An Alternative Answer to the Gardner/Cabrera Question: Start Them Both

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An Alternative Answer to the Gardner/Cabrera Question: Start Them Both
(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

First things first...I've been on vacation in Los Angeles and have not had the adequate time to review the last two weeks of Yankees action. You're not likely to see a giant, three-week review on Monday, either. So let's go through the big points real quickly:

The Yankees are 0-5 against the Red Sox thus far. I don't even want to talk about it.

Last week, Teixeira hit a bases-clearing double in the eighth inning against the Rays to tie the score at 3-3 (Kay called it his first "defining Yankee moment!"), then failed to drive in the winner from third base with one out in the 10th.

Jorge Posada and Jose Molina are on the DL, and Enzo from the Godfather is our starting catcher (What a postgame interview last night. Absolutely hilarious. All Cervelli was missing was the top hat and the bouquet of flowers).

Phil Hughes has been roughed up and managed only five innings total over his last two starts, but we have no other options but to be patient. Aceves is turning into a reliable late-inning guy in Bruney's absence.

The Blue Jays are not a playoff team. Not in this division. They can put up six runs a game on the mediocre pitchers of the league, but against the likes of Burnett, Pettitte and Sabathia they managed eight runs total in this week's series. Especially telling is the waste of a great start by Brian Tallet's Mustache last night - when one of their non-Halladay starters pitches well, they have to take advantage, because the law of large numbers says it's not going to happen all that often as the season wears on.

Oh, and Alex Rodriguez is back.

Now, to the point at hand. You've probably been wondering, if you're as smart as you all look from where I am, on the internet, why a picture of Hideki Matsui is on top of an article about the Gardner v. Cabrera battle for time in center field.

Well, I'll tell you. And you're not going to like it. Hell, I don't like it, but it's the smart baseball move and that's what we're looking for here, right?

As soon as Posada comes off the disabled list, Hideki Matsui's time as a starter on this team should come to a close.

Yes, he's only 34, but his injury-prone lower body is starting to drain his power, and he no longer can play in the field with any regularity. Even with his terrible arm, Johnny Damon's speed makes him a solid defensive player in left. In the other two outfield spots are three players vying for time: Nick Swisher, another average defender with a decent-to-good bat; and Cabrera and Gardner, two young players who are both still developing at the plate but play great defense.

We have seen, throughout the last fifteen years (and in stark relief over the last six) that great pitching and defense will win out over great hitting. The 2004 Red Sox (remember them?) traded one of their three best hitters in Nomar Garciaparra for two guys hitting about .230 apiece in Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera, in a move that stunned most outsiders and brought great delight to every Yankee fan who thought the Red Sox were throwing away their greatest advantage - their offense. Boston went 42-18 over the last two months of the season and eventually won the World Series.

The big change? The moved shored up a shaky defense - especially the installation of the speedy and slick-fielding Cabrera at shortstop, Garciaparra's old position. Obviously, with Damon, Ortiz, Ramirez and Varitek in their lineup they still had enough big bats to make trouble for any pitching staff. Add to the mix a better rotation than they'd had at any time over the last twenty-odd years, and Boston was able to make the leap to being a championship-caliber team.

Why is this relevant? Right now, the Yankees have at their disposal the best Ace-Two-Three in baseball in Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte (and the fourth and fifth guys aren't too bad, either). They have the best closer in history in Mariano Rivera. They have a lineup that includes a three-time MVP at third base, two middle-infielders with career batting averages of over .300, another power bat (and Gold Glove) at first who's guaranteed to hit in the .280s and drive in 100 runs, and - when healthy - the second-best offensive catcher in the American League.

We can afford to platoon Matsui and Swisher at the DH spot (with Swisher occasionally spelling Damon in the outfield) and allow the two kids to play lock-down defense and learn how to hit at the bottom of our order.

But is it necessary? Yes.

Why? Because of the little things. Allowing less fly balls to fall in for hits is, in itself, an important part of helping the pitchers give up less runs. Throwing out more baserunners (for example, Gardner nailing Barajas at the plate last night to keep the Blue Jays up by only one run) is good for morale and momentum and, obviously, keeping runs off the board.

We've tried it the other way, too. Matsui in his prime could make up for his defensive shortcomings in left. Giambi, when he wasn't hitting .240 trying to pull every pitch he swung at, could make up for his sub-par glove at first by driving in runs. But for the contact pitchers in the rotation (say, Wang and Pettitte) who don't strike a lot of batters out, defense becomes absolutely key to winning close games. In fact, defense will, as a rule, decide games between otherwise evenly-matched teams.

See, for current examples, every hard-hit ball B.J. Upton runs down for a long out in center field when we're playing Tampa. Or the line drive Scott Rolen caught last night to rob A-Rod of a double and kill a rally before one could begin.

But the one play in particular that sticks with me is Bubba Crosby and Gary Sheffield running into each other in right field in Game Five of the 2005 LDS in Anaheim. Sheff was a great player, and an asset to the lineup, but any high-school right fielder will tell you - that's the center fielder's ball, so get the hell out of his way! Two runs scored on that "triple." The Angels won the game 5-3. That play, in the second inning, a catchable fly ball that didn't get caught, virtually decided the game and ended our season. The Angels didn't score another run against us, but their bullpen was too good to give us the chance to come back.

Bottom line: I love Matsui, but the Yankees need to make sure they have their best team out in the field. That's going to involve ending the position battle between Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner, and starting them in center and right field.

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