should work itself out with more experience. Health is an issue though, in part because he plays all-out all the time and hurts himself by diving for balls and running into walls. Slade has yet to play in more than 76 regular season games since signing for $2.2M as the team’s first round pick in 2009, so staying on the field all year will be priority number one this season. He’ll open the year at Double-A Trenton and since he’s due to be added to the 40-man roster following the season (to avoid exposure to the Rule 5 Draft), there’s a chance we’ll see him as a September call-up.

The Deep Sleeper
Could it be Ravel Santana at this point? The 20-year-old had a miserable season with Short Season Staten Island last summer — .216/.304/.289 (84 wRC+) with three homers and 27.5% strikeouts in 247 plate appearances — after coming back from the devastating ankle injury that ended his 2011 campaign prematurely. Two years ago he was a budding star after dominating the rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate, but the injury sapped some athleticism and cost him balance at the plate. If he regains his previous form as he matures and gets further away from surgery, Santana is likely to join the ranks of Williams and Heathcott. If not, he’ll be a non-prospect. I ranked him 28th on my preseason top 30 list and he’ll join Low-A Charleston this year. It’s a weird situation, but there is some breakout potential here.

* * *

Even though Granderson is going to miss the start of the season, the Yankees are in good shape regarding the center field position. Gardner is a more than capable replacement — both short- and long-term — and Ichiro can fill-in no problem if needed. New York will also have legitimate prospects playing center in Triple-A (Mesa), Double-A (Heathcott), High-A (Williams), and Low-A (Santana). That’s exciting. Once Curtis is healthy, center field will join second base as the deepest positions in the organization.

Other Previews: Catchers, First Basemen, Second Basemen, Shortstops, Third Basemen, Left Fielders

Sherman: Carlos Lee's agent contacted Yankees
Gardner wearing new device to protect left thumb
  • Bob Buttons

    We should see if Bubba Crosby is willing to come out of retirement.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Turning down Damon, but bringing in Crosby, would be just awesome.

      • trr

        what’s the opposite of awesome? awful? LOL, remember when they said Bubba was going to be the starting CF?

        • Robinson Tilapia

          You watch your whore mouth. My mother-in-law LOVED Bubba Crosby. I even thought about getting her a t-shirt once.

          • Barry

            I’ll tell you what to do with that whore mouth.


  • Laz

    CF is going to be exciting in the future. Still 2 more years of Gardner control, then it could be a slade or mason.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      I’m either going to be so frigging giddy in a few years or am setting myself up for massive heartbreak with those three. Stay tuned.

      • jjyank

        Likewise. After Montero was traded, I immediately chose Mason as my favorite prospect. Considering that my all-time favorite is Bernie, it was a no-brainer for me. Center Fielder with the last name Williams? Hells yes.

        So I’m with ya there, for sure. I will either giggle like a school girl or cry black tears of sorrow in a couple years.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          At least they’re not on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Generation K FTW.

      • nsalem

        If one of the three or four if you count Flores wound up as a mainstay cpst controlled contributors to hopefully continued Yankee winning ways in the future. I would be thrilled. Ditto for Sanchez/Romine/Murphy and Adams/Joseph. If 2 of our 6 or 7 MLB projected starters succeeded it would also be great for the organization. If we are lucky enough to have 6 or 7 homegrown players who are helping in the next 3 or 4 years it will serve as at least a counterbalance to the $100 million or so we will be doling out to A-Rod,CC,Tex and Cano in both 2016 and 2017

        • Robinson Tilapia

          Completely agree. I’d also be fine with someone else going from fringe prospect to contributor. I want to see this generation produce solid contributors.

          I’d also be lying if I wasn’t partial to Sanchez and Slade being a big part of it all, though.

          • lightSABR

            This. I’m still a new enough baseball fan that I have a hard time not getting irrationally excited about prospects and dreaming of half of last year’s Low-A squad in the hall of fame.

            I may be smart enough not to call David Phelps a future ace, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to.

  • pat

    Thanks for the photo caption. Couldn’t tell which was Slade, hah.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Shame about Ravel. Really exciting guy to read about initially. Hope some of that mobility is back this season.

  • Manny’s BanWagon

    Still don’t understand why Grandy is going back to CF when he returns. I think they can at least get him some experience in LF on his rehab assignment and then try it out when he returns to the majors.

    We already know he’s a bad defensive CFer. What’s the worst case scenario if he moves to LF, he’ll be a bad defensive LFer?

    The Yankees make these switches out to be way more involved than they really are. Ichiro seemed just fine last year moving from RF to LF and has played CF in the past. Same thing with Tori Hunter, Johnny Damon and countless other outfielders.

    • Cool Lester Smooth

      The worst case scenario is that he feels uncomfortable and doesn’t hit well because of the position switch.

    • Havok9120

      The worst case, and the thing that players and managers talk about all the time on all teams, is that him being in a place he’s less comfortable with in the field will affect him at the plate. Baseball players are quite possibly the most superstitious, comfort-zone oriented people in sports, something we make fun of them for all the time. Just like some guys can’t PH or DH, or stay in a rhythm only playing twice a week, or any number of other things. They, the players, generally seem to believe that this is a thing and Granderson has already said, several times, that he’s far more comfortable in center.

      Stop trying to make it sound as if what they’re doing makes absolutely no sense in the context of player sensibilities. It’s annoying, illogical, and a wholly mental problem, none of which mean that it doesn’t matter.


  • Djangoberry

    Please please proof your columns.