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With every single trade rumor circling around Melky Cabrera, and my well-documented affinity for our center fielder, I thought it was time to take a close look at the options for the Bombers should they trade him.

Short-term solutions

If Melky gets moved, they aren't going to move him for another center fielder, so this year we're looking at a couple of different options.

  • Johnny Damon plays center, Matsui plays left with maybe Sardinha, Brett Gardner or even Shelley Duncan seeing some time in left. (more on the young guys soon).
  • Sign a free agent, here are the remaining options:
    1. Aaron Rowand - Probably going to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $70M for 5 years. He'd be a nice addition, but the insane contract for Torii Hunter has completely blown the market out of whack. Good defense, good bat (but his numbers were inflated by Citizens Bank Park). I'd say he'd provide a slight upgrade over Melky this year, but Melky is young and improving. Long term I think this is a bad idea.
    2. Andruw Jones - I absolutely do not want the Yanks to sign Andruw. He can't hit anymore, he never walks and his defense is slipping at 29. He doesn't take care of himself, and he is by no means worth the type of money he's looking for. There is a slight caveat: Jones's 2007 was so abysmal, there is an outside chance he'd sign a 1-year deal to rebuild his value for a huge payday after 2008. I'd be in favor of this, he'd be ultra-motivated and might actually get in shape for a year-long tryout in the Bronx. Andruw's agent, Scott Boras, has said his client will not accept a one-year deal, but Boras has about as much credibility as Jayson Blair at this point. As an added bonus, Jones is a type-b free agent, so he would cost the Yanks a second-round pick, rather than their first-rounder.
    3. Mike Cameron - Probably the least-expensive free agent option. Also the one with the most baggage. Cameron will serve a 25-game suspension for breaking the substance abuse policy to start the season. Apparently he was on speed or something, this was not steroid-related. Cameron brings a great glove and a bad bat with him. I'd consider him a downgrade at the position from Melky.
My preference for the short-term would be to go with Andruw Jones on a one-year deal, if possible. Otherwise, stick with Damon in center and Matsui/the kids in left. This would be a huge downgrade to the team's defense, and offense (Giambi would then DH). Considering these short-term options, I'm going reiterate, one more time, trading Melky is not a good idea.

Long-term Solutions

There's been way too much talk about Melky's defense being below-average in center. One of the new-fangled range statistics puts him below the average center fielder, again, I'm going to trust my eyes over objective stats. Melky's arm changes games, and while he doesn't have the pure speed of an above average center fielder, he does get amazing jumps on balls. I'd prefer the ability to read the ball off the bat to explosive speed with no clue how to play the position.

That being said, there are plenty of people who follow the Yanks closely who think Melky is not the center fielder of the future, and a good deal of these feelings stems not from the player he is, but the players the Yanks have lined up in the minors to take his position away. Let's take a look at these long-term solutions:
  1. Austin Jacksonaustinjackson112507.jpg
    • 20 years old, 6'1" 185 lbs.
    • Drafted in 8th round of 2005 draft.
    • 2007 numbers (A- & A+): 127 games, 493 at bats, 86 runs, 31 2b, 7 3b, 13 HR, 59 RBI, 21 SB, 11 CS, 46 BB, 107 Ks
      .304 AVG/.367 OBP/.475 SLG/.842
    • First, a hat-tip to Alex K from New York for shooting me an e-mail with the news that Baseball Prospectus named A-Jax as the #1 prospect from the Hawaii Winter Baseball League. Baseball America ranked him as the #2 prospect to play in the league this Fall. Jackson languished for a year and a half in low A ball for the Yanks, then half-way through the season in 2007 they promoted him to high-A Tampa where he absolutely flourished. His numbers in Tampa (.345/.398/.566/.964) opened eyes throughout the organization and his performance in Hawaii has kept the buzz going. Jackson's original projection was as a lead-off guy with some speed, but now they're talking about a #2 or #3 hitter with good power to the gaps. It's doubtful that he'll find his way to the Bronx in 2008, highly doubtful, but he could be a mainstay in the Yankee outfield come late 2009 or maybe 2010. If he continues along his projected path, A-Jax could push Melky to a corner outfield position. At that point, Melky's bat may be a problem, unless Jackson can produce at an above-average level for a center fielder from the get-go. At this point, he's so far away that it seems silly to count on him and let Melky go.
  2. Brett Gardner
    • 23 years-old, 5'10", 180 lbs.
    • Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2005 draft.
    • 2007 numbers (AA & AAA): 99 games, 384 at bats, 80 runs, 108 hits, 18 doubles, 3 triples, 1 HR, 26 RBI, 39 SB, 7 CS, 54 BB, 75 K.
      .281 AVG/.366 OBP/.377 SLG/.744 OPS, 39 SB, 7 CS
    • Gardner is an interesting factor in the Melky equation. Defensively, he's the opposite of Melky, scouts say he takes awkward routes sometimes, and doesn't always get a great jump on the ball, but his absolutely amazing speed makes up for it. At the plate, he's not going to drive the ball very often, he's not going to hit for power, but he is going to work counts, get on base and disrupt the game with his speed. In just three  seasons of minor-league ball, he's stolen 114 bases and only been caught 22 times. He has been clocked at a blazing 3.9 seconds from home to first from the left side of the plate. Gardner still isn't ready, but he's close. We'll probably see him in the Bronx some time in 2008, and he may just be ready to take over as the team's lead-off man in 2009. I think the Yanks envision Gardner as being a younger Johnny Damon, with more speed, less power and a better arm. If he progresses, and turns into that type of player, then I think you may have an issue with Melky when Gardner is ready to make the jump. Melky is never going to turn into the prototypical lead-off man at the major league level, he just doesn't have the speed. Gardner can change games with his patience and legs, Joe Girardi is going to love this kid. You could slide Melky over to left, or right, but doing so would mean you're going to get 15 HRs total out of two-thirds of your outfield. That's hard to live with, even if you do have A-Rod in your lineup.
The Yanks have a couple more outfielders in their system, notable among these are Bronson Sardinha, Jose Tabata. Sardinha doesn't project to be more than a 4th outfielder at best, probably a defensive replacement in reality. He's 24, and a corner outfield. Tabata's position has yet to be determined, but he's one of the stars in the Yankee minor league system. The latest scouting reports seem to lean toward him being a corner outfielder as his frame thickens.

There you have it. If everything goes as planned, the Yankees have two viable options in the minors, with Gardner being probably a year or two ahead of A-Jax, but neither ready to step in and play right away. If the Yanks trade Melky, they're going to be left with a gaping hole in their starting lineup.

Taken from the long view, maybe Melky is expendable. Maybe they can make a stop-gap move for 2008 and not give up too much defensively or offensively. Maybe the spark Melky has brought to this veteran team can be provided by someone else. Maybe they have two better options to man center for the next decade than Leche. Maybe fans like myself over-value him. All of these possibilities exist, but I think that's a whole lot of maybes, and trading him would be a mighty big risk. You know what you have in Melky, you know what he brings to the lineup and the defense. If you're going to let him go, you better get something very valuable in return, and you better not give up any other key pieces to the future in the deal.