What's been rumored is one step closer to reality. Jack Curry reports that Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson is shagging fly balls in left. Curry describes it as the "precursor" to Granderson becoming the Yankees' left fielder, shifting the returning Brett Gardner over to center, and changing the landscape of the outfield dramatically. This shift could revitalize the Yankees' defense in way that makes up for some of the less-positive portions of the off-season.
Granderson will be 32 years old in 2013, so, while not ancient even by baseball's harsh standards, he has left his speediest days behind. Granderson's steals and baserunning values have always fluctuated, so it's tough to glean much about his speed from those figures, but he's long been a defensive player who relies on his speed in order to make up for poor jumps and routes. Any drop in his quickness is going to hurt him defensively since he lacks the instincts of some other center fielders, and if the Yankees are moving him over to left, then they likely feel that dip in speed has come.
This isn't a new idea: Back in the 2011 playoffs, Granderson made a diving play to bail then-Yankees' starter A.J. Burnett out of the first inning, reigniting the debate over his skill compared to what the numbers (negatively) said about him. For one talent evaluator, this one play summed up the Granderson defensive experience perfectly:
I like him a lot as a player and a defender but I understand where the numbers are coming from as well. Let me give you a great example. Last night, bottom of the first, he makes a catch that saves the inning -- and maybe the game -- for Burnett. Watching the game, and later confirming with replay and TiVo, it appeared that Granderson initially broke in on the ball, but he's so athletic and graceful he was able to get back and make a play that very few center fielders can make. I think that play is a microcosm for him as a defender.
Granderson isn't alone in this. Jacoby Ellsbury has some of the same defensive warts, and when he's exiting his early 30s, might require the same kind of shift to left.
Brett Gardner is likely the best defensive left fielder in the game. Gardner is so good defensively, in fact, that the Yankees have positioned Granderson in right-center rather than straightaway when Gardner was to his left -- this is something they could not do while Gardner was out for all but 16 games in 2012, though, exposing Granderson's flaws that much more. Gardner's presence allowed Granderson to shade to right, helping out Nick Swisher while limiting his own territory, and put more of the pressure on Gardner, the most-capable defender of the bunch. Granderson's defensive numbers took a hit because Gardner reached balls in play that were in Granderson's territory, but the Yankees, as a whole, were a better unit for it. When it was Raul Ibanez and his ilk out there in left for much of 2012, however, there was no helping either Granderson or the Yankees' outfield defense overall.
Switching Gardner to center seems intent on avoiding that kind of situation again. If Gardner could cover left and left-center with an ease like no other, then he should be able to handle your typical center field range, while Granderson gets to once again focus on a smaller portion of the outfield, the one with the least responsibility attached to it. Gardner has played about half as many innings in center as he has left, and to no one's surprise he's been less effective there. That's all relative, though: defensive stats like UZR and defensive wins above replacement (for what they are worth) make it seem as if Gardner is overqualified for left and one of the better center field options out there.
Without his Gardner-shaped security blanket in 2012, Granderson had his worst defensive campaign since coming to the Yankees according to both defensive wins and UZR, while Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average hated him about as much as it did in 2011 even with Gardner around. Given the Yankees' intent to switch him to left, it seems as if the front office agrees that he's no longer the top center fielder on the team. Perhaps the re-signing of Ichiro Suzuki helped ease their decision, since the Yankees might feel less like they need Granderson shading their right fielder.
Never much one for instincts, Granderson might turn out to be better in left than he was in center. The angles are all different, the ball comes towards the fielder with a different look, and it all might make more sense for Granderson than center did. Whereas before his natural gifts meant a lost first step wasn't the be-all, end-all of a defensive play, his having slowed makes it a significant issue. There's concern that Gardner will deal with the reverse effect, but it's going to be difficult to know for sure until the Yankees try. With the way Granderson played in 2012 defensively, it's worth that attempt.
Or, think of it this way: Thanks to a not-so-subtle desire to keep the payroll under $189 million for 2014, a fact that caused Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano, and Russell Martin to all head to monetarily greener pastures, it's easy to see where the Yankees are a worse team this year than last. With that in mind, and no desire to spend emanating from the team outside of the hopes they're pinning on a Robinson Cano extension, moves like this that shuffle the pieces they already have in order to maximize their production become that much more important.
If Granderson can revitalize his defensive value, Ichiro proves to be a defensive upgrade over Swisher (a low hurdle), and the return of both Gardner's bat and his peerless glove pay off in center, then the loss of the likes of Swisher are going to be seem a lot less significant. These are all reasonable expectations as well: the last time we saw Gardner, he was still very much excellent, and while Granderson has maybe earned himself a demotion of sorts, it's to a place where he can once again contribute. If it turns out that the Granderson experiment is even worse in left (or, at least, not worth all the shuffling), then at least it's just February, in the opening weeks of camp: there is plenty of time to sort all of this out before the games that count appear on the schedule.