Recent reliever trades show the Yankees hit the jackpot with the Chapman and Miller deals

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In the early days of Spring Training, we’ve gotten a nice little peek at some of the best young players the Yankees have in their much ballyhooed farm system. Aaron Judge socked what will probably go down as the longest home run of the spring, Gleyber Torres doubled to left and right fields the next day, and Clint Frazier has been wearing out the opposite field with extra-base hits. It’s been fun!

Judge was one of New York’s three first round picks back in 2013, and, as you know, Torres and Frazier both came over at last year’s trade deadline. So did outfielder Billy McKinney, who hit a home run Sunday, as well as Ben Heller and J.P. Feyereisen. We didn’t get to see Justus Sheffield make his spring debut Tuesday because the game wasn’t televised, but he was another trade deadline pickup as well.

Last summer the Yankees were uniquely positioned heading into the trade deadline and Brian Cashman & Co. took advantage in a big way. They turned Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, two relievers (great relievers, but relievers nonetheless), into three top 100 prospects, plus several others. The reliever trade market had really taken off in previous months and both the Cubs and Indians were pretty desperate despite sitting in first place. They had baseball’s two longest World Series droughts and wanted to get over the hump. Sure enough, the trades helped both get to the World Series.

Whenever we see trades, especially blockbuster trades that go beyond anything we expected, our first inclination is to think the market has changed. The Yankees got massive hauls for Chapman and Miller, which means every great reliever is going to require a massive Torres/Frazier caliber package going forward. It hasn’t worked out that way. Two other great relievers have been traded since those deals:

  • Pirates trade Mark Melancon to the Nationals for reliever Felipe Rivera and minor leaguer Taylor Hearn, whom Baseball America ranked as the 14th best prospect in Pittsburgh’s system in their 2017 Prospect Handbook.
  • Royals trade Wade Davis to the Cubs for Jorge Soler, a 25-year-old former top prospect who is still trying to find his way at the big league level. He came with four years of team control.

The Melancon trade was made one week after the Chapman trade and one day after the Miller trade. The Davis trade went down over the winter. Melancon was a rental like Chapman, and while he’s not as good as Chapman, he’s not that much worse either. And yet, the Pirates turned him into a good reliever and an okay prospect. The Yankees turned rental Chapman into arguably the best prospect in baseball in Torres, plus three others.

The Davis trade really drives home how well the Yankees did with the Miller and Chapman trades. From 2014-15, Davis was the best reliever on the planet, throwing 139.1 innings with a 0.97 ERA (1.72 FIP). He also excelled in the postseason (one earned run in 25 innings), closed out a World Series, and has an affordable contract ($10M in 2017). Somehow the Yankees got more for rental Chapman than the Royals did for a full year of Davis.

We can go back even further to show how much the Chapman and Miller trade look like outliers. Last offseason the Padres acquired four prospects for Craig Kimbrel, including two who landed on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list soon after the trade: Javier Guerra (No. 52) and Manuel Margot (No. 56). Kimbrel had three seasons left on his contract at the time of the trade. Well, two seasons and a club option. There’s an escape there in case things go wrong.

When the Yankees traded Miller, he had two and a half years remaining on his contract. They traded him for four prospects, including two who appeared on Baseball America’s midseason top 100 list a few weeks earlier: Frazier (No. 21) and Sheffield (No. 69). Would you rather have the Nos. 21 and 69 prospects, or the No. 52 and 56 prospects? I’d take Nos. 21 and 69. Prospect rankings are not linear. There’s not a significant difference between Nos. 52, 56, and 69. The difference between Nos. 21 and 52 is pretty huge though.

(For what it’s worth, the prospect valuations at Point of Pittsburgh indicate Frazier and Sheffield were worth a combined $78.5M in surplus value at the time of the trade. Guerra and Margot combined for $44.8M. Top 20-ish position player prospects like Frazier are insanely valuable.)

The Phillies didn’t got a single top 100 prospect in the Ken Giles trade, and he came with five years of team control. They just got a bunch of players with performance and/or health issues. Two years of Jake McGee was traded for a designated hitter (Corey Dickerson) who hasn’t hit outside Coors Field. Three years of Justin Wilson fetched two okay but not great pitching prospects. Four and a half years of Sam Dyson was given away for two non-prospects. Giles, McGee, Wilson, and Dyson have all been among the game’s top relievers the last few seasons, and look at those trades packages.

Point is, compared to some other top reliever trades, specifically the Melancon and Davis deals, the Chapman and Miller hauls look like a minor miracle. It was a perfect storm for the Yankees. They had an elite reliever on a contract that wasn’t burdensome, and the team that wanted him was not only very desperate to get over the hump and win their first World Series in a lifetime, they also had the tippy top prospects to trade. And then it all happened again.

I don’t want to call the Miller and Chapman trades once in a lifetime events, that’s a wee bit over the top, but given everything that happened leading up to and since the deals, it sure looks like everything came together at exactly the right time for the Yankees. They had the right players to offer very motivated buyers. And maybe it won’t work out and all the prospects will bust. Baseball can be a jerk like that. Right now, at this very moment, the Miller and Chapman deals look like franchise-altering trades. You dream of your favorite team making trades like this.

Didi Gregorius and his critical 2017 season

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

2017 may be a transitional season for the New York Yankees, but it is also critical for Didi Gregorius.

No, Sir Mariekson Julius Gregorius is not a free agent after the season. He’s not going to be replaced immediately if he goes through an early season slump that stretches into May. Yet there is plenty of meaning for Gregorius going into his third season with the Yankees as he tries to establish himself as the Bombers’ shortstop of the future.

It all has to do with the Yankees’ tremendous depth at Didi’s position. It’s absurd how deep the team is at short. At the big league level, Gregorius’ double play partner, Starlin Castro, is literally a three-time All-Star at shortstop. Think about it: Didi could get hurt tomorrow and the Yankees would have a more than capable shortstop ready to take his place two days from now.

Gleyber Torres, the team’s undisputed top prospect, has played all but one game of his minor league career at short. It’s not just Torres, too. Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo will likely see time in high minors, even if they may see time away from short. The lower minors have even more real prospects in the middle infield.

Outside of maybe Kyle Holder, the one thing Gregorius has on everyone in the Yankees’ system is his defensive abilities. The eye test bears that; For two years, we’ve seen his superior arm, his solid reads and his ability to make some spectacular plays that other shortstops, including his predecessor, can only dream about pursuing. He’s already flashed the leather this spring.

Defensive metrics are a little more mixed on the subject. As Mike wrote in his 2016 Season Review, the metrics that were universally positive for Didi in previous years were nearly across the board negative on him last season. We could chalk it up to a glitch in a defensive statistics, but it’s worth seeing whether his defense really took a slip. It’ll be tough to tell this spring since he’ll be playing in the WBC and changing positions for the Netherlands’ squad.

Regardless, his defense is viewed as a positive and something that entrenches him at the position. For what it’s worth he did start some games at second (7) and third (1) in 2014 with the Diamondbacks, so he has some versatility and could potentially move around the infield.

But the real question is his hitting. I mean, are we really supposed to believe that a player with 22 career home runs would all of a sudden become a 20-homer-a-year batter? Well, maybe. As I wrote earlier this week, he may not be the 20-homer slugger that he was in 2016 moving forward, but he genuinely improved as a hitter last year, which bears out in his increase in exit velocity on pitches all around the strike zone.

And where he really made a difference was against lefties. He hit for significantly less power against LHP (14 extra-base hits and a .149 ISO) than vs. righties (38 XB hits and a .179 ISO), but he still hit .320 vs. lefties. That’s all the more impressive considering he was borderline unplayable against southpaws in 2015 with a .247/.311/.315 line. This improvement came in part by doing a better job of hitting balls where they were thrown to him (e.g. hitting balls outside the other way). He doesn’t sport power the other way – all 20 of his home runs were pulled to right – yet his ability to hit the ball the other way can keep opposing defenses honest and avoid significant shifts. Maybe the left fielder shades him in a little bit, but nothing abnormal.

The importance of 2017 is whether Gregorius can maintain all that and maybe even add to his offensive game. He still doesn’t draw many walks and hasn’t yet produced an above average wRC+ season (98 last year). If he somehow got even better at the plate and proved the 2016 defensive stats were just a blip, we could conclude that he’s a keeper, someone worth keeping in pinstripes for a long time.

The Yankees will only come to that decision with a strong 2017. There are about 10-15 teams right now, give or take, that I’d take their everyday shortstop over Gregorius for the next three years (Yankees were middle of the pack in fWAR and bWAR for shortstop last season), but there’s also a strong crop of shortstop prospects this season beyond the Yankees, namely Amed Rosario, Willy Adames, Ozzie Albies and J.P. Crawford, among others. It’s a really great time for shortstops and having one who’s only so-so would put a team with elite aspirations

It’s important to note Gregorius is under team control for just these next three years. By 2019, Torres and others will likely be in the majors. Guys who can handle short like Manny Machado will hit the free agent market.

And the Yankees haven’t signed Gregorius to an extension. Maybe there are negotiations between the two sides right now, but it could be possible that the Yankees see Gregorius as merely a bridge to Torres or Mateo. Admit it: You had thoughts like that in 2015, if not now. If Didi wants to be a long-term Yankee, this year’s performance will be essential.

March 1st Camp Notes: Green, Severino, Kaprielian, Shortstop

The Yankees improved to 6-1 this spring with a win over the Braves earlier tonight. Jacoby Ellsbury had a big game, going 2-for-2 with a homer, a double, and a hit-by-pitch. (He’s fine.) Starlin Castro and Austin Romine each had two hits while Matt Holliday and Aaron Judge each had one. Holliday laced an opposite field double. It was, as announcers say, a nice piece of hitting.

Bryan Mitchell made his second start of the spring and tossed three scoreless innings, striking out two. He walked a batter and didn’t allow a hit. Mitchell has looked pretty good in the super early going. Dellin Betances made his spring debut and looked, well, like Dellin Betances. J.P. Feyereisen allowed two homers in the seventh inning. Not a great night for him. Here’s the box score and here are the video highlights. Now for the rest of the day’s news from Tampa:

The Yankees have another night game tomorrow. It’s a 6:35pm ET start against the Orioles. Adam Warren is going to start and Aroldis Chapman is scheduled to come out of the bullpen for his first appearance of the spring. That game will be on YES and MLB Network.

Spring Training Game Thread: Dellin’s Spring Debut

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time this year, the Yankees are playing a game under the lights. Tonight is their first night game of Grapefruit League play — they have another night game tomorrow — though at least they didn’t have to travel anywhere. This is a home game in Tampa against the Braves.

Dellin Betances, who is due to leave for the World Baseball Classic in the coming days, will make his spring debut tonight. He said the plan is two or three (likely two) appearances with the Yankees before heading to Miami to meet up with the Dominican Republic team. Here’s the lineup the Braves sent down from Disney, and here are the players the Yankees will use tonight:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. 2B Starlin Castro
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 1B Chris Carter
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. C Austin Romine
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Bryan Mitchell

Available Pitchers: RHP Dellin Betances, LHP Jordan Montgomery, RHP J.P. Feyereisen, LHP Nestor Cortes, and RHP Travis Hissong are all scheduled to pitch after Mitchell. LHP Daniel Camarena, LHP Dietrich Enns, RHP J.R. Graham, LHP Joe Mantiply, RHP Eric Ruth, and LHP Evan Rutckyj are also available, if needed. Cortes, Hissong, and Ruth are up from minor league camp for the day.

Available Position Players: C Jorge Saez, 1B Ji-Man Choi, 2B Pete Kozma, SS Gleyber Torres, 3B Donovan Solano, LF Tyler Wade, CF Dustin Fowler, RF Billy McKinney, and DH Francisco Diaz will be the second string off the bench. C Kellin Deglan, C Kyle Higashioka, SS Jorge Mateo, 3B Miguel Andujar, OF Clint Frazier, and UTIL Wilkin Castillo have to hang around for the game even though they’re not scheduled to play.

The internet tells me there is no rain in the forecast for Tampa tonight, so that’s good. It’s supposed to be hot and sticky though. Yuck. Hate humidity, you guys. Tonight’s game will begin at 6:35pm ET and you can watch live on YES locally and MLB.tv nationally. There’s also the FOX Sports Go app. Enjoy.

Which Yankees would make the best two-way players?

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

For the first time in what feels like forever, MLB is on the verge of having a true two-way player.

That’s right, the same person as a pitcher and position player on a semi-regular basis. Christian Bethancourt, to this point almost exclusively a catcher for the Padres, is in spring training splitting his time between catcher and pitcher and is set to pitch Wednesday. He did pitch twice last season and threw 96 mph, so his stuff is there, and he began to fulfill more of a utility role last season, a hint towards his versatility/athleticism.

One of my favorite things to see is when position players pitch or pitchers rake. Remember Brendan Ryan tossing two shutout innings in 2015? It made attending a 15-1 loss a ton of fun.

Anyway, with Bethancourt and Japanese two-way superstar Shohei Otani in the news, I thought we could take a gander at which current Yankees would make the best potential two-way player, even if there is approximately a zero percent chance any of them actually become one. First up, the outfielder with the rocket arm.

Aaron Hicks

Hicks is the obvious choice here because he has a freaking cannon. It isn’t always on the money and it doesn’t always get a baserunner out, but it surely makes any runner think twice about taking the extra base. His 105.5 mph throw last April is the fastest recorded throw in the Statcast era and even tops the fastest pitch of Aroldis Chapman. Granted, it’s different heaving the ball with a running start on a lazy fly ball vs. what a pitcher does, but it’s a perfect display of what Hicks is capable.

Hicks also still has my favorite outfield assist ever, even though it came when he was with the Twins against the Yankees. Indulge me and re-watch this masterpiece that really shows off how strong Hicks’ arm really is.

With all that in mind, it should come as little surprise that Hicks was also a pitcher when he was drafted 1st round, 14th overall, out of high school. Baseball America mentions it in their blurb about Hicks in multiple prospect handbooks back in his Twins days, including right off the bat when he was Minnesota’s No. 4 prospect in 2012. Here’s what they said about him in 2011, when he was the Twins’ No. 2 prospect.

“Some teams liked him more as a pitcher coming out of high school, thanks to his athleticism and a fastball that reached 97 mph at times, and he retains excellent arm strength, his best present tool.”

It’s still his best tool and Hicks still has that top-notch velocity. Hicks threw a near no-hitter in high school and after the game mentioned his curveball as one of his top pitches. At the 2007 Perfect Game Showcase, Hicks hit and pitched. You can catch a glimpse of his pitching at 2:38, 6:13 and 11:30 of the showcase video, in which Hicks says he had been told he had “starter stuff” but indicated he wanted to be a position player. In a world where the Yankees now asked him to be a pitcher in addition to his hitting, they’d have to build back up his off-speed offerings.

CC Sabathia

Of the players I’ll list, this is more a dream than anything. CC Sabathia isn’t going to start playing a position in 2017. At most, he’ll get an extra chance or two to swing away compared to other Yankees’ pitchers in interleague play.

But back in the day, CC was a capable hitter. From 2002 to 2008, he hit .261 (22-for-84), having his ‘breakout’ offensive season in 2008 when he switched leagues for the second half of the season and carried the Brewers to the playoffs. That year, he hit two mammoth home runs, one with the Indians and one with the Brewers, including this moon shot at Dodger Stadium.

Sabathia didn’t ever have the speed and athleticism to man anything other than maybe first base and a corner outfield spot. If you put him in a corner, you know he’d have a good arm, even if he lacked range. As a Yankee, he has only two hits, none for extra bases, in 27 at-bats while laying down just one sacrifice hit.

Didi Gregorius

Gregorius would make a much more realistic two-way player than Sabathia, although his role as the everyday shortstop makes it a true impossibility. His arm is the entire argument. Watching him throughout the season, he fires some lasers to first base and has some solid accuracy as well. No word on how hard he throws off a mound or even if he ever has. Baseball America rated his arm as a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale when he was a prospect in the Reds system.

While Didi doesn’t have a history of pitching like Hicks, there is evidence of possible aspirations. The YES Network posted a video of Gregorius pitching on flat ground to a teammate in warmups before a game last season.

The Yankees wouldn’t risk injury to Gregorius, but I have a feeling he’d go out to the mound with the same infectious zeal that Ryan had when he got his opportunity in a game.

Quick Hits

Aaron Judge on the mound would be a spectacle to behold. He is perhaps the most unlikely person to be a two-way player because working out mechanics for a 6-foot-7 pitcher is tough enough as it is but especially from scratch. He’s another guy with a strong arm in the outfield, but yeah, this one’s a pipe dream.

Gary Sanchez, like Sabathia, doesn’t quite have the athleticism to pull off the two-way life, but he’s got the arm. While Hicks had the fastest recorded throw on Statcast, Sanchez had the quickest for a catcher throwing out a base stealer. We’ll see plenty more attempted base stealers thrown out as long as he’s the Yankees’ backstop.

In the minor leagues, Cito Culver seems like an obvious choice. Like Didi, he’s a middle infielder with a strong arm, but Culver actually had experience on the mound in high school. BA said he hit 94 mph. They said the same thing for Jake Cave, who had 17 outfield assists last season across three outfield positions.

Coming off shoulder surgery, Greg Bird’s spring home runs do mean a little something

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

The theme for the Yankees early this Spring Training is home runs. They’ve hit a lot of dingers. Eleven in six games, to be exact. No team has hit more. I really hope this trend continues during the regular season. For now, I’ll enjoy it while it lasts in February and March.

Tuesday afternoon projected first baseman Greg Bird smacked two of those eleven home runs in a Grapefruit League game against the Red Sox. He hooked one around the faux Pesky Pole in right, then lifted the other over the faux Green Monster in left. The game wasn’t televised, though video still exists:

Spring Training performance generally means nothing. There’s just so much noise to consider. For example: Bird took Kyle Kendrick and Edgar Olmos deep yesterday. The chances of those two seeing the big leagues this summer are quite small. Hitting dingers is fun! But there is always important context to consider, especially in the spring.

Part of that context is Bird’s return from shoulder surgery, which makes yesterday’s home runs a little more meaningful than your typical Grapefruit League dinger. Bird had a serious injury and procedure, and he missed the entire 2016 season. Beyond the rust typically associated with such a long layoff, an injury to a hitter’s front shoulder (like Bird’s) often results in a decline in power, even temporarily.

Matt Kemp, for example, had the same shoulder surgery back in October 2012. He had a .236 ISO in 2012 and a .125 ISO in 2013, his first season after surgery. It wasn’t until 2014 that his power came all the way back (.220 ISO). Adrian Gonzalez was one of the game’s top power hitters (.242 ISO from 2009-10) before going under the knife in October 2010. He had a .180 ISO in the three years after surgery.

Bird’s home runs show that, if nothing else, he has regained strength in his shoulder and is still capable of driving the ball to all fields. (Going opposite field over the Green Monster lookalike is no small feat.) That’s reassuring. We know it’s still in there. He can still drive the ball out of the ballpark. Bird is close to a bat only player, so if his power is compromised following shoulder surgery, even temporarily, it would create some problems.

Furthermore, Bird says he feels better right now than he has in a long time. He was pretty good with the Yankees before the surgery, remember. He did all that despite pain and discomfort. Bird says that’s gone and he feels better physically. “The results are great. I’ll take them, obviously. But I’m feeling good and feeling good the next day and the next day. It wasn’t like that for a long time,” he said to Dan Martin yesterday.

Hitting home runs against Kyle Kendricks and Edgar Olmos on February 28th is not a sign Bird is ready to do damage against guys like Chris Sale and Aaron Sanchez during the regular season. All those homers tell us is Bird’s shoulder is healthy and he’s either regained his power following surgery or is in the process of regaining it. (Probably the latter.) When a player is coming off a major surgery, you look for signs he’ll be his old self, and we saw a bit of that from Bird yesterday.

The Long-Term Future in Center Field

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

This is an exciting time to be a Yankees fan. The big league team might not be any good this season, and frankly they haven’t been all that good over the last four years anyway, but at least now the farm system is loaded and there are a ton of quality young players in the organization. Soon young guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will join Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird in the Bronx.

At some point in the near future, perhaps sooner than anyone realizes, the Yankees will have to figure out their center field situation. The two best center fielders on the roster, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, will both turn 34 later this year. Over the last ten years there has been one full-time center fielder age 34 or older: Mike Cameron, who continued to play center full-time from ages 34-36 in 2007-09. No one else has done it.

Center field is a young man’s position because it involves lots and lots of running, day after day after day. The Yankees had Johnny Damon begin the process of moving to left field at age 33 because Melky Cabrera was the superior defensive option, remember. By center fielder standards, Gardner and Ellsbury are pretty darn old, and it stands to reason they won’t be viable options at the position much longer. Speed usually doesn’t age all that well.

This creates two questions for the Yankees. One, who plays center field long-term? And two, what do the Yankees do with Gardner and/or Ellsbury? I’ll answer the second one first: they’re probably going to trade Gardner at some point. Would they prefer to trade Ellsbury? Yeah, I’m sure of it. But that’s not happening, so Gardner it is. They’ve been listening on him for over a year, and it feels like only a matter of time until a trade goes down.

I get the feeling the eventual outcome here is Gardner gets traded away, then Ellsbury slides over to left field for the tail end of his contract, similar to Damon back in the day. (Or worse, to designated hitter full-time.) That creates an opening in center field, and as good as the farm system is these days, the Yankees don’t have an elite center field prospect. Torres is a shortstop, Frazier and Aaron Judge are corner outfielders, and so on.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees lack potential center field options, however. Not at all. They actually have quite a few, both short-term and long-term. That’s good. Multiple options are good. As much as we all love the prospects, the reality is they won’t all work out, and you’d hate to pin your hopes on that one guy to take over a position long-term. Here, in no particular order, are the club’s various long-term center field options.

The Almost Ready Option

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

When the 2017 regular season begins, Dustin Fowler figures to roam center field for Triple-A Scranton. Fowler is New York’s best pure center field prospect — I ranked him as the 12th best prospect in the system overall — and last year he hit .281/.311/.458 (109 wRC+) with 30 doubles, 15 triples, 12 homers, and 25 steals in Double-A. He really fills up the box score. Fowler is also a very good defender with plenty of range.

There are two glaring weaknesses to Fowler’s game. One, he doesn’t have much of a throwing arm. And two, he’s pretty undisciplined at the plate. Minor league walk rates aren’t everything, though his career 4.4% walk rate in over 1,500 minor league plate appearances is emblematic of his approach. Those are negatives, clearly, but Fowler also offers enough positives to be an everyday player. He makes contact, has some pop, steals bases, and defends well. Similar skill set to peak Ellsbury now that I think about it.

For all intents and purposes, Fowler is a call-up candidate right now. He’s going to start the season in Triple-A and will be added to the 40-man roster no later than next winter (when he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible), and any time those combination of things exist, there’s a chance for the player to wind up in the show. Fowler is, by far, the Yankees’ best close to MLB ready center field prospect. He is easily the favorite to take over the position in the short-term.

The Square Peg, Round Hole Option

Although his tools point to a long-term future in left field, Frazier has enough speed and athleticism to handle center field right now, if necessary. He has plenty of experience at the position — he’s played more minor league games in center (260) than he has in left and right combined (117) — and still possesses enough speed to cover the gaps. Would Frazier be a perfect fit in center? No, but it’s doable. The question is whether mid-30s Ellsbury in left and Frazier in center is a better defensive alignment than mid-30s Ellsbury in center and Frazier in left. It’s not so cut and dried.

The Conversion Candidates

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The Yankees are loaded with shortstop prospects at the moment, so much so that they’ve had Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo get acquainted with the outfield. Wade played all three outfield spots in the Arizona Fall League last year and he’s been out there this spring as well. Mateo worked out in center field in Instructional League and is doing the same this spring. He’s yet to play an actual game out there, however.

Wade, like Fowler, will open this season in Triple-A, though he’s not an immediate center field option given his inexperience at the position. He’s not someone the Yankees could call up and stick in center for two weeks in May to cover for injuries, you know? That’s a little too soon. Besides, it seems the Yankees are looking to make Wade a super utility player, not a full-time outfielder. He’s too good defensively on the infield to throw that away entirely.

As for Mateo, I am pretty intrigued with the idea of putting him in center field full-time. He’s a good defender at shortstop, that’s not much of a problem, but his truly elite speed may be put to better use in center. Mateo is a good defender at short. He might be a great defender in center. Either way, Mateo is not close to the big leagues like Fowler, Frazier, and Wade. He’s yet to play above High-A and has to answer some questions about his bat before we can start to think about him as a realistic center field option. (And, you know, he has to actually play some games in center too.)

The Reclamation Candidate(s)

Earlier I mentioned Gardner and Ellsbury are the two best center fielders on the roster, which is true when taking all things into account. The best defensive center fielder on the roster is Aaron Hicks (despite a few funky routes last season). He’s got top notch closing speed and a rocket arm. Right now, in the year 2017, Hicks is a better gloveman than either Gardner or Ellsbury in center.

The best defensive outfielder in the entire organization is another reclamation project: Mason Williams. He’s a premium runner who gets great reads, and while his arm isn’t Hicks caliber, it is comfortably above average. Even after shoulder surgery two years ago. It’s unclear whether Williams will ever hit enough to play regularly, but his glove is unquestioned. The Yankees could play him everyday in center and he could handle it defensively.

That “will he ever hit?” question is a big one though, and it applies to Hicks as well. Hicks and Williams are so talented that you can never rule out things coming together, especially at their ages, but for them to have any shot at replacing Ellsbury in center field full-time, they’re going to have to do more at the plate. No doubt. (To be fair to Williams, he’s been hurt more than ineffective the last two seasons.)

The Far Away Options

Fowler and Frazier (and Wade) are knocking on the door. Mateo is a little further away. Ever further away are Blake Rutherford and Estevan Florial, two high-upside center field prospects. Both figure to start the season at Low-A Charleston. They were teammates with Rookie Pulaski last year, where Rutherford played center field and Florial manned left. (First rounder gets priority.)

It goes without saying there is a lot of risk involved with players this far away from the big leagues. There’s so much that can go wrong these next few years. The obstacles facing Rutherford and Florial are very different too. The expectation is Rutherford will shift to a corner spot at some point as he fills out and adds some bulk. Florial is a graceful defender who happens to be a total hacker at the plate. He might not make enough contact to reach MLB.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Rutherford to be their long-term center fielder. Frazier, Rutherford, and Judge from left to right would be the perfect world long-term outfield picture. The odds are against that actually happening though, mostly because prospects have a way of breaking hearts. Rutherford and Florial are definitely long-term center field candidates. They’re just far away and carry a lot of risk relative to the other guys in this post.

The External Options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

These are the Yankees, and even though they’re trying to scale back spending to get under the luxury tax threshold, you can never really rule them out going outside the organization for help. I, personally, am hoping for a Rob Refsnyder for Mike Trout trade. Fingers crossed. If that doesn’t happen, here are some potential free agent center fielders:

  • After 2017: Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen (if option is declined)
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, McCutchen (if option is exercised)

A few of those guys would look pretty good in pinstripes, no? Cain is pretty damn awesome. He’s a fun player and I am pro-fun. Blackmon hit .324/.381/.552 (130 wRC+) with 29 homers and 17 steals last season, you know. Pollock missed a bunch of time with an elbow injury last year, but he’s quietly been one of the best players in baseball the last three or four years.

There’s also Bryce Harper, who will become a free agent following the 2018 season, when he’ll still be only 26 years old. He’s a really good athlete and has played center field for the Nationals at times. Could the Yankees view him as a potential center fielder? That’d be interesting. It’s not like he’d be over the hill or anything. Perhaps Harper in center could work for a few years. Frazier in left, Harper in center, Judge in right? Sign me up.

Anyway, the problem with the non-Harper free agents is the same problem that currently exists with Ellsbury. The Yankees would be paying big money to someone over 30 and in their decline years. Before you know it, we’d be talking about moving Cain or Blackmon or Pollock or whoever to left in favor of a better defensive center fielder. Signing a free agent center fielder is definitely possible. It just seems unlikely given the team’s direction at this point.

The Worst Case Scenario

This is going to sound mean, but the worst case scenario would be keeping Ellsbury in center field through the end of his contract. Maybe he can make it work defensively in his mid-30s like Cameron did once upon a time. He’d be an outlier in that case, but hey, stranger things have happened. I’m sure the Yankees would prefer to keep Ellsbury in center as long as possible too. That’s where he’s most valuable. History suggests his days in center are numbered, however. There simply aren’t many players age 34 and over roaming center nowadays.

* * *

The center field situation is not a pressing matter, fortunately. The Yankees don’t need to figure this out right now. They can let the season play out, see how Ellsbury handles it defensively and how the kids progress in the minors, then figure out what’s next. And maybe nothing is next. Maybe keeping Ellsbury in center through the end of his contract is plausible. The Yankees do have some center field options, both short and long-term, just in case things don’t work out. Sooner or later the team will have to go in a new direction in center field, and odds are it’ll be before the end of Ellsbury’s contract.