Monday, December 21, 2009

The Easiest (And Cheapest) Outfield Solution

It's been almost two weeks since the Yankees acquired Curtis Granderson and during that time, their 2010 roster has begun to congeal. Andy Pettitte was re-signed, Jamie Hoffman was acquired via the Rule V Draft, Nick Johnson was signed as a free agent, Hideki Matsui became an Angel and it is widely assumed that Johnny Damon's career as a Yankee has come to a close. However, in the game of musical chairs which will determine the outfield configuration for 2010, it's not even clear that all the participants have been identified. The music is most certainly still playing.

At the moment, the Yankees have 5 outfielders on their 25 man roster: Granderson, Hoffman, Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner. The good news is that 4 of them are capable of playing center field. The bad news (aside from the fact that only one of them can do so) is that only two of the five can hit like Major League corner outfielders (Swisher and Granderson).

Even though there has been some sporadic talk about Swish being traded this offseason, let's simplify this by assuming that he will be the Yankees' right fielder come Opening Day. That leaves four players for two starting jobs, one of which will certainly belong to Granderson.

When the Yankees picked up Granderson, I hoped aloud that they would consider putting him in left field and keeping the center field platoon from 2009 intact. Not only would it require no further trades or acquisitions and be relatively inexpensive (~$15M), but it it would result in one of the better defensive outfields in the league. And as they say, "a [run] saved is a [run] earned".

Granderson has been above (+12.9), below (-9.4) and just about average (+1.6) defensively in 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively, according to UZR. Using a 3-4-5 weighted average of those scores, his UZR/150 is approximately +3 over the past three years. Given that he was a slightly better than average center fielder, it would be safe to assume that he would be a significantly better than average left fielder. Left field in Yankee Stadium is plenty large so it's not like stashing a rangy defender there would be a waste.

I'm going to refrain from citing the exact UZRs for the Gardbrera Duo due to small sample sizes, but I'm willing to assume that Brett is a very good fielder while Melky is probably about average or slightly below. Combine them and the Yanks are a tick better than average in CF.

In terms of offense, there are two leaps of faith that I am taking here:
1) Granderson's offensive output will be closer to 2007 and 2008 than to 2009.

2) Cabrera and Gardner will be as good as they were last year or better at the plate.
Neither of those are trivial considerations, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

Granderson's BABIP of .275 is likely to improve from last year given that it is significantly lower than his carreer mark of .322. Bill at the Detroit Tigers Weblog estimated that about half of that drop was due to Granderson's approach and the other half to luck. Hitting in the New Yankee Stadium should also help. Additionally, it would be a lot easier to find a solid hitting right-handed platoon partner for Granderson (like Reed Johnson) who can play LF as opposed to one who can play center.

Melky has already experienced years in which he regressed instead of improving in his young career and there are good reasons why Gardner won't necessarily improve next year. But they are both in their mid-20's and should be able to at least replicate what they did at the plate in '09 barring an injury.

The Yankees have an infield full of star-caliber hitters, a DH with a .400 OBP and a right fielder who hits about 30 HRs as well. They won 103 regular season games (and the World Series) last year with Gardner and Melky splitting CF duty. I think they can afford to configure left and center field in a way that would maximize defensive production while being close to average at the plate. There are other ways to fill those holes, but they would likely cause the Yanks to get older and more expensive in the process.


  1. Why not just let Melky/Gardner play LF and Granderson play CF? He's an above average CF in significant sample size, and there's a very good chance that Melky/Gardner comes out at least average in LF. I guess I don't understand the fascination with putting high quality offensive production in LF when the outfield as a whole is perfectly fine.

  2. Two reasons to put Granderson in left:

    1) He could really use a platoon partner and corner outfielders who can hit left handed pitching are a dime a dozen. Sure, there's a possibility that Jamie Hoffman could play CF and hit lefties, but he's had 22 MLB ABs.

    2) There's no way to prove this just yet, but I think that Gardner is a better fielder than Granderson. In a video game, you would probably slide Melky over to left when both he and Curtis are playing, but I'm guessing Girardi is going to want to leave Granderson in one position so he can get accustomed to the ballpark.

    I guess I'm partial to the Melky/Gardner combo because I've seen it work over a full season and I know if Cashman puts those two in LF, it will only be a stop-gap.