Since the moment Joel Sherman's report in the New York Post of the Tigers' impending payroll dump was released to the masses, the hottest of all topics in the early days of baseball's hot stove has been the eventual destination of Curtis Granderson. All the usual suspects have been involved in the trade speculation, including the Red Sox, Cubs, White Sox, Angels, and of course, the New York Yankees. And given their outfield situation going into 2010 the consideration of the 29-year-old, athletic lefthander isn't unwarranted.
The Yankees will enter next season with an outfield setup that remains uncertain on the heels of their championship. The general assumption is that Hideki Matsui (the World Series MVP) will be moving on to clear the DH spot for the veterans on the club like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and even A-Rod. Matsui is too injury prone to play the field anyway, so he no longer factors into the discussion.
Nick Swisher should once again see the of majority time in right field due to his productive 2009 but he can play any of the three outfield positions, giving the Yankees much needed flexibility that will be crucial during the personnel transition in the outfield over the next few seasons. Johnny Damon may return to play left depending on how demanding his megalomaniac agent Scott Boras will act in negotiations. In any case, there is no way the Yankees will give Damon the four-year deal Boras is currently after. If Johnny will accept a short term deal he may return in pinstripes but history indicates that he will likely have no problem moving on to his fifth team for the right price.
Xavier Nady (if re-signed) is a possibility to replace Damon in left field or right but his health has long made him a perpetual question mark of unreliability. Which leaves the two youngsters — Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera — in centerfield.
Both players put up solid seasons offensively and defensively in 2009. Melky Cabrera won the job from Gardner early — and kept it through Brett's injury — but in the end both players contributed nicely to the overall production of the team, and in much different ways. A platoon situation is definitely a possibility in center field with these two, but is likely not ideal given that a solid amount of at bats will be crucial to the to the development of both players. In a alternative scenario, the Yankees could feature an outfield of Cabrera, Gardner and Swisher but the Bombers are likely to want more offensive production, especially if the Red Sox make a play on Matt Holliday or re-sign Jason Bay.
Curtis Granderson could seemingly solve this issue for the Yankees. He's a 29-year-old lefty that can provide above average defense, offense, and speed (the combined characteristics of Gardner and Cabrera) in one player, Granderson is at least as good (and arguably much better) defensively as the two current Yankees and definitely an upgrade offensively. In 2009 Curtis knocked out a career best 30 home runs in spacious Comerica Park. Yankee Stadium and its invitingly seductive short porch in right field could only help improve upon that total.
But other signs indicate that although Granderson is a good player and an upstanding ambassador for the game of immense charactor and integrity, there are disturbing trends in his habits at the plate. Once a line drive hitter who utilized his speed to become a master of the triple, a batsman tailor made for his home park and its deep power alleys, now Granderson has gained long ball power but has digressed in other crucial areas, especially for a leadoff hitter.
Call it the "Willie Mays Hayes Syndrome." Curtis hit seven more home runs and collected five more RBIs in 2009 than he did in 2008. This is indisputable. But the added power came at a price. His batting average dropped from a respectable .280 to an inexcusable .249. His OBP was down 38 points from .365 to .327, another horrible sign for a leadoff hitter. And his OPS actually tumbled from .858 to .780, showing the fallacy of using homers and RBI totals as important variables when determining actual offensive production.
Worst of all, after a 2008 season in which Granderson finally seemed to solve his strikeout problem, Granderson went down on Ks 30 times more in 2009 than in 08, posting a gaudy total of 141. Not surprisingly his GB/FB ratio (.45) was a career low and his IF/FB (17%) was a career high. So essentially he has become a leadoff hitter who strikes out too often and is limiting the effectiveness of one of his most value assets (his speed) because he is simply not hitting the ball on the ground often enough to consistently get on base. Hopefully Yankees GM Brian Cashman will stick to his methods of considering and interpreting the full range of relevant statistics as apposed to throwing money at "names" before he makes a deal that may likely become an expensive regret and a divergence from that which caused this season's resurgence.
Often forgotten in the center field discussion for the Yankees is the coming emergence of top organizational prospect Austin Jackson. Ranked the 27th best prospect overall on MLB.com Jackson has garnered numerous awards at the minor league level. After a rough season in 2006 that caused some to lose faith in the heralded prospect, Austin has rebounded strongly, putting up good numbers in his first season at AAA in 09, batting .300 with a .354 OBP with 24 steals, 23 doubles and 9 triples.
The 22-year-old fits the Yankee profile with good plate discipline and line drive hitting ability. His speed and defensive skill are equal to that of Gardner and Cabrera and if his development continues on its current track, he could be a valuable offensive asset that could hit at the top of lineup, filling a role similar to that of Johnny Damon in 2009 and eventually moving to the leadoff spot as Jeter slows down with age (he's been compared to Torii Hunter and Mike Cameron).
While on the surface the Yankees' outfield configuration for 2010 looks unstable that view is an illusion caused by uncertainty. Even if both Damon and Matsui do not return, the Yankees still have Swisher, Cabrera, Gardner, Nady (again pending his re-signing), and Jackson, all of whom can play anywhere in the outfield and have the potential to contribute offensively. While none of the aforementioned will be dynamic at the plate from a power standpoint, the Yankees have their loaded infield and DH positions to provide the majority of their slugging.
Curtis Granderson is a very good player and will excel where ever he ends up (especially if that happens to be in the National League). But the Yankees do not need to spend money nor farm system talent just to gain a minor upgrade over the immediate situation that he may provide. From a long term perspective, with Alex Rodriguez locked in at third and Mark Teixeira likewise situated at 1st for the long term, the likely move for Jeter — once his range is too dimished to continue at short — would be Robin Yount-like move to the outfield. Granderson would simply be another expensive (and yet far less statistically justifiable) player inevitably stunting the evolutionary progress of the team and clogging the outfield for an eventual move by Jeter.
The Yankees must keep their focus and disciplined approach to constructing their roster, continuing to build and improve the team using the same formula that got them back atop the ranks of Major League Baseball. Pitching is the immediate concern, with a lack of a fifth starter being their largest and most consistent weakness, hindering the team on some level all season in 2009. While Pettitte will likely move into that fifth starter role, the Yankees need to direct their available resources into securing a quality fourth man.
And in that respect, New York may have the right team to deal with when considering Granderson, but the wrong player. It was also announced that the superb Edwin Jackson will also be available for auction this winter. And if the price isn't too high (which it likely won't be), that is, the Tigers that the Yankees need to go target in the free agent hunt. And yes, that was a less than subtle segue into the next Pinstripe Report.