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.

The Bryce Harper Endgame

Right ballpark, wrong uniform. (Presswire)
Right ballpark, wrong uniform. (Presswire)

As you know, the Yankees are the only team in baseball that has not yet signed a Major League free agent this offseason. They have taken on some money in the Starlin Castro and Aroldis Chapman trades — about $23.5M for luxury tax purposes in 2016 — but otherwise they’ve limited their spending. Once again the team focused on trades.

Next offseason the Yankees are going to start to shed some of their expensive long-term contracts. Mark Teixeira ($22.5M per year) and Carlos Beltran ($15M) will come off the books next offseason, then CC Sabathia ($23.4M) and Alex Rodriguez ($27.5M) will join them the following year. Possibly Masahiro Tanaka ($22.1M) as well if he stays healthy and opts out of his contract.

We know Hal Steinbrenner & Co. want to get under the luxury tax in the near future, and those expiring deals will help the Yankees accomplish that goal. Doing so would reset the team’s tax rate and entitle the Yankees to some revenue sharing rebates. Getting under the tax threshold potentially equals tens of millions of dollars saved. It’s a substantial sum. Last week Jeff Passan had some details on New York’s financial situation:

Now, we’ll get to that, though first it’s imperative to understand how and why the Yankees are looking years down the road when deciding to sit out this offseason. And it’s best to start with two numbers: $508 million and $8.1 million. The Yankees’ yearly revenues in the most recent franchise valuations by Forbes were $508 million, and their operation income – money in the black – was $8.1 million. That is not a lot, not when New York’s revenues exceed the second-place Dodgers’ by more than $100 million.

If reason No. 1 (to pass on free agents) was minimal profit, No. 2 is every bit as important: the fear of the unknown. And with baseball ready to begin negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement soon, the unknown is palpable. New York has no idea what percentage of its revenue it will be sharing with lower-revenue teams. Currently, the tax rate assessed to every team is 34 percent of local revenue, and that pool is split evenly among the 30 teams. High-earning teams pay what amounts to another 14 percent on top of that. The Yankees give more in revenue-sharing dollars than every other team, and it’s not particularly close. With the gap between the richest and poorest teams as significant as ever, they could give even more, something they’ll surely resist.

The expectation is the Yankees will go back to spending big on free agents in a few years, once some of the big contracts are off the books, the luxury tax rate has been reset, and the terms of the next CBA are known. I don’t know when the Yankees will spend big or exactly how much they’re planning to spend, but I’m sure it’ll happen. They’re not going let all that money come off the books and save all that cash on luxury tax and not put at least a big chunk of it back into the team.

That brings us to Bryce Harper, the just-turned-23-year-old wunderkind of the Washington Nationals. Harper silenced all of his critics last season with a historic .330/.460/.649 (195 OPS+) batting line and 42 homers. Here is the full list of players who had a 180 OPS+ or better season at age 22 or younger: Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, and Bryce Harper. That’s it. Harper’s 42 dingers are the most of the trio. People ripped Harper when he hit “only” .272/.351/.465 (121 OPS+) from 2012-14, but that’s not possible anymore. He’s a megastar.

Harper is now three years from free agency and he is a Scott Boras client, so it’s a damn near certainty he will hit the open market. If the Nationals want to approach him about a long-term extension, they’d have to start their offer at Giancarlo Stanton’s massive 13-year, $325M contract. That’s the starting point. Stanton is awesome, but Harper is younger and better than Giancarlo was at the time of his deal. More than likely it’ll take something closer to $400M to get Harper and Boras to the negotiating table.

There are still three years between now and then, but Harper is the odds on favorite to become the first $40M a year player in baseball history. Whatever we think it’ll take to sign him is probably too low. In all seriousness, I expect Boras to ask for something like 15 years and $600M in three years. He’s going to want to smash records with Harper, not beat them by $1M or $2M. Remember when A-Rod was a free agent way back when? His ten-year, $252M deal was exactly double the richest sports contract at the time (Kevin Garnett’s $126M deal). Boras brokered that deal for Alex and he’ll want to do something similar with Harper.

It’s impossible to ignore the timing of all this. The Yankees have all these contracts coming off the books and are very likely to get under the luxury tax at some point in the next two or three years, right as Harper hits the open market. The club will have this huge financial windfall at the same time a generational talent becomes available for nothing but cash (and presumably a draft pick). Not just a generational talent, a generational talent in the prime of his career; Harper will turn 26 the October of the offseason of his free agency.

Personally, I do not believe the decision to get under the luxury tax and have enormous future payroll flexibility is tied to Harper’s free agency. It’s a coincidence. Hal has been talking about getting under the luxury tax for years now (the original plan was to do it in 2014, remember), long before it was clear Harper was a superstar of the first order. I do, however, believe the Yankees are very aware Harper is likely to become a free agent in three years, and that they’re going to be in a better place financially at the time, putting them in position to sign a marquee free to what will surely be a record contract.

That said, planning for a free agent three years into the future is foolish. Yes, teams do need to plan ahead, but you can’t plan that far ahead with any sort of certainty. Way too much can and will change between now and then. The Yankees can have their eye on Harper down the line and also understand it’s unlikely to happen. Realistically, what are the chances Harper will be a Yankee come the 2019 season? 25%? Even that seems high. Maybe 50% is the absolute best case scenario right now?

“You can’t predict free agency multiple years out,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings earlier this offseason. “I can’t project availability. Obviously if you turn the clock back and look at projecting (David) Price’s availability, (it was impossible to know), would he be healthy? He’s been with three teams since. It’s such a guessing game when you go through that process that far out to forecast.”

Assuming the Yankees do achieve this goal of financial flexibility and Harper remains a star, going after Harper in three years is a total no-brainer. The Yankees brand is built on stars and winning, and a player as good and as young as Harper is someone you absolutely go all-out to acquire. They don’t come along very often at all. He’s the guy you make a $400M+ offer on day one of free agency to let other teams know you aren’t screwing around. Just drop the hammer the first day and let two-thirds of the league know they shouldn’t even bother making a phone call to Boras.

Those are two pretty big assumptions though, right? The financial flexibility and Harper hitting free agency as a megastar stuff. It’s have financial flexibility AND Harper becomes a free agent AND Harper is still a star. All of that has to happen, and it very well might. But it goes to show how much can change between now and then. It wouldn’t take much to derail this plan. I hope the Yankees get Harper in three years, but the Yankees can’t plan on him being the endgame for this financial flexibility. He’s not the driving force behind the team’s austerity, but man, the timing sure does work out well.

Sunday Links: Harper, McCann, Old Timers’ Day, Draft

(Mike McGinnis/Getty)
(Mike McGinnis/Getty)

The Yankees and Orioles wrap up their three-game series later this afternoon. Until then, here are some miscellaneous links to help you pass the time.

Future Yankee Bryce Harper?

It was inevitable. When the Nationals visited the Bronx to play the Yankees last week, Bryce Harper was asked about his hardly imminent free agency and whether he would consider signing with the Yankees. Harper grew up a Yankees fan because of his father, a big Mickey Mantle fan, and famously said he wants to “play in the pinstripes” in his 2009 Sports Illustrated feature.

“I enjoy playing for the Nationals,” said Harper to Dan Martin last week, astutely avoiding the question about the Yankees. “We try to win a World Series, just like every other team. If I could bring that back to DC, bring that back to the city, that’s what I want to do. I’ve said it for a long, long time. That’s something that I want to do … We have such a great team here. I look at every single day as a new day. I go in and have the same mentality. DC is a great place to play. It’s a monumental town.”

Harper won’t be a free agent until after the 2018 season, when he will still be only 26 years old. He’s already one of the best players in the game and figures to be in position to smash contract records when he hits the open market a la Alex Rodriguez in 2000. Sure, the Nationals have one of the wealthiest owners in sports and could sign Harper to an extension at some point, but Giancarlo Stanton set the bar at $325M, and I’m sure Scott Boras will look to top that with Harper. (Stanton signed his deal at roughly the same service time level Harper will be at after the season.)

It both is and is not too early to look ahead to Harper’s free agency. It is early because geez, it’s still three and a half years away, but it isn’t because Harper is so talented and will be such a hot commodity. He’s a can’t your eyes off him superstar in every way. Buster Olney (subs. req’d) recently wrote it “would be shocking if Harper isn’t wearing a Yankees uniform on Opening Day in 2019,” in fact. Most of the team’s huge contracts will be off the books by then and the Yankees will be in position to go huge for Harper, who might command 12 years and $400M+ come 2018.

(Jason O. Watson/Getty)
(Jason O. Watson/Getty)

How McCann stopped popping up

During his first season with the Yankees, Brian McCann was a pop-up machine, hitting weak fly ball after weak fly ball, which resulted in a disappointing .232/.286/.406 (96 wRC+) line with a .231 BABIP. All those weak fly balls were easy outs, hence the low BABIP. McCann has been one of the team’s best hitters this season though, coming into the weekend with a .264/.327/.447 (122 wRC+) line that is right in line with the 121 wRC+ he put up during his healthy seasons with the Braves from 2009-13.

How did McCann improve this year? He stopped popping up, as Eno Sarris explains. McCann credits former hitting coach Kevin Long for some mechanical adjustments late last season. “Last year, for whatever reason, my hands weren’t taking a direct route to the ball,” said McCann to Eno. McCann averaged about 4.0% infield pop-ups from 2006-03, but that jumped to 5.0% last year, and it doesn’t take into account all the weak fly balls to the outfield. This year he’s down to a 0.8% pop-up rate (!), one of the lowest in the game. Fewer pop-ups, more hard contact, better McCann.

Old Timers’ Day attendees announced

Earlier this week the Yankees announced the list of former players, coaches, and personnel who will attend Old Timers’ Day next Saturday. Here is the full list. No Derek Jeter, no Jorge Posada, no Andy Pettitte, and no Mariano Rivera. Also no Mike Mussina or Hideki Matsui either this year. Lame. Oh well, it’ll still be fun. The Yankees will honor Willie Randolph with a plaque in Monument Park that night as well.

Several 2015 draft picks en route to Tampa

According to his Twitter feed, LHP Jeff Degano (2nd round) traveled to Florida earlier this week, which usually indicates he has a deal in place and will sign soon. Bryan Hoch and Jeff Hartsell say 3B Donny Sands (8th) and LHP James Reeves (10th) will turn pro as well. Also, RHP Kolton Montgomery (16th) and 1B Kale Sweeney (29th) told ABC 4 Sports and Norm Sanders, respectively, they are signing with the Yankees and will report to Tampa. The team’s mini-camp for draftees actually started Thursday, so these guys are probably already in uniform working out.

And finally, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer confirmed to Chad Jennings the Yankees will sign RHP Alex Robinett (32nd). Robinett is a second lieutenant and a staff ace at West Point, and will have to finish his military commitment after playing this summer. “Hopefully we can keep him in some kind of baseball shape when he’s able to finish that commitment and come back after serving his country,” said Oppenheimer. Earlier this season Cardinals righty Mitch Harris became the first military academy graduate to play in MLB in nearly a century.

Law’s team-by-team draft breakdowns

Keith Law posted his AL and NL draft reviews earlier this week (subs. req’d). He didn’t hand out grades or anything like that, just said which picks he liked and didn’t like. Law says the Yankees “wanted a bat with their first pick, but all the candidates went before them,” which is what I wondered the other day. He also says Degano has “first-round stuff, but slipped because he hadn’t pitched in more than two years due to Tommy John surgery and will turn 23 this fall,” and that RHP Drew Finley (3rd) “was a steal.” The Yankees reportedly had interest in Finley for their supplemental first round pick, the 30th selection, but they were able to get him with the 92th pick. Neat.

Also make sure you check out Draft to the Show’s review of New York’s draft class.

Link Dump: Hyped prospects, Strasburg, Harper, revisiting Girardi’s hiring

Some Sunday morning links for your reading, including a few draft related with the draft upcoming tomorrow.

Here is a good draft piece at ESPN by Jerry Crasnick examining some of the biggest hyped prospects ever.  Even back in 1989 and 1990, when the baseball draft was a blip on the radar, I remember the hype surrounding Ben McDonald and Todd Van Poppel.  If they were coming out today, I’m sure it would be pretty Strasburg-esque.  Also some interesting “what ifs” in there as both Mark Prior and Bo Jackson were drafted by the Yankees but did not sign.  With the careers they ended up having, it’s fun to wonder how much differently things could have turned out.

The Stephen Strasburg hype is hitting new levels as his first start is upon us this week.  A town in Virginia is looking to change its name to Stephen Strasburg.  It’s going to be tough to live up to the hype, yet I have a feeling that he will come as close as possible to meet expectations.

This article on Bryce Harper, while a few weeks old, is a very good read.  I still cannot believe the way his character is being attacked.  He’s 17 years old.  He can’t even legally buy a scratch ticket yet.  Everyone who is saying bad things about him, including calling him “just a bad, bad guy” needs to take a long look in the mirror and remember what they were doing as 17 year olds.  Even though he doesn’t have the underdog status that so many people love, I’m really going to root for this kid.

In the way back machine, it’s interesting to read Keith Law’s piece when the Yankees hired Joe Girardi and how he thought they made a good call.  Of note is the fact that while Joe Torre hadn’t developed much starting pitching in his time with the Yankees, Girardi in his one year with the Marlins got solid seasons out of Anibal Sanchez and Scott Olsen, as well as Josh Johnson.  Johnson clearly has moved into ace status, but Sanchez and Olsen haven’t done much since.  Is that because Girardi was good developing them, or that he overworked them and they’ve battled injuries since?  It’s an interesting question to ask when thinking about the future of Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain under Girardi’s watch.  That being said, if overwork was an issue with the Marlins pitchers, I think that Girardi has likely learned from that, and the Yankees have a much better infrastructure in place to handle these young guys.

2010 Draft: Could Bryce Harper fall out of the first round?

It seems like we hear this about the top draft prospects every year, but in yesterday’s chat at ESPN, Baseball America’s Jim Callis said that it’s not far-fetched to think Bryce Harper could fall out of the first round entirely next June. He notes that it’s “going to be almost impossible to live up to the hype, and if he falls short and is looking for big money–is Strasburg’s contract a starting point–he may scare off clubs, who know he can re-enter the 2011 and 2012 drafts and still have lots of leverage.”

The Yankees – currently picking 32nd overall – did operate on a budget last year, but scouting director Damon Oppenheimer hinted that things could have changed under special circumstances. That probably means the team would have jumped all over Stephen Strasburg if he’d fallen into their laps. I don’t think the Yankees would go out of their way to make sure they retained their first round pick (by not signing a Type-A free agent this offseason) for the off-chance that Harper drops, you’d almost always rather have the big leaguer (unless we’re talking about someone like John Grabow or Kevin Gregg).