In an unsurprising move, Curtis Granderson was officially named the Yankees' center fielder yesterday. Granderson made but one appearance in left field this spring, so there wasn't much question about where he would play.
That wasn't the story for much of the off-season. Once it became apparent that Brett Gardner would be amongst the starting outfielders, speculation ran rampant as to whether the Yankees would be better served with Gardner or Granderson patrolling center.
Through his first two Major League seasons, Brett Gardner has posted an asburd UZR of 16.7 through nearly 800 innings in center field. Granderson is no slouch defensively, with a UZR/150 of 4.9 in CF through four plus seasons, but recent scouting reports have been critical of his jumps and routes, and his UZRs over the past two years have been -8.9 and 1.6.
Initially, I was in favor of playing Gardner in center. However, with just 86 defensive games in center to his credit, he hasn't accumulated enough playing time to inspire full confidence in his impressive numbers. Further, people far smarter than I am explained that the difference between Gardner in left and Granderson in left was virtually infinitesimal.
In light of that, and knowing that it's no sure thing that Brett Gardner spends the entirety of 2010 as a starter, it's probably best to leave Granderson in center. It should keep him more comfortable as he settles into life as a Yankee and it saves him from having to switch positions again should the club choose to add another left fielder later this year (or in 2o11 since so many can't seem to stop talking about acquiring Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford next year even though not a single pitch has been thrown this year).
Going outside the box for a second here though, is the Yankees' outfield defense best off with Gardner in left? Last month, TYU took a closer look at the defensively maligned Nick Swisher, finding that he actually grades out above average from a range point of view, but his overall UZR is hindered by his poor arm rating. Gardner meanwhile, not only covers a lot of ground, but as we examined last year, he also has a plus arm thanks to his accuracy.
With that in mind, might the Yankees be better served to play Swisher in left where his poor arm won't be as much of a detriment and Gardner in right where his arm could be a greater asset?
Probably not. Gardner's defensive is still plagued by small sample size, particularly when it comes to his arm. Range is far more important than arm when it comes to outfield defense. Left field in the new Stadium isn't as expansive as it was in past incarnations, but it's still big for a corner field. Intuitively at least, the Yankees are probably better off with Gardner in left and Swisher in right, even if the numbers might suggest otherwise right now.