So Much For "Overcrowding" In The Yankees' Outfield

Lou DiPietroAnalyst IAugust 23, 2009

NEW YORK - AUGUST 12:  Johnny Damon #18 of the New York Yankees hits a double in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during the MLB game on August 12, 2009 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Sometimes when life hands you lemons, you can do better than just make lemonade.

Case in point: The 2009 New York Yankees, their overloaded DH spot and their “crowded” outfield.

In the outfield, the Yanks had Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Xavier Nady, Hideki Matsui and Nick Swisher—and not one of them was revered by most Yankee fans, some scribes and even a few in the organization. It was so crowded that Bobby Abreu--a .300-20-100 guy who was the team's No. 3 hitter for almost three seasons--wasn't even asked back.

The starters coming out of spring training were Damon, Gardner and Nady, and they had more question marks than check marks. Many thought Damon would decline offensively, become even more of a defensive liability than he already was and basically be an expensive relic. As for the other two, well, Gardner couldn’t hit and Nady couldn’t possibly play over his head again.

Then there was the bench. Swisher, who was the Yanks’ starting first baseman for about 45 minutes, was way too expensive and way too poor of a hitter to be on the bench. Ditto on the latter for Cabrera; if he was so bad that he needed to be demoted to Scranton in late 2008 and couldn’t beat out Brett Gardner for the CF job, what good was he?

And worst of all was Matsui, a creaky-kneed expensive shell of his former self who couldn’t even play the field—a factor that would totally destroy the universe if Jorge Posada couldn’t catch full time and needed to be more of a DH than a receiver.

I’ll admit, I too was one of those Yankee fans that wondered how the hell they could justify pretty much anything they threw out there.

At least we were right about Nady, I guess, and that’s not even poor Xavier’s fault.

With six weeks to go in the season, the Yanks have a 7 ½ game lead over the Boston Red Sox—and have won six of their last seven against their Beantown Rivals after starting the season 0-8.

And the outfield/DH is a huge reason.

Swisher has been a very pleasant surprise. He took over for Nady when Xavier blew out his elbow, and while A-Rod was hurt and Mark Teixiera was struggling in April, he was a big catalyst in the offense.

Yes, overall his average is awful as usual (.down to .245 after an 0-for-4 night in Boston on Sunday). But even though he’s cooled off immensely since that torrid April, he’s done exactly what people have said he would do—namely get on base at a nearly .400 clip, hit 20-30 HR (he’s at 21 through Sunday) and do whatever the Yankees asked of him.

And to boot, he’s been very good defensively in right field and excellent in his limited action at first base.

Then there’s Cabrera, who apparently got the message after his demotion and the loss of his starting job coming out of spring training. After reclaiming the job early in the year, Cabrera has produced. There are plenty of teams that would take .265-10-50 out of their No. 9 hitter for the season—numbers Cabrera has put up in only 370 or so at-bats.

The biggest surprises, however, have been Damon and Matsui.

Whether it’s his move to the No. 2 slot, the seemingly thin air in right field at Yankee Stadium or even just his impending free agency, Damon has had a renaissance in 2009.

While you could knock him for the fact that he’s only stolen nine bases (his career low is 16), that total may be better explained by his swap in the order with Derek Jeter and his power output.

Through Sunday, Damon had 22 HR (his career high is 24), was slugging nearly 100 points better than his career average and is on pace to be right around or above his career average numbers in walks, OBP, average and runs scored.

Then there’s Matsui. Creaky knees or not, he’s been consistent all season and on fire as of late. Sunday, he produced his third multi-homer game in the last 10 days, and seems to be peaking at the right time. He has eight HR in August (after hitting that many in June and July combined) and has seemed rejuvenated by getting one or two days off a week.

Overall, yes, his average is down about 20 points, he probably won’t reach 100 RBI for the first time in a “full” season and he hasn’t seen the field all year. But with 23 HR, a nearly .900 OPS and a few days off here and there, he’s a big cog in the machine.

Funny how things work out, isn’t it?

The weirdest part, however, is that what was a “bad” problem five months ago could be an even worse problem five months from now.

Damon, Matsui and Nady are all free agents—and even with career years, there’s almost no way the Bombers can justify bringing more than one back—and Austin Jackson is on the verge of being ready, which could make Melky, Gardner or even both obsolete.

Seems like a much better problem to have, actually.