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, all the time

After reading the headline, I can only assume that one of three names popped into your head: A-Rod, Jeter or Mo. If I took a poll, listing all 25 active players, I bet those three would finish 1,2,3 in some order. While I think Jeter is as clutch as they come, A-Rod is the best hitter in the game and Mo is the best baseball player of my lifetime, I don't think any of them is the most important Yankee. Who is?

This guy:

Melky is not afraid of walls.
No player has a greater influence on the Yankee team, as a whole, than Melky. We saw it last year when Matsui and Sheffield went down with injuries and the 21 year-old kid stepped right in and energized the team. We saw it this year, when Joe relegated him to 4th outfielder status, and the team struggled through the first two months (not a coincidence) and we've seen it since Giambi went down and Melky became the every-day center fielder.

In the off season, when there was rumor of the Yankees shopping Melky for Mike Gonzalez, I was up in arms. It was bad enough that Joe took Melky out at the end of last year, and into the playoffs, in favor of Sheffield and Matsui (much to the team's detriment), but getting rid of him? This seemed like the worst thing the Yanks could do.

I took some heat for that post. The main reaction seemed to be that Melky was at best a slap-hitting corner outfielder. Ergo, a dime-a-dozen. I was baffled by that logic at the time, and still am. To fully appreciate what Melky brings to the Yankees, I think you have to watch them on a regular basis, and while you're watching, don't just pay attention to what happens on the field, watch the dugout.

The Melky Effect - Psychological

gotmelky0808.jpgIf you've ever had a 10+ year-old dog, and brought a new puppy into the house, you've probably extending the older dog's life by a year or two. The older dog started acting young again. It started playing the games it used to play, it learned new tricks, it's really a heart-warming phenomenon. Melky is that puppy to the veteran Yankees.

Even the most professional player, who lives and dies by the win/loss column can't stave off the effects of the marathon baseball season, much less the wear and tear of 10 of them. Something has to give, and unfortunately, in a lot of cases, the thing that gives is fun. The game is no longer fun, or to be more accurate, they forget how fun the game can be.
Even winning can lose its fun factor for some guys, if taken in extremely large or extremely small doses. Melky has made playing fun again for this team. Every run is a celebration in the dugout, every player gets a special handshake, and if he's lucky, a dance. Every win is team celebration.

Players like A-Rod, Abreu and Matsui, who seem stoic at times (some may say indifferent, I don't agree), can't help but get caught up in the enthusiasm Melky has brought to the team. Here's a perfect example: Early in the year, the Yanks were reeling, and lost a ton of games to the Sox. Later in the season, Melky was entrenched in center when the Bombers traveled up to Boston. In the third game, while the game was still within reach for Boston, a fly ball was hit to right. Bobby Abreu measured it, caught it with a Rickey Henderson snatch catch and turned to Melky with a grin on his face. The next inning, Melky duplicated the snatch catch with a little more flair and puffed his chest out, mocking Abreu.

The Melky Effect - Defensive

Johnny Damon was signed to replace Bernie Williams, and be the Yankee center fielder for four or five years. The best laid plans and all of that. Damon's reign in center is officially over, and this change has shored up the Yankee defense.

When you look at Melky, you don't think he's going to be able to run at all. In fact, I'm sure Bernie could still smoke him in a 40-yard dash. Luckily for us, pure speed is not the most important thing to playing center field. The most important thing is anticipation, reading the ball off the bat well, and getting a good jump. Melky does this better than Bernie or Damon ever did. He covers more ground than either of those guys did in their prime, and to top it all off, he's got a cannon for an arm.

Fun Fact: Outfield Assists
Melky: 23 assists in 241 career games. (1 assist every 10.5 games)
Damon: 66 assists in 1742 career games. (1 assist every 26.4 games)
Bernie: 65 assists in 1926 career games. (1 assist every 29.6 games)
Those numbers don't take into account the number of times runners don't try to take an extra base on Melky, because he has such a strong arm. Think about all the runners who would be going first to third if not for Melky's presence in center. You think that might have something to do with the improved staff ERA since he was inserted into the lineup?

Melky also plays fearlessly in the field. He crashes into walls to make catches, he dives, he does whatever he needs to. That too has a ripple effect. Veteran players start saying to themselves, "If that kid is killing himself out there, I better damned well do the same."

I honestly believe this kid is going to win a Gold Glove before all is said and done. My last piece of evidence is visual:

melkycatch0808.jpgThe Melky Effect - Offensive
When you have a hustle guy, a future Gold Glover who plays one of the most important positions on the field, a team leader and a good character guy who happens to be 22 years-old, anything you get at the plate should be gravy. If a young guy brings all of that to the table, you're happy if he hits .250. Well, here are Melky's numbers through 103 games: .302/.354/.450, all very good numbers for a center fielder. These are the numbers that show exactly what Melky means to the Yankee offense though: 9 sacrifice bunts, 6 sacrifice flies and 9 stolen bases.

Having a guy like Melky in the lineup allows the Yanks to manufacture runs. He has a good eye at the plate, rarely strikes out, and Joe has every single option available to him whenever Melky comes to the plate. To complete the package, he's a switch-hitter with fairly even splits vs. left and right.

melkyatthebat0808.jpgThe Melky Effect - The whole package
When you add all of these components up, what you're left with is the foundation of a team. He's probably never going to hit 30 home runs, he's probably never going to steal 40 bases. His offensive numbers will probably never warrant an MVP, or a Silver Slugger Award. Melky shares all of those "probably nots" with another Yankee we're all familiar with, Derek Jeter. Melky may not have the pedigree of Jeter, but he's got the leadership and the intangibles. That's why I think, given the chance, Melky will be the next captain of the New York Yankees.

This off season is going to be huge for the future of this franchise. Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones and Mike Cameron are all going to be free agents. The Yankees absolutely do not need any of them. Nothing but good can come from crowning Melky as the center fielder permanently. Bringing in another aging veteran to play center will set this franchise back.

If you're left with any doubt about Melky's character, here's an excerpt from a story written by Tyler Kepner for the New York Times:

After a game in Chicago in June, when the Yankees were well under .500, Canó and Cabrera resolved to get on base more often. Canó said they decided to be realistic about what the team needed.

"We're not here to hit home runs," Canó said. "We're not going to prove that we're Babe Ruth or anything. Just go out there, get on base for A-Rod and Posada and Matsui, let them hit the home runs. Just swing at pitches we can drive, not like we were at the beginning, when we were swinging at everything and trying to hit the ball out of the park."

Canó is batting .456 (41 for 90) in his last 23 games, coming on strong in the second half the way he did last season. He and Cabrera are playing with the boundless energy of teenagers, Alex Rodriguez said, as they compete against each other and the opposition.

If you look at the Yankee roster today, they have a future #3 hitter in Cano (24 years-old) a future captain in Melky (22 years-old, he turns 23 on Saturday), an ace in Wang (27 years-old), a future-ace in Hughes (21 years-old) and  possibly a dominant closer in Chamberlain (21 years-old). They may or may not get the job done this year, but as long as they stay the course and let their young players develop, this team is nowhere near reaching its full potential.
by Brian on Aug 8 2007
Tags: Melky Cabrera |