Ellsbury will be golden in the Bronx
New center fielder's biggest impact will come on defense
NEW YORK -- The change is likely to be subtle. It might be not recognized at all on April 7, the day the Yankees assemble for their first home game of 2014. The eyes of the folks who will jam the Cathedral will be on more than one position: new catcher, new right fielder, new center fielder, different closer and whomever else general manager Brian Cashman imports as part of his remodeling project. The change might not be noticed for a few games. It will become evident before too long, though.
Some opposing player -- some Markakis, Machado or Middlebrooks -- will swing with a gapper in mind and begin what he senses will be a 60-yard sprint (with one left-hand turn involved) to scoring position. Only then will the change become evident to anyone who has witnessed the brilliance of Willie Mays, Paul Blair, Ken Berry, Devon White, Garry Maddox, Andruw Jones and precious few others. The gapper will be reduced from two bases to too bad and denied its place among the box score's extra-base hits the following day. Jacoby Ellsbury will have run it down, extended his right arm, a Gold Glove attached to it, and earned a hunk of the fortune the Yankees are paying him.
The more subtle change will be this: The left-field and right-field foul lines at Yankee Stadium will have mysteriously moved closer together. The same phenomenon will occur in other ballparks whenever the Yankees invade.
The seeming shift of the chalk lines toward the center of the lawn will be largely the work of Ellsbury. Quality center fielders can have that impact; exceptional center fielders -- and Jacoby is one -- can cut off a few feet to their left and a few more on their right. And a center fielder flanked by Carlos Beltran and Brett Gardner can all but eliminate the term "gapper" from the glossary of his team's defense.
Should the Yankees' outfield alignment be what it seems likely to become -- left to right: Gardner, Ellsbury and Beltran or, for that matter Gardner, Ellsbury and Cecil Fielder -- the team may become defending champions of a different sort.
"I'm not a strikeout guy," Tommy John said long ago in one of his typical run-on sentences. "For me, other than a double play with the bases loaded and one out, the best thing that can happen is to give up a screamer that you know is going to reach the wall or one-hop it, kick the dirt in disgust and then turn around to see your center fielder slowing down to a jog after catching it. That's the definition of joy for any pitcher."
The Yankees are likely to go to battle with three center fielders in the lineup. And some teams don't have any, not any bona fide center fielders anyway. When Ellsbury's predecessor, Curtis Granderson, was uninjured in 2012 and Gardner played left field, it was common to hear him characterized as the best left fielder in the American League. Depending on the season and which home run-hitting Goliaths were stationed in other left fields, a compliment of that nature isn't particularly convincing; left field is where managers routinely play their liabilities.
Hardly so in the case of Gardner. He did for the Yankees in 2011 what George Steinbrenner had done in December 1984; he made left field smaller. Death Valley at Yankee Stadium post-1973 would have been dwarfed by what existed before the renovation. Then Steinbrenner grabbed more acreage, turning that still large expanse into Critical List Valley.
Within hours of learning the Mets had traded for Gary Carter, the Boss rushed to announce that the dimensions of left-center field at the old Yankee Stadium would be reduced. He made the change partially in an attempt to upstage the Mets' announcement and also to show up his unfavored son, Dave Winfield, who had hit "merely" 37, 32 and 19 home runs in the three preceding seasons.
But that's another issue and another Yankee Stadium.
Beltran no longer is the outfielder he was the night he ran up Tal Smith's silly and dangerous hill in center field at Minute Maid Park when he was with the Mets. He made the catch, incidentally. But he still runs well enough to cover the smallish right field at the Stadium. Moreover, he takes his defense quite seriously; witness his catch at Fenway's right-field wall in the World Series.
Beltran was in the middle of a brilliant outfield defense the Mets deployed once in 2007. Willie Randolph started Endy Chavez (left field), Beltran (center) and fleet Carlos Gomez (right) at Shea Stadium. The Mets never had started a comparably quick outfield. The three cleverly moved the foul lines so close to each other, they nearly were parallel. With fly-ball Oliver Perez pitching, the Mets achieved 13 flyouts, an inordinately high total. And Chavez' made the catch of the day at the warning track. The infielders had three assists that day.
The same sort of stuff is bound to occur in the Bronx on those days when Gardner, Ellsbury and Beltran are side by side by sensational.
Of course, the more compelling part of Ellsbury's game will come in the bottoms of innings he plays in the Bronx. He is a dynamic offensive player with hitting skills and speed enough to unnerve opposing batteries and managers. If he bats leadoff, as he has most of his career, and Girardi bats Gardner ninth, the Yankees' offense may be akin to what it was when Billy Martin had Mickey Rivers and Randolph running.
All in all, with greater speed, superb outfield defense and left-handed power (Brian McCann), the Yankees ought to be a most entertaining team in 2014. But entertainers don't win pennants -- even the Cubs have won more World Series than Elvis, Old Blue Eyes and Taylor Swift combined -- pitching does. And a void in that area still exists in the Bronx. The Yankees have no immediate answer at second base, they still await a judgment on A-Rod. And who can say how the Captain will fare after a lost season?
But 3 1/2 months must pass before the foul lines begin to move. The general manager is referred to as "Cash" for reasons other than spoken convenience. And the market is open. The Yankees have time, resources and needs, though not so many as they had.
Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.