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.

Scouting The Trade Market: Andrew McCutchen

(Photo Credit: Flickr user Brock Fleeger via Creative Commons license)

The Yankees have focused on improving their starting rotation this offseason and rightfully so. Even with Freddy Garcia back in the fold, they still stand to open the season with no fewer than two question marks in the rotation, and it’s really more like four question marks behind undisputed ace CC Sabathia. Just because the rotation needs help doesn’t mean the rest of the team gets ignored though, and just because the offense is a strength doesn’t mean it can’t be further improved.

Earlier this week, it was reported that the Pirates are open to listening to trade offers for center fielder Andrew McCutchen, a report the team unsurprisingly denied a few hours later. The two sides discussed about a long-term contract extension earlier this year, though talks slowed during the summer and there haven’t been any reports of progress lately. A player of McCutchen’s caliber fits on pretty much every team, regardless of who they already have in the outfield. Rather than do the usual Pros & Cons shtick, I’m going to break his game down into the three basic parts of baseball: offense, defense, and baserunning. Let’s start with the bat…

Offense

Since breaking into the league in June of 2009, McCutchen has consistently produced about 25% better than league average with the bat. In fact, his wRC+’s by year from 2009-2011 are 125, 125, and 129. It all starts with his approach at the plate. McCutchen works deep counts, having seen 4.18 pitches per plate appearance this past season (12th highest in baseball) and 4.10 for his career. That’s Kevin Youkilis (4.18 in 2011) and Nick Swisher (4.07) territory. Those deep counts lead to a lot of walks — including 13.1% this past season (16th highest in baseball, right behind Youkilis) and 11.7% for his career — but surprisingly not many strikeouts, just 18.6% this year and 16.3% for his career.

McCutchen started to hit more line drives and fly balls this past season, resulting in more power (.198 ISO and 23 homers) but a slightly lower BABIP (.291 after .318 from 2009-2010). After hitting .286 in each of his first two seasons, his average dropped to .259 in 2011 thanks to a late-season slump (.196/.321/.384 in his final 35 games). Like most hitters, he does most of his damage to the pull side, but he can drive the ball with authority to right and right-center. Here’s proof. His spray chart show plenty of balls driven right to the wall to all fields throughout his career…

(via Texas Leaguers)

McCutchen does show a bit of a platoon split, but it’s nothing crazy. He’s posted a .397 wOBA with a .231 ISO against left-handers in his career, but against right-handers those numbers are .347 and .166, respectively. That’s not a major red flag because the performance against same-side pitcher is still above-average. At this point in time right now, McCutchen is a legitimate .275/.365/.450 hitter (.277/.368/.455 career), a level of performance roughly 25 others have been able to maintain over the last three seasons.

Defense

McCutchen is a great example of how flawed defensive metrics still are. They’ve gotten better, but none of them are perfect. All the systems rated him as well below average from 2009-2010, including UZR (-15.0), DRS (-18), Total Zone (-5), and FRAA (-23.7), but they all changed gears and considered him above-average in 2011 (+3.5, +7, +9, and +9.6 respectively). The improvement had nothing to do with McCutchen himself, he’s still the same defensive player he always was. The improvement came from the team’s manager.

Under former skipper John Russell, the Pirates’ outfield used to play what was best described as a no-triples alignment. They played deep with the left and center fielders shaded towards the left-center field gap, the big part of PNC Park. Matt Bandi spent quite a bit of time looking at the club’s outfield alignments at the now-defunct Pittsburgh Lumber Co. Russell was fired last offseason and replaced with Clint Hurdle, who had his outfielders play at more traditional depths and positions.

McCutchen’s defense wasn’t the problem, the metrics were just unable to properly measure his contributions in the no-triples alignment. Baseball America (subs. req’d) said he was a “a potential Gold Glover” with “outstanding instincts and an average arm in center field” before the 2009 season, the last time McCutchen was prospect-eligible. I suspect the advanced metrics will match up with that scouting report in the coming years, as the sample size continues to grow.

Baserunning

(Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Although he’s stolen at least 22 bases in his three seasons, including 33 in 2010, McCutchen isn’t the most efficient baserunner. He’s been thrown out exactly ten times each of the last two seasons (56-for-76), a 73.7% success rate that is above the break-even point but not exactly stellar. His 75.0% success rate in the minors suggests he might not get much better than he is right now.

Stolen bases are just part of the baserunning equation though. McCutchen has been able to take the extra base 40% of the time his career, which is essentially the same as the 41% league average. Baseball Prospectus’ baserunning stats say he was a bit below-average at advancing on ground balls, sacrifice flies, and on wild pitches/passed balls this past season, but he was above-average in 2010 and 2009 as well. Either McCutchen suddenly forgot how to run the bases in those situations in 2011, or the data is imperfect. I tend to believe the latter is true.

Smash it all together — stealing bases, taking the extra base on hits, moving up on other balls in play/wild pitches/passed balls — and McCutchen is essentially a league average baserunner. For what it’s worth, FanGraphs’ catch-all baserunning data says he’s been a touch better than average in each of his three seasons. If you’re going to be bad at something, baserunning is a good thing to be bad at.

* * *

Just a few weeks after his 25th birthday, McCutchen is already a true franchise player, a guy that impacts the game on both sides of the ball while playing a premium up-the-middle position. He’s never been on the disabled list, not even in the minors, and thanks to some service time shenanigans he won’t be eligible for arbitration until next season and won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season. That’s four full years of team control left.

A near six-win player in the eyes of both both fWAR (5.7) and bWAR (5.5) this past season, there are few players in the game with more trade value than McCutchen. Obviously, any team hoping to trade for him would need to really blow the Pirates out of the water. A trade involving a star player in his pre-arbitration years is unprecedented, so we don’t have any kind of reference for what a potential trade package would look like. I imagine any teams that call Pittsburgh would start negotiations by opening up their farm system and saying “okay, pick any four.”

Please understand that I’ve set you (and myself) up for extreme disappointment. It’s highly unlikely that the Yankees or any other team will be able to pry McCutchen away from Pittsburgh this offseason, just like no one was able to pry The Justin Upton away from the Diamondbacks last winter despite his reported availability. But man, if the Pirates are sincerely willing to listen the offers … the Yankees should be all over this. Acquiring McCutchen is both a win-now and win-later move.