Center field finishes off our position player organizational depth previews. If you missed any, check the bottom of this post for links to write-ups about the positions already covered.
Starter: Jacoby Ellsbury
Accustomed to leading off for the majority of his career, Ellsbury actually spent roughly two-thirds of his time in the three-hole last season. He was misfit for that lineup spot, but performed well anyway. Ellsbury posted a triple-slash of .271/.328/.419, which doesn’t sound great on the outset, but layer in the baserunning and you have a 107 wRC+. Indeed, the wRC+ a bit underwhelming for a three-hitter, but it can’t be considered a disappointment for Ellsbury — that’s simply the type of hitter he is. It’s impossible to know what Joe Girardi plans for the lineup at this point, but I have a feeling they’ll give Carlos Beltran a chance to redeem himself before returning Jacoby to third.
In the field, Ellsbury’s one of the best in center, seemingly able to track down anything in the air. His arm is below average, but his speed more than makes up for that pitfall. For the second straight season, he’ll be aligned next to Brett Gardner, which will give the Yankees one of the top defensive outfield alignments in the league.
At 31 years-old, Ellsbury’s best days are likely behind him. His monster 2011 was undoubtedly a blip on the radar (9.1 WAR), but it’s probably safe to say that he won’t repeat his 2013 either (5.8 WAR). Nonetheless, we shouldn’t expect any sort of steep decline in 2015. ZiPS projects 3.8 WAR, which is actually a slight jump from 3.6 last season. The forecast believes Ellsbury’s offensive talent is a tad better than what he exhibited in 2014, calling for a .281/.337/.424 line in 2015. That seems reasonable.
Backup: Brett Gardner, Chris Young
An argument could easily be made for Gardner as one of the top defensive center fielders in all of baseball. Yet, his teammate discussed above just happens to be one of the few better than Brett at the position. Whenever Jacoby needs a rest, expect to see Gardner slide over a a spot. Here’s what I said about Gardner in my preview of the outfield corners:
Gardner will be one of the rocks of the Yankees in 2015, coming off a solid season in which he posted a 111 wRC+, 3.2 WAR, and a career-best 17 home runs. Don’t expect quite as good production at the plate in 2015, but he should still be above average. ZiPS foresees a .260/.333/.409 in 495 plate appearances (110 OPS+). Overall, the system expects 2.5 WAR and his usual good defense. I think the plate appearance projection might be a tad short, considering Gardner has hit the 600 plateau the past two years. If we prorate to a full-season’s worth 600, his WAR forecast bumps up to 3.2.
Young will also serve as a reserve for center, but probably will only be out there if there’s an emergency. This isn’t to say he can’t handle the position — he’s not Jorge Posada going out to second base — because he’s spent some time out there each of the last couple of seasons. It just hasn’t been his primary position since 2012. I wrote more about Young’s role in the same post quoted above:
After rewarding the Yankees for taking a flyer late last season, the team rewarded Young to a one-year deal for a $2.5M base salary for 2015. Small sample size warning, but Young’s .282/.354/.521 line with 3 homers in 79 plate appearances (146 wRC+) was impressive enough to merit a guaranteed deal despite an 81 wRC+ dating back to 2013. ZiPS doesn’t love Young, expecting a .225/.301/.408 batting line. Not terrible for a backup, but if he gets significant time because, for example, Beltran hits the disabled list, he could get exposed.
On the fringe: Jake Cave, Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott
Cave, 22, split time between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton last season, posting an impressive 118 wRC+. KATOH only foresees 2.2 WAR through age-28, though, likely because of his uninspiring walk rate (7.5%), high strikeout rate (20.2%), and inflated BABIP .367. Regardless, Kiley McDaniel calls Cave a “sleeper” noting his plus speed and decent power. McDaniel estimates a 45 future value (FV), which although would be a useful outcome, it certainly doesn’t put him on track to be a starter. Chris ranked Cave the team’s 14th-best prospect.
The only guy in this category on the 40-man roster is Williams, who was somewhat surprisingly protected from the Rule V draft this offseason. 24 in August, Williams has taken a tumble in prospect evaluators eyes since 2012, when he notably ranked 32nd on Baseball America’s Top 100 list. This year, he won’t sniff any industry prospect rankings after hitting a putrid .223/.290/.304 in a full season with Double-A. We have him as the Yankees’ 22nd best prospect, and KATOH predicts 2.1 WAR through his age-28 campaign.
In contrast to Williams, Heathcott lost his 40-man spot this winter. Slade’s biggest challenge has been to stay healthy. Last season, he appeared in just nine games with Trenton due to a bad knee. Given that he hardly took the field in 2014, there’s no KATOH projection for him. McDaniel placed a 40 FV on Heathcott, and Chris slotted him as the team’s 27th best prospect.
The future: Jacoby Ellsbury
There’s no obvious candidate to take over center, especially with Ellsbury entering the second year of a seven-season pact. Even if (when, really) Jacoby moves to a corner, there’s no obvious choice to man the position down the road. The trio in the previous category have their warts, and the following two guys I’m going to discuss are still just specks in the rear-view mirror.
Farther away: Leonardo Molina, Mark Payton
When Molina signed with the team out of the Dominican Republic for $1.4M in 2013, Baseball America ranked him the 5th best international amateur. Born in 1997 — man I feel old — Molina struggled in his stateside debut in the GCL (Rookie Ball). Still, we have him as the 20th-best prospect in the organization, and KATOH projects an optimistic 7.5 WAR through age-28, perhaps partially because of Molina’s solid 8.8% walk rate. However, don’t make too much of that estimate because he’s a half-decade away from the majors. McDaniel noted Molina’s difficulties in the GCL, but got another look during the instructional league: “Molina looked solid in instructs with plus bat speed and a loose cut; he seems to have gotten his timing down and could be due for a breakout next year.”
Payton, the team’s seventh-rounder in the 2014 draft and 49th on our Yankees prospect list, wasted no time impressing in his professional debut. It’s hard to do much better than the .320/.418/.497 line Payton posted between Single-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. Yet, as a draftee out of college, the jury is still out for KATOH. The system foresees a 2.5 WAR through age 28 (he just turned 23 in December). Why so low? Probably because KATOH isn’t quite as effective in the lower levels of the minors, in addition to the fact that Payton spent about half of his season in the SAL (Charleston) where he was a tad older than the competition. What hurts Payton more, and KATOH doesn’t know about this, is his 5’7″ 190 lb. stature. By the raw numbers, it’s a nice start for Payton, but it’s quite the uphill battle from here.