Most Yankee fans have been raised on the expectation that greatness will patrol the vast center field in Yankee Stadium.
New York experienced decades of being spoiled by the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Mickey Rivers, Rickey Henderson, Bernie Williams, and Johnny Damon.
This is a very long lineage of success which spans over 70 years. Included in this list are all-stars, sparkplugs, gold-glovers, Yankee immortals, and Hall of Famers.
Things began to change following injury problems to Johnny Damon and the diminished skills and subsequent release of Bernie Williams.
It has now been 10 seasons since a Yankee center fielder has played 150 games at that position. This trend is certain to continue in 2009, as two unproven youngsters are battling for a starting spot.
The first candidate is Brett Gardner, a one-dimensional roadrunner whose primary asset is his speed.
His range in the outfield makes up for his high school arm, and his base-stealing ability helps to limit the disadvantage, limited extra base hits.
The second option continues to be Melky Cabrera, a promising and energetic fan favorite who has fallen out of favor within the organization.
Cabrera’s experience, decent power, and arm are all reasons to sing his praises. The problem is his anemic on-base percentage and limited base-stealing ability. He has also shown the tendency to embarrassingly misplay balls in the outfield.
While there is still a lot to be determined throughout spring training, Brett Gardner has clearly taken the lead in the CF race.
Already a favorite of Joe Girardi for his throwback aggressiveness and max-effort attitude, Gardner has displayed his potential early in spring training. He homered in his first spring at-bat on Wednesday to send an immediate message to the coaching staff.
In today’s game against the Minnesota Twins, Gardner reached base in all three of his at-bats. His day included a walk, single, double, run scored, and two stolen bases.
Establishing himself as a catalyst for the offense, Gardner was surprisingly the most impressive player on the field for either team.
On the other side of the position battle, Cabrera continued to struggle. He went 0-3 with three men left on base to maintain an OBP and batting average of .000 thus far.
He seems lost at the plate at times, and most of his child-like enthusiasm has begun to disappear. The pressures and ups and downs of playing in New York have taken a toll on Cabrera.
It is clear that neither of these CF options will produce eye-popping numbers or reach an all-star team. However, as the nine hitter in a potentially great Yankee lineup, they do not need to.
If Gardner is able to steal 35-40 bases while producing a .330-.340 OBP, the Yankees will be ecstatic.
Yankee fans may be left holding their breath for the arrival of Austin Jackson in 2010. The question is, would you rather have anyone besides a Gardner take care of all that CF grass?