By the Decade: From a strength to a weakness in center

For the seventh installment of our Yankees By the Decade retrospective on the aught-aughts, we land in center field. For the Yankees of the 2000s, center field represents quite the dichotomy. The position peaked early and never regained the luster of the Bernie Williams Era.

  AB Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB HBP K GDP BA OBP SLG
Bernie Williams 2919 854 167 11 114 469 395 45 20 431 88 .293 .378 .474
Melky Cabrera 1226 326 55 9 23 149 95 8 11 165 30 .266 .321 .382
Johnny Damon 843 232 43 6 35 111 107 1 6 125 7 .275 .358 .465
Brett Gardner 311 85 8 8 3 32 30 0 4 52 3 .273 .344 .379
Hideki Matsui 287 92 26 1 7 54 28 2 3 44 8 .321 .381 .491
Kenny Lofton 239 65 10 7 2 15 26 0 0 23 3 .272 .338 .397
Bubba Crosby 109 24 3 0 3 11 6 0 1 24 1 .220 .267 .330
Clay Bellinger 79 14 4 0 2 8 12 0 0 23 1 .177 .280 .304
Tony Womack 64 17 4 0 0 3 0 0 0 11 3 .266 .266 .328
Raul Mondesi 42 10 4 0 2 9 3 0 0 7 0 .238 .289 .476
Gerald Williams 28 6 1 0 0 1 2 0 0 4 2 .214 .267 .250
Totals 6261 1754 331 42 195 880 706 56 46 936 148 .280 .355 .440

Bernie Williams retired — or was forced off the Yanks when he opted against accepting a Spring Training invite in 2007 — in 2006. Yet, he remains the center fielder of the decade. Despite a late-career swoon, he still hit .293/.378/.474 as the Yanks’ center fielder this decade, and his early-00 numbers are, as we’ll see soon, stellar.

After Bernie became too old and too slow to adequately man center field, the Yankees simply could not find an adequate replacement. For one year in 2006, Johnny Damon‘s offense was well above-average, but his defense in center was anything but. He turned in a -11.6 UZR that year and sported his trademark awful arm. The man hired to replace Bernie had all over 843 at-bats at center over his four years with the Yanks.

Melky Cabrera and then Brett Gardner followed Damon in center. Although Gardner flashed some speed and Melky an arm, the two weren’t impact offensive players. For the decade, the tale of center field is one of decline. Bernie started off strong, but by 2009, the Yanks were content to live through average or below-average center field production. It’s been a long, hard fall:

  AB Hits 2B 3B HR RBI BB IBB HBP K GDP BA OBP SLUG
Bernie Williams 2919 854 167 11 114 469 395 45 20 431 88 .293 .378 .474
2000-2002 1643 523 107 8 74 311 226 29 14 243 47 .318 .402 .528
2003-2004 803 216 38 2 31 108 124 12 4 112 29 .269 .368 .437
2005-2006 473 115 22 1 9 50 45 4 2 76 12 .243 .309 .351
Yanks CF Overall                            
2000-2002 1865 572 119 8 81 341 243 29 15 296 51 .307 .388 .509
2003-2004 1266 356 65 9 42 170 173 13 7 171 39 .281 .368 .446
2005 617 149 31 2 7 59 50 2 1 99 16 .241 .296 .332
2006 670 183 40 6 26 84 70 4 6 104 6 .273 .345 .461
2007-2009 1843 494 76 19 39 226 170 8 17 266 36 .268 .333 .393

With this table, we can track that fall. For three years, Bernie was a beast. He put up a combined OPS+ of 140, and Yanks’ center fielders hit a combined .308/.388/.509. The vast majority of the team’s overall counting stats in center came during those three years. The 81 home runs and 340 home runs were nearly 40 percent of the decade’s totals. The slugging outpaced the rest of the decade by over .060 points.

In 2003, though, Bernie fell to Earth, and for the next two seasons, the Yanks tried to move a proud aging ballplayer to lesser position. In 2004, the team brought in Kenny Lofton, but Joe Torre stuck with his man. Bernie still made nearly two-thirds of all center field at-bats, and his OPS+ over that span was a good-but-not-great 108. Still, the combined .281/.368/.446 line was not too shabby.

In 2005, it all fell apart. Bernie couldn’t hit, and his legs were gone. A cameo by Melky Cabrera was worse, and the Yanks’ center fielders hit .241/.296/.332. It was truly a low point of the decade. Johnny Damon provided some pop in 2006, but he couldn’t man the position. The combined .273/.345/.461 line was a breath of fresh air amidst some offensive woes later in the decade.

When Melky Cabrera took over in 2007 and enjoyed approximately 80 percent of the center field playing time for the next three seasons, the Yankees were seemingly content to let the offense in center slide. Since 2007, Yanks’ center fielders have hit .268/.333/.393. That .726 OPS is a far cry from the .897 mark that started the decade. Melky’s combined UZR in center over the last three seasons has been -8.4. He was well below average in 2007 and at or slightly above average in 2008 and 2009. Melky had an average 2009 with the stick, but now he’s gone, sent to Atlanta in the deal that brought Javier Vazquez back to the Bronx.

As the Yankees head into 2010, they will begin a new era in center field. Curtis Granderson is under contract through 2013, and the club holds an option for 2014. Hopefully, the new decade will begin as the previous one did — with some top offensive and some solid defense out of center field. It’s been a while.

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KLaw’s analysis of the Vazquez trade

As he does with ever major move, Keith Law gave his take of today’s Javy Vazquez trade, noting that the Yanks “could very well enter 2010 a better team on paper than they were at the same time before 2009.” That should scare the crap out of the rest of the league. KLaw acknowledges that Arodys Vizcaino is a fantastic prospect, but also adds that Melky Cabrera is a “fairly pricey for a fourth outfielder,” and that Mike Dunn still has a ton of work to do on his command.

It’s definitely a long term sacrifice for a short term gain, but the Yanks can afford to take such risks.

Open Thread: Images of Melky

Earlier this morning the Yankees shipped Melky Cabrera and two prospects to Atlanta for Javy Vazquez and a store brand lefty reliever. It’s no secret that the three of us at RAB weren’t Melky’s biggest backers, but that certainly doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate his four-plus years of service to our beloved Bombers.

As frustrating as it was to watching him swing at pitches over his head, Melky had a flair for the dramatic and his energy was refreshing to watch on a team that got too corporate at times. He filled in admirably when Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield went down with injuries in 2006, and since then he’s done a fine job while playing all three outfield positions. Whether he was robbing homers at the wall or walking off with wins, Melky was a fan favorite and he’ll be missed.

Instead of a written word tribute, let’s honor the Melkman with some images. After the jump, a collection of our favorite Melky moments. Be sure to add yours in the comments. Otherwise, here’s your open thread. Also, make sure to check out the content from our heavy afternoon:

Yanks looking to trade Gaudin or Mitre
Prospect Profile: J.R. Murphy
Damon, Bay, or Holliday would break the budget
Minor league notes, with a tidbit about Jesus Montero, plus a minor league signing.
You’ll never guess who the Yankees third baseman of the decade is…
Javier Vazquez by the numbers

[Read more…]

Damon, Bay, Holliday still too expensive for Yanks

With the trade of Melky Cabrera this morning, the Yanks are short a Major League outfielder. Although many assumed that Melky would be the starting left fielder with Johnny Damon‘s departure, the Yankees seemed willing to go into Spring Training with the position up for grabs. Now, though, it falls into Brett Gardner‘s lap. As some clamor for a better solution for left field, the Yanks are standing pat for now. The Yanks would reportedly prefer to spend around $5-$6 on a left fielder, and according to Mark Feinsand and Joel Sherman, the price tags on Johnny Damon, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay remain too steep for the Bombers. As Joe wrote last night, if the price is right on Mark DeRosa, he could be a good fit.

Yanks acquire Javy Vazquez for Melky, Dunn

Javy Vazquez

After an evening of rumors regarding an impending starting pitching trade, the Yankees have acquired Javier Vazquez from the Braves in exchange for Melky Cabrera. As Jon Heyman first reported the Yankees will also ship Mike Dunn and a prospect to Atlanta, and the Braves will send left-handed reliever Boone Logan to the Bronx. Joel Sherman reports that Arodys Vizcaino will be the prospect.

I first speculated last night via Twitter that Vazquez would be the Yanks’ target, and Joel Sherman’s sources told him as much this morning. Although many Yankee fans have bad memories of Vazquez’s time in New York, since being sold too low and too soon by the team, he has not made fewer than 32 starts in a season and has a K/9 IP of 8.7. Plus, this time around, he would not be expected to front the rotation.

Earlier Buster Olney reported that the Yanks had asked the Pirates about Paul Malholm, Zach Duke and Ross Ohlendorf. The Pirates though have not been too inclined to trade their young, cost-controlled arms, and Vazquez is a much better pick-up — especially at that price — than any of the Pittsburgh trifecta.

Yankee fans are already familiar with Vazquez, who spent the 2004 season in the Bronx. He made the All Star Team thanks to a 3.56 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP in 18 starts, however he slumped to a 6.92 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP in the second half due to a tired shoulder. Joe Sherman says the Yanks are concerned about the heavy workloads CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte endured last season, and Vazquez will certainly provide protection for that: he’s made at least 32 starts and thrown at least 198 IP every season since 2000. Vazquez has been worth 21.3 wins over replacement over the last four years, which is nothing short of outstanding.

Logan, 25, is just a lefty specialist. He was actually dealt to Atlanta from the White Sox with Vazquez last offseason, and has held lefties to a .266-.333-.398 line against with his sidearm junk. Not great, but serviceable. From what I can tell, he’s out of options, and is arbitration eligible for the first time this year.

As much as it strengthens the team’s rotation, it also weakens their outfield. The leftfield situation currently looks like a Brett Gardner/Jamie Hoffmann platoon, which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Whether the Yanks fill this void by going big (Matt Holliday), going medium (Johnny Damon), or going small (Eric Hinske) remains to be seen. Vazquez is owed $11.5M in 2010 (which the Yankees will pay) and will be a free agent after the season, so the Yanks’ payroll unofficially sits around $208M right now.

Photo Credit: John Bazemore, AP

It’s official: Chien-Ming Wang non-tendered

Via Mark Feinsand, the Yankees have decided to not tender a contract to Chien-Ming Wang. Sergio Mitre, Melky Cabrera, and Chad Gaudin were all offered deals. “There’s no doubt that we had to make a tough decision,” said GM Brian Cashman. “We are still hopeful that our relationship can continue, but those decisions are yet to be made.” Hopefully something can be worked to out to bring the sinkerballer back for depth, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Good luck, Wanger.

Update: Since this is probably your last chance, make sure you bring your best CMW double entendres in the comments.

To trade or not to trade a spare outfielder

By the time Spring Training starts, odds are good that the Yanks will head into Tampa with five outfielders for four positions. Although Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera are currently behind Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher on the Yanks’ depth charts, the team wants to bring Johnny Damon back at the best price and will look at Mike Cameron before the winter is out.

Therefore, the Yanks have a good problem to have: They have a trading chip. Either Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera will draw interest from other clubs. The question, then, concerns the expendable one: Of Gardner or Cabrera, which one should the Yanks try to move?

Over the last four seasons, Yankee fans have grown quite familiar with Melky, for better or worse. As a 21-year-old in 2006, he inherited the starting left field job when Hideki Matsui went down with a wrist injury and was a pleasant surprise with the bat. He hit .280/.360/.391 with a 95 OPS+. While 2006 was a decent showing for Melky, the next two years would show him trending in the wrong direction. Over his next 1065 plate appearances, he hit .263/.316/.369 with just 16 home runs. With more Major League experience, he should have been getting better, but his only redeeming quality was his arm, and by the end of 2008, he had lost his starting job.

This year, facing some competition for his outfield spot, Melky seemed to turn it on early. He hit .285/.347/.439 in the first half with a few key clutch hits. He faded during the second half, but still managed to put up a 99 OPS+ season. For those of us in the anti-Melky camp, 2009 was a very pleasant surprise.

Still, we don’t know what to expect out of the youngster going forward. The 2010 season will be his age 25 year, and after 2148 Major League plate appearances, he has a career line of .269/.331/.385. He doesn’t have much speed or power but has a strong arm. He seems to be an ideal candidate for a fourth outfielder spot on a good team or a starting job on a lesser team but could still improve.

Then, we have Brett Gardner. A year older than Melky, the speedster has just 425 Major League plate appearances and three fewer years of service time. This year, Gardner hit .270/.345/.379. He covers a lot of ground in center field but doesn’t have Melky’s arm. He has a lot of speed but hasn’t gotten on base at a high enough clip at the Major League level to be a game-changer. We don’t know what Melky’s eventual ceiling will be, but Gardner’s may very well be what we saw this year. He’s a fast slap hitter, valuable as a late-game pinch runner but needs to find another 15 to 20 OBP points to stick.

And so the rumors. When Curtis Granderson arrived, many figured the Yanks would be able to trade one of their young center fielders. So far, rumor has it that both the Royals and White Sox have called to ask Brian Cashman about Gardner. Is the outfielder I find more expendable actually in greater demand than Melky? It would seem so.

Right now, we don’t have a sense of the potential returns. Maybe the Yanks could get Brian Bannister from the Royals, but then again, maybe he’ll be non-tendered today. The Yanks fleeced Ken Williams and the White Sox last year when they acquired Nick Swisher for a bunch of nothing. Could they do it again with Gardner? It’s nice to dream.

As it stands, the Yanks have the luxury of holding a strong hand made stronger by the Rule 5 arrival of Jamie Hoffmann. So far, Cashman has been able to capitalize on that advantage. Let’s see how he does now with a glut of young outfielders. If I were a betting man, I’d say we’ve seen the last of Gardner in pinstripes. But then again, if the Yanks sign another outfielder, Gardner may be more useful than Melky as a bench player. And so it goes.