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November 8, 2005

Put me in coach
by SG

I've discussed the bullpen needs for the Yankees. Now it's time to look at the position on the field that is their biggest need. Center field in Yankee Stadium has seen immortals such as Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, and great players like Bernie Williams. This year, it is uncertain who will be in center.

Assuming the Yankees re-sign Hideki Matsui, which frankly, I'm starting to get a little worried about, he would be one option. He is likely not going to be a good defensive CF, but he'll hit well enough to make up for it. The fact that the Yankees leaked their interest in Brian Giles makes me think that Matsui and his agent are playing hardball with the Yankees. Matsui is a good player, but not a superstar. He does have the tangent benefit of increased exposure for the Yankees in Japan, which can help in two ways. First of all, it helps to increase their revenue, although this effect is probably overstated since much of overseas revenue is shared. More importantly to me, it makes the Yankees the most popular team in Japan, which makes them more attractive to Japanese players who are interested in coming over.

Assuming Matsui is signed as the left fielder, the center field options are not particularly great. The Yankees are saying they would consider Bubba Crosby as their starting CF, which would probably be a risk. He's never hit outside of one season in AAA. I suppose they could platoon him with Kevin Thompson and hope to tread water. If the only other option to this is a trade where the Yankees have to give up an Eric Duncan or Phil Hughes, I'd rather go this route. If they can hit as much as Bernie Williams did last year (.249/.321/.367 for an OPS+ of 81) while playing better defense, they'll be better in center than they were last year.

This is not a very likely path for the Yankees to take, so what are their other options? Here are the available free agent center fielders. OPS+ is the player's OPS(on base plus slugging) adjusted for their home park, and then compared to league average. An OPS+ of 100 is exactly average. Greater than 100 is better than average, etc., I am always wary of relying on defensive stats too much, but I'm using Baseball Prospectus's rate stat here, which compares the runs saved over 100 games at that position. So a player with a rate of 105 would save 5 runs over the average defender at that position in 100 games.

Johnny Damon(2005 OPS+:113, Career OPS+:102, Career Rate as a CF:101) Here's the big name on the free agent list, and frankly, I'm not particularly impressed. Damon will be 32 and is looking for at least 4 years and $10 million a year. His defense has already started to decline, and his splits away from home are telling and a bit concerning:



Damon's just not that good, and he's going to get worse. I wouldn't touch him.

Jacque Jones(2005 OPS+:99, Career OPS+:101, Career Rate as a CF:107) Jones has not played a ton of CF (159 of his 917 career games), but that is less a function of his ability and more a function of having a superior defensive player on the team. He has a horrible arm, and can't hit lefties, but he'd likely be reasonably priced and provide league average offense if used correctly.

Richard Hidalgo(2005 OPS+:82 , Career OPS+:111, Career Rate as a CF:106) Hidalgo's an inconsistent offensive player who has had two bad years in a row and hasn't played center regularly since 2001. If he came cheap, he might not be a bad choice, as perhaps a platoon CF/fourth OF.

Quinton McCracken(2005 OPS+:59 , Career OPS+:79, Career Rate as a CF:103) A 36 year old CF who hit .238/.312/.298? Bubba can do that.

Juan Encarnacion(2005 OPS+:113 , Career OPS+:96, Career Rate as a CF:95) Encarnacion is a bad player who had a good year. Primarily a RF in his career but has played about 1/3 of his games in center where he is rated below average. He's more likely to revert to his career averages than replicate last year, and since he doesn't seem to be a good defender, he's probably not someone I'd look at.

Kenny Lofton(2005 OPS+:107 , Career OPS+:108, Career Rate as a CF:104) Lofton actually would make sense for the Yankees if Joe Torre didn't hate him so much. I doubt he'd want to come back.

Preston Wilson(2005 OPS+:103, Career OPS+:106, Career Rate as a CF:95) A bad defensive player who's had injury problems and strikes out ALL THE TIME. He's never really hit that well outside of Coors. He's a righty pull hitter who would probably not even slug .400 in the stadium. I wouldn't bother.

Potential Trade Acquisitions
Torii Hunter(2005 OPS+:107 , Career OPS+:100, Career Rate as a CF:100) Hunter had a pretty severe ankle injury last year and will be 30 next year. He is a good defender, although not as good as his reputation, and is not a very good offensive player. He's also owed $10.5 million next year with a $12.5 million option for 2007. The Twins have Lew Ford on hand to replace him, and also have budget restrictions that make paying Hunter a problem for them. The New York media continues to propose Cano for Hunter, which is asinine. Even Steve Goldman, whose writing I enjoy, has proposed this foolish idea. It has no basis in fact, if you believe this article:

With general manager Brian Cashman committed to paring payroll and increasing the Yankees' youth, expect Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang to be in pinstripes when the 2006 season begins.

Dealing these one-time prospects who made significant contributions during the Yankees' run to the AL East title "doesn't make any sense,'' Cashman said Monday, adding that it "wouldn't be valid to speculate'' about such a transaction.

I would take Hunter if he was available cheaply, or for a bad contract like Carl Pavano's or Jaret Wright's partially subsidized. That's the only way I would consider him.

Milton Bradley(2005 OPS+:121 , Career OPS+:104, Career Rate as a CF:109) A pretty good player who's worn out his welcome in Cleveland and Los Angeles of Los Angeles, as opposed to Los Angeles of Anaheim. He's likely available cheaply, but there's a reason for that, and I'm pretty sure he'd have a tough time dealing with the New York media, who will needle him mercilessly to make their deadline days easier. The Yankees could either pursue a trade for Bradley or wait until December 20 to see if he is non-tendered by the Dodgers. The big risk with waiting is that most of the fallback options will be off the market by then.

Regular reader Mike C. made some very interesting points about the Bradley rumors, which I will post here rather than plagiarize him:

There are only two ways that it makes any sense at all to trade for Bradley instead of waiting until Dec 20. One is if you think he'd rather sign with someone else when he becomes a FA, and two is if you think the market for him as a FA will be richer than what he'll likely get in arbitration. Of course, if you think about it, one is actually an argument against trading for him, since it'll just give him one more thing to be malcontented about. And if two is true, then you'd have to figure that some of those teams might be inclined to make fairly attractive trade offers for Bradley.

This was in response to a George King column pushing the Yankees to trade for Bradley instead of waiting for him to be non-tendered.

Bradley would provide above average offense and defense, but I don't think we can separate the player from the man. The Yankees are supposedly mulling his acquisition, with the same concerns.

Juan Pierre(2005 OPS+:84 , Career OPS+:87, Career Rate as a CF:97) Please, just say no. He's a one tool speed player with no pop who gets almost all his value from infield hits. He also seems to rate as a below average defender, and is at an age where he can be expected to start losing his one tool.

Update:Mike Cameron(2005 OPS+:113 , Career OPS+:116, Career Rate as a CF:101) I forgot to include Cameron in my initial list, but the Mets are probably looking to trade him. The Mets need help at 2B and in the bullpen, or a corner OF that can hit. Cameron's career rate looks way low, he's pretty well acknowledged as a superior defender. I don't think the Yankees have what it would take to get Cameron. He's not worth either Sheffield or Cano, particularly coming off a pretty bad injury. He'll be a free agent after next season, so maybe the Yankees can consider him if they don't find anything more than a stopgap this season and no one in the minors distinguishes themselves as the CF of the future.

It's certainly not a great list. The only one that I'd be interested in long-term would Milton Bradley if he didn't have the temper/personality issues. I think the Yankees' primary concern has to be holding onto the farm right now. I would not trade any prospects for Hunter or Bradley. I'd also hate to see them locking themselves into a long-term contract with a declining "idiot" who is a bandbox illusion. If I were the Yankees, I'd probably take a flier on Jacques Jones first if he would sign a two year deal. If that doesn't work, I'd likely move onto Richard Hidalgo next and platoon him with Crosby and hope that he has one of his good seasons. If that doesn't work, I'd probably just call up Kevin Thompson and platoon him with Bubba, and wait until the season starts and see what comes available. If the Yankees take this approach, then they need to add a bat somewhere.

Brian Giles would be an interesting choice, and a RF/LF/DH rotation of Giles/Sheffield/Matsui would likely score a ton of runs, but I think Jason Giambi is going to need regular time at DH as he ages, so it's not really an option. I also don't think Giles would want to come to New York, and is feigning interest to help drive up his asking price. I also think it's probable the Yankees know this, and are leaking their interest in Giles to keep Matsui's demands reasonable.

Another name that I would consider would be Frank Thomas. If he can play first 40 times and DH 80 times, he can spell Giambi a bit while leaving 40 games for Sheffield and Matsui to split up at DH. His health is a concern and he makes Giambi look like vintage Don Mattingly on defense, but the man can hit, he works counts, and he can probably be had relatively inexpensively and for a short-term commitment. I'd prefer either of these options to the return of Tino Martinez or the John Olerud/Doug Mientwhatever/J.T. Snow/Travis Lee options being bandied about. It also wouldn't kill the Yankees to give Andy Phillips a chance. It's an open question if he can hit a major league breaking pitch, but it's time to either see if he can, or let him go earn a paycheck somewhere. From what little I saw of him he looked like a very good defensive first baseman.

My guess is that the Yankees eventually get Bradley. It just seems like the best fit, and if Joe Torre does anything well, it's managing "difficult" personalities.