Yankees Facing Quandary in the Outfield
T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Journal
Is it possible for a team to have too much talent? Can getting two more all-star caliber batters for your lineup be a bad thing? You wouldn't think so logically, but then logic has very little to do with anything that the Yankees have done in the last decade. Hideki Matsui came back from a wrist injury on Tuesday night, and Gary Sheffield says he is ready to come back from his own wrist injury any day now. Most teams would welcome those bats as they get ready to start a playoff run, but then most teams don't field an All-Star team every time they play.
The problem that the Yankees face is that they have way too many outfielders. Matsui and Sheffield return to join Johnny Damon, Bobby Abreu, Melky Cabrera and Bernie Williams as starter-caliber players who are already seeing a lot of playing time. Damon is having a solid, respectable year, and Abreu has been the second coming of Babe Ruth since putting on the pinstripes. Cabrera has been a surprisingly good and constantly improving rookie, something that is very uncommon for the Yankees these days. Williams has been decent, but his contribution is his presence - the guy has been a Yankee since 1991, so he knows everything that the team might face.
The one constant in the outfield all year has been centerfielder Damon. Sheffield was in right field until his injury, then Williams filled in and did a solid job. Not solid enough for the greedy Steinbrenner, however, because the team went out and got Abreu. No matter how good Sheffield has been he's not getting his starting right field job back, because Abreu isn't going anywhere. It's not a coincidence that the team has gone on a tear and wrapped up a playoff berth since he joined the team.
Matsui started the season in left field. When he went down Cabrera was looked at as a fill in until they could find a better answer. But Cabrera, despite being just 22, has done a very solid job of manning the field, and his switch hitting has improved and easily filled the gap left by Matsui. He's gotten better every month of the season and will only continue to improve if he gets more playing time. He also doesn't cost millions and millions of dollars - a new concept for these Yankees, but one that has been embraced by other teams.
Matsui returned as designated hitter on Tuesday night, and Joe Torre has indicated that he will likely stay there the rest of the season to protect his recovering wrist. That solves the problem of finding him a space in the outfield, but it creates another sticky problem. The Yanks have been using the DH position as a relief valve to let all their stars see playing time. In the last week the Yankees have used four different DHs - Matsui, Damon, Williams and Jason Giambi. If Matsui stays in the DH hole then Williams won't see any action at all if he isn't starting, and Giambi will either have to start at first base or sit. Giambi has a sore wrist of his own, and the DH position seems like a way to get the benefit of his bat without risking more injury.
Sheffield presents another problem entirely. He won't be able to DH obviously, so he will either have to play or sit. However, at 37 and with all the rust caused by this injury and the down time, it's uncertain if he will play at a level to warrant making room for him. You can't just assume that he won't and automatically bench him, though, because Shef has shown his entire career that he can mash the ball and -- if he was in good form -- he would certainly make the team better.
Sheffield has his own solution. He ordered a first base glove and has been working with Don Mattingly to learn the position. He is cocky enough to be convinced that he will be the best first baseman ever, but he has never played the position before, and Giambi has definitely shown that it is not as easy as it looks. The first base situation isn't simple, either. Giambi is the starter, but when he plays DH, Craig Wilson -- who the Yanks grabbed from Pittsburgh -- has taken over. Wilson is a decent bat, but, unlike Giambi or Sheffield, he is actually a solid defensive first baseman. With Matsui committed to DH there is no room for Sheffield at first. That is, unless Giambi's sore wrist is more serious than it seems. That would open up room, but it's not a solution that the Yankees would want.
The solution may not be ideal, but it seems clear - Bernie Williams will be riding the bench a bunch more, while Cabrera and Sheffield will have to fight over left field. Since the team has been playing as well as it has with the current lineup, it would make sense that you would leave it as it is, and leave Sheffield on the bench for when you need him. The only problem with that is Sheffield. The guy has been a surprisingly good citizen in New York so far, but he has a lousy attitude and he has ripped apart other teams he has played for in the past. If he is ready to play and hungry to play he isn't just going to sit aside quietly and let someone else take his place.
The odd man out then would seem to be Cabrera. He'll find more room in the long term, since Sheffield is nearing the end of his time, and Abreu likely won't return after 2007. But for now he could find his playing time cut through no fault of his own. Sitting on the bench will slow his development, but the Yankees have shown that they have no concern for developing players. Cabrera won't complain at least. Or at least not that anyone will notice - he doesn't speak any English and reportedly is as quiet as a monk.
No other team will have any sympathy for the Yankees, nor should they. But it will be interesting and important to watch how the Yankees handle this difficult job of balancing a lot of big and expensive egos. Perfect harmony isn't essential, but a team needs to be getting along to succeed in a playoff run.