So, who should be the centerfielder for the Yankees come April? As of right now, it's obviously up in the air and Spring Training will feature a battle between Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera. So what are the pros and cons of these guys?
Melky took a big hit last year, hitting .249/.301/.341/.641, with a pathetic .285 wOBA. His defense was average, though, as he posted a 0.9 UZR/150 in center, up from -12.5 in 2007. Regardless, there are still a ton of questions for Cabrera: can he hit like he did in 2006? Can he show some plate discipline? Can he start taking better routes to the ball? Can he improve his range? Coming into 2009, the Melk Man has a lot to prove to the Yankees. The last question is, can he do this? Maybe. While it's incredibly unlikely that Melky is anything better than his 2006 season (.752 OPS, .333 wOBA), he can easily match those numbers again. CHONE projects him to post that same .333 wOBA this year, while playing -3 defense in center. The way the Yankees stack up offensively, they could easily survive Melky's hitting at the bottom of the order and probably overcome his below average centerfield defense (granted Damon plays strong defense in left and Swisher gets placed over Nady in right).
Then there's my boy Brett Gardner. He was a weak hitter but a great runner and defender with the Yankees, tallying 13 steals and only 1 CS while posting a ridiculous 66.3 UZR/150 in center. We've got to take that with an incredible grain of salt, though, because of the small sample size (160.2 innings). Gardner's got great upside as a slap hitting, on base-getting, base stealing, good defending CF, which I would be fine with. There's always the chance that what we saw in late 2008 is what we're going to get. Gardner does, however, have a history of struggling with a level the first time he plays there so there could be some improvement from him in 2009. CHONE projects him to have a .341 OBP and a .318 wOBA, the latter of which is lower than Melky Cabrera. However, CHONE projects Gardner to be +5 in centerfield, an 8 run improvement over Cabrera. As for stolen bases--speed is one of Gardner's biggest pluses--Chone projects BG to be 33 out of 42 in steal attempts (78.5%), which I would love. A .341 OBP and 33 steals along with plus defense out of the number 9 hitter? Sign me up please.
If I had my pick, I'd take Gardner because of his defense and his speed. Cabrera may give you a little more at the plate (very little more) but his arm in center does not do enough to make up for Gardner's range. I'm not a huge fan of stealing but Gardner projects to be over the "break even" point of 75% and those steals at the bottom of the order could lead to more RBI chances for Johnny Damon and Derek Jeter at the top of the lineup.
I wish both Melky and Gardner luck in Spring Training. May the best man win!