Amid the lockout-induced transaction desert, the Yankees reached an agreement with minor-league free agent Ender Inciarte on Thursday. Technically, he’s the best center field option available right now— only players who weren’t on a 40-man roster at the end of the 2021 season can sign minor-league deals during the freeze.
Center field is one of the Yankees’ most prominent items on their shopping list this offseason, and not long ago, he was one of the top defenders in MLB at the position. Let’s look at where he fits with their internal options as well as which major leaguers the club could target after the lockout.
Internal Center Field Options
The Yankees have several players who could handle center field, but that doesn’t mean they should.
The conversation about the newest Yankee must begin with defense. He collected three consecutive Gold Gloves with Atlanta from 2016-2018. His ability to go get ’em fueled his 3.6 bWAR average over the first five years of his career (2014-2018). Offensively, he’s always been a below-average lefty swinger with little power who rarely walks, but his .280 career batting average shows he collects enough singles to avoid being an automatic out. He suffered multiple injuries and a complete bottoming out of his bat over the past three years, and he was released by both Atlanta and Cincinnati during the 2021 season. At 31 years old, he’s not too far removed from prime-Brett Gardner-ish production if he can get healthy and start slapping singles again.
If the season started today, Hicks would be the starter. (Also if the season started today, the players would be very cold.) The good news is that he appears to be healthy after a torn tendon sheath in his wrist ended his 2021 season prematurely. He recently participated in the Dominican Winter League, hitting .265/.321/.408 over 12 games. Now 32, he has only surpassed 400 PA in one season of his career has never been an elite defender. As he’s signed through 2025, he’ll have to transition to a fourth outfielder role at some point. Whether or not he can still start in center remains unclear, but they will need a solid backup plan.
Joey Gallo/Aaron Judge
Both of the big corner outfielders have center field experience. They’re also both excellent in left and right. Their versatility will be put to use at some point in 2022, but if either one is the primary center fielder for most of the season, something will have gone wrong. Still, it’s possible the team could acquire another corner outfielder, then use Gallo and Judge to rotate in center field with Hicks, Inciarte, or whoever else.
Florial is a 24-year-old former top prospect on the 40-man roster with a career .304/.429/.522 slash line. What’s not to love? The problem is that his minuscule, 28 PA sample in MLB papers over his Triple-A offensive woes. He hit just .218 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2021 with an unsustainable 31 percent strikeout rate over 362 PA. Without a change in his swing and approach, he’s not a feasible long-term option.
External Center Field Options
Pickings are thin on the open market, but with some creativity, there are possibilities.
There was only one true starting-caliber center fielder available in free agency at the beginning of the offseason. That was Starling Marte, who already agreed with the Mets. Both Kris Bryant and Michael Conforto have experience in center, but in the extremely unlikely event the Yankees sign either of them, they’d probably be better off with Judge or Gallo in the middle of the defense. Seiya Suzuki is migrating over from Japan. BP’s Ryan Garcia profiled why he would be a great fit for the Yankees, and not just because of Michael Kay’s home run call.
If they sign a center fielder other than Suzuki to a major-league contract, it won’t be anyone guaranteed to start. The best remaining players are probably Kevin Pillar and Odúbel Herrera. Pillar turns 33 in January and only achieved a .277 OBP in a fourth outfielder role last year. Herrera had an okay year on the field in 2021, but he was suspended for most of the 2019 season following a domestic violence charge, then was designated for assignment. The Yankees don’t need to add another player with that kind of dark history.
Given the underwhelming options available, the most likely free-agent center fielder seems like…
Gardy needs no introduction. Now 38 years old, he can’t really hit much or steal bases anymore, but he does draw plenty of walks. Defensively, he’s not the star he used to be. He recorded zero Outs Above Average in both 2020 and 2021. All Yankees fans think of him fondly, but clearly, he’s lost a step. Settling for another year with him in center field would be like going to the fridge to make a sandwich, realizing you’re out of meat and cheese, and then just eating three slices of white bread. It’s time for him to sign a one-day contract with either the Bombers or the Pinstripers on Old Timers Day.
By far, the best center fielder who could be had via trade is Ketel Marte, a.k.a. the one good player on the Diamondbacks. The 28-year-old switch hitter slashed .318/.377/.532 last year while playing center field and second base. He’s under contract through 2024 with club options and he’ll earn just $8.4 million this season. Needless to say, Arizona will command an enormous return of top prospects to move him.
Pittsburgh star Bryan Reynolds is just as good, if not better than Marte. He’s only 26, coming off his first All-Star appearance, has a clean injury history, and is not yet eligible for arbitration. In other words, he’s too good to acquire. The Pirates are said to be asking for some of the most elite prospects in baseball in return. Most likely, they won’t even trade him at all.
Another tradeable player is Kevin Kiermaier, though he might be off-limits to the Yankees. The Rays could be loath to trade him to a division rival. Nevertheless, he remains one of the game’s premier defenders at the position as well as a good-enough hitter from the left side.
There could always be a surprise trade of a player no one expected to move. MLB front offices like to get creative sometimes. Outside of that, there are slim picking available at the position this offseason. Let’s hope Hicks and Inciarte (if he makes the team) turn back the clock and become the player they need them to be.