The 2009 Yankees have a very solid team with only one giant gaping hole: center field.
With the amount of outfield options the Yankees have going into spring training, it would seem that the hole will be filled by opening day in April. But with Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner proving they can not handle the everyday center field job thus far, Yankee fans are left to wonder if that uncertainty in center field will leave them in pain come late summer.
Melky Cabrera has prepared himself well coming into this spring. Taking a cue from Robinson Cano (Melky’s best friend), Melky hired a personal trainer this past winter to better prepare him for the center field competition that awaits him this spring. While he cut his body fat and worked extensively on his swing, Melky still understands this springs competition will be tough. Though he is still only 24 years old, Melky has had a rough go in the major leagues, thus far unable to lock himself as the future center fielder for the Yankees.
Best compared to a seesaw, his career thus far has been brilliant at times and shaky as well.
What the Yankees have been reluctant to part with regarding Melky is his amazing throwing arm. He can fire the ball from the outfield unlike most players in Major League Baseball. The Yankees were a signature away from trading the “Melk-Man” this winter for the Brewers Mike Cameron, though they eventually decided against it. That set the stage for an intense center field competition this spring with fellow Yankee youngster Brett Gardner.
Brett Gardner, like Melky, is another Yankee youngster (25 years old) who the Yankee’s front office has been high on. Unlike Melky however, Gardner does not posses an above average arm from the outfield.
Instead, Gardner uses his speed as his major weapon. Although his tactic of finding a way on base and taking off for second base didn’t seem to work much when he was called up last season, Yankee’s scouts still feel this kid can be the next everyday center fielder for the Yankees come opening day 2009 if he uses his tools properly.
That “if” about Gardner revolves solely around the risk/reward he comes with. Gardner’s arm is not only below average; it’s very far below average for a major league caliber center fielder. But with that risk comes a giant reward in his amazing ability to track down balls in the deep alleys of the new Yankee stadium, and his potential to find a way on the base paths to wreak havoc.
The basic thinking within the Yankees front office is that if their two young up and comers (Melky and Brett) don’t pan out, they may just use plan C. But with plan C consisting of moving an aging Johnny Damon from left field to center, the Yankees brass may want to instead consider the little talked about plan D.
Whether Yankee fans know it or not yet, plan D is going to happen sooner rather then later. That last resort (plan D) for center field would be 22-year old Austin Jackson who played 131 games with the Yankees double-A club Trenton Thunder last year.
Austin is a stellar baseball player who hits and roams center field like a modern day Willie Mays. Okay, that’s a huge stretch, but this kid has the tools to be the next big thing in the big leagues.
More realistically, Austin compares favorably to B.J. Upton of the Tampa Bay Rays. Like Upton, the Yankees front office is enamored by Austin’s ability to use his speed as his best weapon. In just three seasons in the minors, Austin has already swiped 100 bases with a 2006 high of 37 stolen bases.
Austin has the ability to field like the converted shortstop to center fielder Upton as well. He has an uncanny ability to get an amazing jump on the ball as soon as it’s hit. His athleticism is something that only comes handful of times in a lifetime in baseball terms.
What makes all of this even more intriguing is that Austin has reported to 2009 spring training in great shape, as if he is ready to compete to make the big league club. Though he is only a non-roster invite, Austin knows that the everyday Yankee’s starting center fielder has not been set and the competition will be intense.
If the two primary choices for center field fail to impress manager Joe Girardi throughout spring training, and Austin busts out this spring showing he is capable of taking the reigns on the everyday center fielder job, don’t be surprised if Austin is getting fitted for pinstripes come opening day 2009.