Around the Horn: Outfielders
Yanks' outfield crew back together, but slight chance of change
The following is the fourth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Every Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Outfielders.
NEW YORK -- For the better part of eight weeks during the offseason, the Yankees' outfield picture has remained contingent upon a potential trade for Twins ace Johan Santana. That clock is still ticking, but with talks stagnant, it appears more and more likely that the Yankees' Opening Day outfield will closely resemble the one sketched on paper in January.
The arrangement would keep Melky Cabrera in pinstripes, patrolling center field at Yankee Stadium rather than the Metrodome, and it creates something of a logjam in left field, where Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui will vie for playing time and at-bats. Bobby Abreu remains in right, keeping the Yankees' outfield alignment from last year's postseason intact.
While the Yankees have wrestled with the idea of trading for Santana, a two-time American League Cy Young Award winner who will be 29 on Opening Day, Cabrera has been one of the Yankees most left in limbo. The 23-year-old was an immediate subject of Minnesota's desire, reportedly requested in original packages, which also included right-hander Phil Hughes, for Santana.
If a trade were to be consummated, the switch-hitting Cabrera would immediately fit into Minnesota's Major League plans -- part of his attractiveness, of course -- but the Yankees appear primed to keep him for their own future.
Cabrera's stock was on the rise in 2007, officially sealing his inauspicious '05 debut into distant memory. With Cabrera taking an everyday spot in the lineup, assuming center field from the ailing Damon, the Yankees soared -- Cabrera's "energy" became an internal catch phrase in the clubhouse, tracking down more gap-bound drives and showcasing a stronger arm than his predecessor.
Cabrera started 101 of the Yankees' final 111 games in center field in 2007, batting .290 with six home runs and 58 RBIs in 411 at-bats over that span. The results were positive, as the Yankees went 72-39 to erase a languishing first half and improbably secure the American League Wild Card.
As far as a potential deal concerning him, Cabrera has said that he would prefer to remain in New York. But his good friend, second baseman Robinson Cano, offered advice recently to lift Cabrera's spirits just in case Santana winds up Bronx bound.
"It's like I tell him -- don't pay attention to the rumors," Cano said of Cabrera. "If you get traded, just keep playing. He wants to be a Yankee; he said he doesn't want to leave. I told him, 'If you have to leave, keep playing hard. You never know. You might come back.'"
With the home-grown Cabrera remaining in pinstripes for now, manager Joe Girardi inherits something of a dilemma concerning left field and how to split time between Damon and Matsui, two veterans with legitimate claims to the position.
Hampered by injuries through much of the first half, Damon found a refuge in left field last season, making 31 starts there and batting .348 (46-for-132) in those games.
While he made little secret of the fact that he would prefer to be playing center field, Damon kept alive a string of 140 or more games played in 12 consecutive seasons and also managed to remain off the disabled list, despite painful calf cramps, hamstring and back issues that required chiropractic attention.
New York Yankees
However briefly, Damon's perseverance was rewarded in the Yankees' playoff series against the Indians, when he hit a pivotal three-run homer off Cleveland right-hander Jake Westbrook in Game 3 of the AL Division Series on an emotionally charged evening in the Bronx. The fans lavished Damon with repeated, lengthy chants of his name as he took his position for the next inning, some appreciation after a frustrating season.
"Incredible," Damon said then. "I remember back in 2001, when the fans were cheering for Paul O'Neill, knowing that it was his last time here. These fans are tremendous. They support their players, and they rally behind them. I'm happy I got them to rally behind me."
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has gone on record as saying that he wants Damon to be the Yankees' leadoff hitter and left fielder next season, which could pit Matsui against Jason Giambi to serve as New York's designated hitter.
Though Matsui assembled another productive season for the Yankees, batting .285 with 25 home runs and 103 RBIs, it didn't necessarily come easily. Matsui was slowed by an arthritic right knee injury that required surgery after the season and, by late season, he had become relegated mostly to DH duty, making 32 starts there.
While Matsui, who has been rehabbing, is expected to be 100 percent recovered by Spring Training, his outlook for at-bats seems uncertain, especially with Giambi expected to be active and earning $21 million in the final year of his deal.
The Giants, sensing that logjam, even inquired about Matsui in discussions that showed some life before San Francisco signed center fielder Aaron Rowand instead. Matsui, who has a blanket no-trade clause, would have needed to approve a deal anyway.
If Giambi plays some first base, a rotation that also features Shelley Duncan, Wilson Betemit and non-roster invitee Jason Lane, Matsui's outlook as a DH could improve. Speaking at the Winter Meetings, Girardi said that nothing had been decided yet.
"Obviously, everyone has a chance to compete," Girardi said. "[Matsui's] coming off knee surgery. We'll see how he's in Spring Training. We're expecting him to be fully healthy, but everyone has a chance to compete."
Rounding out the Yankees' outfield, Abreu made a strong statistical second half work for him in financial figures. Rebounding from a slow start, Abreu batted .309 with 14 home runs, 79 RBIs and 60 walks in his final 107 games after June 1, prompting the Yankees to trigger a $16 million option they held on his contract.
Abreu, who will be 34 on Opening Day, batted .283 overall in 2007, quite a rise from the .228 average he held concluding play on May 31. Alex Rodriguez spoke often about how Abreu's patient eye as the No. 3 hitter helped him get better reads on pitchers and compile an MVP campaign, and the Yankees are hopeful to get the post-June 1 Abreu right out of the gate this season.
To accomplish that, Abreu said he has spent most of his offseason working with a personal trainer, hoping to report to Spring Training in better shape. Though Abreu was ready for Opening Day, an oblique injury cost him most of March, forcing him to take reps in game situations that could have been taken instead under the Florida sunshine.
"I'm working," Abreu said in December. "I'm doing a lot of exercise. I don't want to go to Spring Training out of shape. I don't want that to happen."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.