The Yankees are pretty good at the obvious move: trading for Randy Johnson last winter, signing Hideki Matsui three years ago, and keeping Mariano Rivera as far away from free agency as is humanly possible.
Things are different this winter. The Yankees’ most obvious need, other than stocking the bullpen and finding someone to ease Jorge Posada’s burden (or replace him entirely) behind the plate, remains the valley-sized hole in center field. Unfortunately, there are no obvious answers on the free agent front. At one time, Johnny Damon would have been perfect as the heir apparent to Bernie Williams, but Damon doesn’t throw much better than Williams these days and his range has diminished to the point that he figures to be a detriment by the end of any four or five-year contract that he inevitably signs. After Damon, the best proven center fielder on the free agent market is Preston Wilson, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30, ranks only average defensively, and makes contact about as often as Rob Deer. He also bats right-handed, which can be a problem for a hitter of his type at Yankee Stadium. Given the lack of obvious solutions, the Yankees may have to be creative in finding their next center fielder.
So what are the Yankees to do? With the lack of available help on the free market, the Yankees have given some early indications that they might give Bubba Crosby a long look in spring training. Well, that is not very creative, and that is certainly not the answer to the problem. Crosby is fine as a fourth or fifth outfielder, but stretched to the point of futility as an everyday player. Crosby has looked overmatched in many of his major league at-bats, especially against left-handers with above-average stuff. In the field, he’s an above-average center fielder and a big upgrade over the Williams of recent vintage, but he’s not a defensive standout, which is what you want from a player who hits as weakly (few walks, no power) as he has in the major leagues. When I think of Crosby as the Yankees’ regular center fielder, I start thinking about what it was like to watch Enrique Wilson as the everyday second baseman. And that’s not what the Yankees need.
Once again, creativity is needed. Here’s an idea. The Yankees should target the best all-around player on the free agent market, the player who would bring the team some much-needed range, athleticism, and youth. He’s not a center fielder, but he would still make the team better, and would allow the Yankees to shift another player to the outfield. The free agent is 27-year-old Rafael Furcal, who has the kind of physical attributes (good hands, low base, strong lower body) to make an easy transition to second base. By signing Furcal, the Yankees could then move Robinson Cano to center field, giving the athletic, strong-armed 23-year-old the chance to be the next standout center fielder in a long line of Yankee notables. Besides, the Yankees considered making Cano an outfielder in the minor leagues, and there are those in the organization who still think he will outgrow second base and will need to move to another position eventually.
Now, the move is not failsafe. Prone to mental lapses, Cano might not be able to make the transition to center field; he doesn’t have great speed and his arm, while powerful, could suffer in moving from the infield to the outfield. Still, there are other potential landing places for Cano. He could be moved to left field, which is less demanding than center field, at least away from the cavernous dimensions at Yankee Stadium. Or Cano could be moved to first base, a position that he should be able to handle with ease. While Cano might not currently seem capable of producing the big numbers a team wants at first base, he does have 25-home run potential and figures to be a lot more productive than someone like Ruben Sierra, who was mysteriously treated like an everyday player during the tail-end of the 2005 season.
In a worst-case scenario, Cano would flop in making the transition to the outfield, thereby hurting his development, but the Yankees would at least have the services of Furcal. The multitalented Furcal would give the Yankees better range in the middle infield, an intimidating baserunner capable of stealing 50 bases, and an excellent leadoff batter, which would in turn allow Derek Jeter to return to the second spot in the order and Alex Rodriguez to bat third or fourth, where they belong. Signing Furcal would take some work. He will have to be convinced to give up shortstop for second base and will probably want a four or five-year deal from the Yankees, who will then have to cross their fingers that Cano can switch positions.
It’s a gamble, it’s a move that will be questioned by the New York media, and it’s not the obvious solution to the Yankees’ biggest problem. But it’s the right move to make, if only the Yankees will show some creativity.