Cashman says Cabrera should be looking over his shoulder
By Peter Abraham
The Journal News • March 1, 2008
TAMPA, Fla. - Johnny Damon has conceded center field to Melky Cabrera, acknowledging several times already this spring that he can best help the Yankees by playing left field.
"Melky deserves to play there," Damon said earlier this week. "He earned his spot. I understand that."
Cabrera was 2 for 2 with an RBI in yesterday's 11-4 victory against the University of South Florida at Legends Field. If healthy, he will almost certainly be in center field when the Yankees open the season against Toronto in the Bronx on March 31.
Along with his powerful right arm, his energy has become important to the Yankees over the last two seasons.
But while general manager Brian Cashman has locked second baseman Robinson Cano into a long-term contract and has staked his own reputation on the abilities of young pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, he's not yet prepared to invest as heavily in the 23-year-old Cabrera.
"Melky has to fight for what he has," Cashman said. "I can't stand here and tell you he's going to be our center fielder moving forward. That's up to him."
Cabrera hit .273 with eight homers and 73 RBI last season, taking over for Damon in early June. But there were concerns. Cabrera hit .180 in September before going 3 for 16 in the division series against Cleveland. His on-base percentage fell from .360 in 2006 to .327 last season.
"I'm working every day with (hitting coach) Kevin Long to try and get better," Cabrera said. "The other players, they're staying on me. I know I have to keep getting better."
It wouldn't be wise to get comfortable. In 24-year-old Brett Gardner and 21-year-old Austin Jackson, the Yankees have one player on the verge of being ready for the majors and another who is moving quickly in that direction.
Gardner is an unusual Yankees outfield prospect in that he's small of stature (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) and short on power (six home runs in 1,115 minor-league at-bats. But that's the point, Cashman said.
"Brett Gardner is not your typical Yankee-profile type of player," he said. "We're trying to break that profile to some degree because there's more to this game than hitting for power.
"We think he could be a Juan Pierre who takes a walk. Here's a guy who can steal bases; he can get on base; he plays the short game. We need athleticism like that, especially when you have a bunch of these old farts filling the roster out. Those young burst-of-energy, athletic guys really stand out on a team like ours."
Gardner hit .260 for Triple-A Scranton last season after being promoted from Trenton. He then hit .343 with 10 RBI and 16 stolen bases in 26 games in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.
"My biggest concern is getting on base. As long as I get on base, 37, 38, 39 percent of the time, I don't care if I hit any home runs. I want to be the table-setter for the Yankees," he said.
"People say all the time that I'm more of a National League kind of player. But that doesn't bother me. I'm here to get on base, steal bases, score runs and play good defense."
As Gardner gets in position to challenge Cabrera, Jackson is moving up behind him. After an unproductive 2006, he hit .304 last season with 13 homers, 59 RBI and 33 stolen bases, mostly in Single-A.
Jackson followed that up by hitting .271 in the Hawaiian Winter League. He will likely start this season with Double-A Trenton. Most scouts rank him among the top prospects in the game.
"He's a five-tool guy who took a huge step forward and now he has to build on that and keep moving in the right direction," Cashman said. "He could be an impact center fielder that hits toward the middle of the lineup."
Jackson took $800,000 from the Yankees in 2005 rather than accept a basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech.
"I see them play on TV sometimes but I don't have any regrets," Jackson said. "I decided on baseball and I want to be as good as I can be. Melky has the job now but my dream is to play center field for the Yankees and I'm not giving that up."
Said Gardner: "My goal is to make it to the majors with the Yankees and help them win. Since the day I got drafted by the Yankees, my goal was to play center field for them."
For now, Cashman waits as the competition gets hotter.
"The game will tell you. That's the one great thing about all this - you can have your personal favorites but you can't fool the game," he said. "Right now Melky's got it. Brett's on the verge of being ready and Austin still needs some time to develop.
"In the end, I think we're going to have a great center fielder. It's just a question of who that is."