Commentary

Yankees add a grand new centerpiece

Only question is whether New York is paying for the '08 Granderson or '09 version?

Originally Published: December 8, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Yankees look at Curtis Granderson, they don't see a man with a plummeting OPS and funky numbers against that sneaky portion of the population that insists on throwing a baseball left-handed.

No sir. When the Yankees look at Curtis Granderson, they see Derek Jeter.

Or they see a man who reminds them of Derek Jeter, anyway:

Polished. Professional. Comfortable in front of any camera. Comfortable inside his own skin.

They see a man, in other words, who gives them no sense of trepidation whatsoever that he can play baseball in New York, walk the high-pressure streets of New York or handle everything that comes with New York, from Page Six to Hank Steinbrenner.

So on Tuesday, the Yankees made Granderson the centerpiece of the first (uh, make that only) significant trade of the 2009 winter meetings -- a three-team, seven-player, sport-rattler of a deal that deposited smokeballer Edwin Jackson in Arizona, four high-ceiling young players in Detroit and Curtis Granderson in The Bronx, N.Y.

It's a trade that wasn't announced Tuesday. That won't happen before sometime Wednesday, once all the medical fine print has been sifted through.

But after everyone has left the podium, this will go down as a deal that changes the face of all three franchises. The Tigers get younger and cheaper. The Diamondbacks get a revamped rotation without having to plunge into the free-agent shark waters. And the champs?

[+] EnlargeCurtis Granderson
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireThe Yankees are counting on Curtis Granderson to be a key figure in their future.

The champs get Curtis Granderson.

He's a man who may not be the face of the franchise. But he's clearly now the face of their future.

Last winter, the Yankees renovated their roster with dollars. But their first major thunderbolt of this offseason wasn't about the money -- for a change.

It was about an aging nucleus, about a team whose World Series roster included 10 players age 33 or older, about general manager Brian Cashman's mission to make this team younger and more athletic, and to do it sooner, not later.

So out the door went 22-year-old outfield stud Austin Jackson, widely viewed as either the Yankees' No. 1 or No. 2 prospect. And out that door, right along with him, went their most dependable left-handed reliever last year, Phil Coke. And the third guy on that exit ramp was pitcher Ian Kennedy, a guy the Yankees once balked at trading for Johan Santana.

That was a long ways from the price tag the Tigers and Diamondbacks were pushing for when these trade talks began. Ultimately, the price tag didn't include Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain or highly regarded left-hander Mike Dunn.

But merely by their willingness to include Austin Jackson, the Yankees were telling us all exactly what they think Curtis Granderson is going to become. And that is a man who is going to be way more than just another name on their scorecard.

They envision him as their next big-time center fielder …

The kind of outfielder they haven't had since Bernie Williams

A guy whose left-handed power is a Match.com fit for their ballpark …

A fellow whose flair for swinging and missing can be helped by hitting guru Kevin Long …

And, maybe most of all, a personality who can be safely trotted out to face any camera crew in town.

Well, it's easy to envision Granderson being all of that.

But it's also easy for the skeptics to envision the Yankees being dead wrong about him.

"It all depends on which Curtis Granderson shows up," said one NL scout on Tuesday, "the '08 Granderson or the '09 Granderson."

And he's dead on, because the 2009 Curtis Granderson definitely had his issues.

His batting average slipped from .280 to under .250. His OPS was down 78 points (to .780). His 141 strikeouts were the ninth most in the American League.

His .319 on-base percentage out of the leadoff hole was the second-lowest in the league, ahead of only B.J. Upton. And his .183 average against left-handers was the worst by any AL hitter with 100 or more plate appearances.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Damon
Howard Smith/US PresswireWith Curtis Granderson about to enter the fold, the Yankees can take a harder line in negotiations with free agent Johnny Damon.

"And you know what really disappointed me," said one scout, "was how he played center field, not getting balls you expect a guy like him to get to."

There was no denying any of that, even though Granderson graded out as an above-average defensive center fielder overall according to the Fielding Bible's plus-minus ratings.

But was that just One of Those Years? Or was this some kind of ominous U-turn in the wrong direction? Well, it's obvious how the Yankees saw it.

They saw a player whose home/road splits suggested that Comerica Park killed him. Granderson hit just .230 at home last season, with a gruesome .388 slugging percentage and only 10 homers in 309 at-bats.

But everywhere else, Granderson slugged .516, with 20 homers in 322 at-bats. And he hit 25 of his 30 homers to right field -- the fourth-highest total in the American League (behind Mark Teixeira, Carlos Pena and Hideki Matsui).

So you think he might do a little damage in Yankee Stadium, or what?

"He's going to lift some fly balls," said one of the scouts quoted earlier. "So it's tough to say they made a mistake. At first glance, you say the Yankees gave up too much. But when you look at it, Austin Jackson is a piece the Yankees can afford to give up, because they're just not going to play a kid every day until they turn that club over, until Derek Jeter is done and A-Rod's on the back end of that contract."

Of course, Granderson is only the first piece in the Yankees' offseason jigsaw. They still have to reel Andy Pettitte back in, then figure out whether Johnny Damon is willing to return and play left on a short-term deal, then hone in on one more starting pitcher -- which could be anyone from Roy Halladay or John Lackey to a fourth-starter type.

But it's very possible that their biggest acquisition of this post-tickertape offseason was the man they traded for Tuesday. And next year this time, we'll all know if that's the right call or the wrong call.

"The price was steep," said one scout. "But I think this guy is a nice piece for their club. I have my concerns about him. But I still think he'll fit into that lineup just fine."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com