Among the Yankees’ injuries this season, the one suffered by center fielder Aaron Hicks was perhaps the most problematic. The Bombers announced last week that Hicks would undergo surgery to repair his injured left wrist, a procedure that could sidelined him for the whole season.
The Bombers have adequate replacements all over the roster, but Hicks’ ailment and long-term absence means that 37-year-old outfielder Brett Gardner will be required to take regular at-bats as the starting center fielder. It’s certainly not a dream scenario, and it’s a lot to ask the veteran to be an everyday stalwart at this point in his career.
That’s not a knock on Gardner, but the Yankees can’t look anyone in the eye and say they wanted him to start five or six games per week this season. And since they traded away their other capable center fielder in Mike Tauchman, their options are limited.
Right now, at least until the Yankees make a move Gardner is the top center fielder on the depth chart. However, some may point out the fact that Estevan Florial, the Bombers’ longtime outfield prospect – capable of playing center, too – is already in Triple-A and could potentially be a viable alternative.
Gardner’s play in the next few weeks and Florial’s evolution in Triple-A will dictate which tier of center fielder the Yankees will pursue near the trade deadline, or if they need to pursue one at all. They could also decide to make a move relatively soon, but most likely, wait until they will wait so they can take a longer look at their two primary in-house candidates and get a feel for what they’ve got.
What do the Yankees have in Gardner?
In Gardner, the Yankees have an experienced and competent defensive center field who was once one of the game’s best outfield gloves decent center fielder back in the day. At 37, though, he’s not what he once was. The samples are small, but UZR, DRS, and Outs Above Average paint Gardner as a roughly average defender, which checks out.
The problem is that Gardner isn’t hitting much these days. An 0-for-4 showing on Sunday lowered his season line to .208/.287/.267, and while he is still capable of taking a walk, he hasn’t contributed much in the way of power so far.
Now that he will play nearly every day, we will have a better idea of what Gardner can give at the plate. The veteran outfielder has said he is prepared for a larger role. We’ll see if he can raise his batting line to a passable range.
What about Florial?
Believe it or not, Estevan Florial is still just 23. He has seemingly been around forever, and was stuck in Class A-Advanced for three years before last season’s brief cup of coffee in the bigs. For the 2021 campaign, the Yankees assigned him to Double-A, and while the batting average wasn’t there, the power certainly was, as he hit .229/.308/.629 with four homers in nine games.
The Yankees aggressively challenged him and promoted him to Triple-A, where he is hitting .172/.294/.483. It’s clear that he has made strides, as he has kept his strikeout rate between 23.1 and 25.7 in the two stops, while walking at a healthy clip.
However, he may still not be ready for a full-time role in the major leagues, and can certainly use some seasoning in Triple-A. He may hit his way into the center field conversations in a couple of weeks if he starts to rake, but from Double-A to the majors in a two months is a very difficult jump.
These two men hold the key to the Yankees’ deadline plans. The pitching looks strong, both the rotation and the bullpen (and both will receive reinforcements when injured pieces return) and the offense, while it could use a piece or two for depth, doesn’t have any other needs as glaring as center field.
If Gardner or Florial prove capable of playing at a high level, the Yankees will probably not bring a starting caliber center fielder. But if both of them fail to perform, then the Bombers could potentially go to the market, and things could get interesting.