Center field was not a Yankees issue to begin this season. Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman were in the majors. Greg Allen and Ryan LaMarre were stashed in the minors. Theoretically, this should have provided Estevan Florial time to make up for lost reps with no minor league season last year.
But the season is without a script. Tauchman was traded. Allen and LaMarre were injured, and neither is close to a return. Hicks hurt his wrist, probably sidelining him for the season. Florial showed he is an amalgamation of interesting tools, but not yet major league ready.
That leaves Gardner — 38 in August — as not just the last center fielder standing but the oldest regular center fielder in the majors by more than 2 ¹/₂ years (Lorenzo Cain). Even in the hard-playing Gardner’s prime, the Yanks worried about overplaying him into ineffectiveness. So they cannot play him daily now. Which creates three choices: 1. Use Tyler Wade as a backup. 2. Acquire a stopgap. 3. Try to make a substantive trade now. Let’s examine these options:
Wade or Clint Frazier are the backup center-field options. Wade, a converted infielder, has actually shown better instincts and route running. He also has brought needed energy and athleticism when deployed. But the Yankees, surprisingly, have been more a run-prevention than run-scoring club. Do they really want to trust center field even once a week to, say, Wade when one of their more ground-ball-oriented pitchers such as Domingo German or Corey Kluber starts?
The lowest impact for the Yankees would be to find their Cameron Maybin, albeit with better center-field ability. But the Mets felt they were being held up generally in all of their asks for even middling types as they tried to address an injury-devastated outfield. As one AL executive said, “There are a lot of ambulance chasers in the business.” So even a small add can be complicated.
Still, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported last week that the Yankees were discussing Delino DeShields Jr., who was hitting .383 in 12 games at Triple-A, with the Rangers. He makes sense as a righty complement to Gardner. Texas could feel pressure to act because on June 1, DeShields can request being put on the major league roster or released if not done within 24 hours.
Here is another concept that I am making up: With Mike Trout injured, Juan Lagares is starting in center for the Angels. But bullpen-desperate Los Angeles could call up a top prospect such as Jo Adell or Brandon Marsh and use Lagares to get someone from the Yanks’ minor league depth such as Nelson Cortes Jr., Nick Goody or Adam Warren.
The Yanks can stopgap with Gardner and someone like, say, DeShields and hope they have another Gio Urshela/Luke Voit surprise emergence. But what is more likely, that or losing Gardner for a period — and then what do the Yanks do in center? For now, the Yanks need a bat and a center fielder. Could they jump the market and get both in one deal?
There are hurdles. Eight weeks ago, the Yanks projected as offensively strong with rotation concerns. Eight weeks from now when the actual July trade deadline arrives what will the Yanks need? Starters such as German, Kluber and Jameson Taillon, who have hardly pitched the past two years, will likely have pushed beyond 100 innings. Do the Yanks risk having given up prospect collateral for Taillon, doing similarly for a center field now and being less well positioned if another issue arises come July?
A rival executive said the Yankees have excelled in the last decade “at not hitting the panic button. They have their math that shows they will come out of ugly stretches like they did early this season and they stick to the math.”
They also would not be alone in pursuing outfielders now. For example, the White Sox are missing Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, with neither returning soon.
And it is May. The Rays and Brewers executed a meaty trade last week of shortstop Willy Adames to Milwaukee for two relievers. But those teams lined up well to trade from strength to address shortcomings. Can the Yanks convince a non-contender to blink two months before the deadline and not demand a severe overpay?
The ideal Yankee candidate would be Ketel Marte, a switch hitter with positional flexibility on a team-friendly contract. But would Arizona look at the Dodgers, Padres and Giants not just now but for the next few years and use Marte to try to deepen their future prospect base, or do they see Marte as part of their next strong contender? The Pirates, with Bryan Reynolds, would have to ask the same question. Miami’s Starling Marte is the kind of walk-year veteran who gets traded, but he is hurt and the Marlins have yet to fully define whether they are contenders.
The Yanks front office has long been fascinated with what Joey Gallo’s lefty power might look like in The Bronx. He has been athletic enough to play center. But, to me, he exemplifies the Yankees’ October issues — high-end pitching is going to exploit a player currently striking out 34 percent of the time.
“That is a First World problem if he is punching out in October,” the AL executive said.
Yep, you have to get there first, which for the Yanks means addressing an issue that right now is front and center.