Yanks turn focus to center field

Yanks turn offseason focus to center field

NEW YORK -- Bernie Williams has been the Yankees' starting center fielder for the past 15 years, but when the Bombers open the 2006 campaign, there will be somebody new roaming the middle of the outfield for New York.

Williams is a free agent, and the club has made no secret of its desire to bring in some new blood at the position. That leaves the Yankees in the position to acquire a player via the free agent market or in a trade, giving them several options.

Here's a breakdown of where the Yankees could go to fill the void in center field:

Torii Hunter: The Yankees know what Hunter offers, having seen him blossom into an All-Star throughout his career. Hunter is a four-time Gold Glove Award winner, having won each year from 2001-04, and his stellar defense would be precisely what the Yankees have been missing at the position.

Hunter sold his home in Minnesota this year, perhaps a sign that he expects to be dealt this winter. With a salary of $10.75 million in 2006 and a $12 million option in 2007, the cost-conscious Twins could look to move the 30-year-old. New York would be hard-pressed to trade Robinson Cano or Chien-Ming Wang, but prospects such as Philip Hughes or Eric Duncan could probably be dealt.

Juan Pierre: Like Hunter, Pierre could be moved by the Marlins because of salary concerns as he enters his final year before free agency. Pierre could earn a bump in arbitration to the $5 million-$7 million range, which Florida is unlikely to take on for 2006. Pierre's 2005 season wasn't his best, as his .276 average marked the lowest of his career and a 50-point drop-off from 2004.

That said, he did steal 57 bases and would give the Yankees a leadoff hitter, allowing Joe Torre to drop Derek Jeter back to the No. 2 spot and Alex Rodriguez to the third hole. Pierre has one more thing going for him: George Steinbrenner loves to acquire players who have beaten his team. Pierre played a big role in the Marlins' 2003 World Series win over the Yankees, batting .333 with a .481 on-base percentage.

Other potential trade targerts include the Mets' Mike Cameron and the Dodgers' Milton Bradley, each of whom could be shopped by their respective clubs.

Johnny Damon: The best center fielder on the free-agent market, which also includes Preston Wilson. Damon seems like an unlikely fit for the Yankees. After spending the past four years with the Red Sox, Damon has earned a place in the rivalry, so it would be very strange to see him don the pinstripes.

Of course, if Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs can join the Yankees, why not Damon? His defensive skills are better than Williams, though his arm is just as weak. Damon offers leadoff ability, having hit .316 with a .366 on-base percentage and 18 steals in 2005, but defense is the Yankees' top priority in center, so Damon will likely end up elsewhere.

Brian Giles: The two-time All-Star isn't exactly the conventional choice for center field, though he has played 300 of his 1,360 career games at the position. Of that total, he has played just 36 games in center over the last four seasons after playing 241 games in center between 1999-2001.

Giles, a free agent, would give the Yankees a decent bat at the position, though his numbers over the past three years haven't come close to the stellar run he had from 1999-2002. He could also be signed to play left field, which brings us to the next option...

Hideki Matsui: The Yankees are expected to re-sign Matsui, who has played 393 of his 487 games in the Majors in left field. But Matsui has played 77 games in center for the Yankees, including 28 in 2005. Matsui was a center fielder in Japan, so the position is hardly uncomfortable for him. By moving Matsui to center, the Yankees could pursue a new left fielder, possibly Giles, to fill that hole.

Bubba Crosby: If the Yankees decide that none of the options on the market are worth the asking price, they could give Crosby a shot at the starting job. Crosby hit .276 in 98 at-bats this season, including a .327 mark in the final month. He even started two of New York's postseason games, as Torre decided that his defense was more important than Williams' offense. Crosby will be back with the Yankees either way, though playing time is far from a certainty.

Ken Griffey Jr: Is it possible? Sure, why not? Griffey's Reds are not going anywhere, and with a crowded outfield featuring Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena, Cincinnati could certainly use Griffey's eight-figure salary to bring in some other players. This scenario is not very likely, but wouldn't it be fun to see Junior reunited with A-Rod and Randy Johnson, his former Seattle teammates?

Alfonso Soriano: Yes, we're still talking about center field. Soriano has said he doesn't want to move from second base to the outfield, but would that still be the case if he had a chance to return to the Yankees? Soriano loves New York, still keeps an apartment in the area, and is a year away from free agency. If the Yanks can convince him to move to center, he could be a good fit. Never say never ... two years ago, no one thought it was possible that A-Rod would replace Aaron Boone at third base.

Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.