02/13/2004 2:52 PM ET
New look for Yankees' outfield
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- It's strange to think that after just one season, Hideki Matsui may find himself as the senior member of the Yankees' outfield on Opening Day, but that's how New York's season is shaping up.
|Who plays with Hideki Matsui in the outfield remains to be seen. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Yankees signed Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton this winter, solidifying their shaky right-field spot and adding some speed to center field. The moves may result in Bernie Williams becoming a full-time designated hitter, but the 35-year-old veteran isn't ready to give up his job just yet.
Williams arrived in Tampa this week to begin his spring workouts, even though pitchers and catchers aren't scheduled to report until Tuesday. Position players aren't scheduled to report until Feb. 22, but several players, including Sheffield, Derek Jeter, Alfonso Soriano and Jorge Posada, are already in Tampa.
Matsui on Friday left Japan, as he prepares for his sophomore season in the Majors. Matsui will try to improve upon his impressive rookie campaign, during which he hit .287 with 16 home runs and 106 RBIs.
"Today is the start of my second season as a Major Leaguer," Matsui told The Kyodo News. "I'm leaving for America and I'm in high spirits."
Whom Matsui sees when he looks to his left this season is a big question. Lofton's two-year, $6.2 million contract is an indication that the Yankees aren't expecting to use him off the bench, but earlier this winter, manager Joe Torre hinted that the center-field job would be an open competition between Lofton and Williams.
"When we go to Spring Training, I'm going to put our best team on the field," Torre said in December. "Nobody dictates that part of my job to me, so we're going to leave with the team that I think is the best overall starting team next year.
"That's what Spring Training is all about, trying to decide which way your team is better," Torre added. "It's a nice problem I have because I have capable people. When you have to make a decision, you hope it's a tough one. There's nothing cut and dry."
Williams batted .263 with 15 home runs and 64 RBIs in 119 games last season, missing more than six weeks after knee surgery. Scott Boras, who represents Williams, thinks that with his knee fully rehabbed from the surgery, Williams, a four-time Gold Glove winner, will be out to prove that he is still the most capable player for the center-field job.
Lofton, who batted .296 with 12 homers, 46 RBIs and 30 stolen bases for the Pirates and Cubs last season, enters the spring expecting to be the everyday center fielder, but the 36-year-old is ready for whatever comes his way.
"I'm going to go in and do what the team wants me to do," Lofton said after signing his deal. "If they want me to play center field, I'll play center field. If they want me to park cars, I'll do that. At this point, I'll do whatever they want me to do, and that's my role."
General manager Brian Cashman thinks Williams, currently the longest-tenured Yankee, will accept whatever role Torre decides is best for him.
"Bernie has been an awesome Yankee, on and off the field, and he understands what's going on," Cashman said. "Joe had small conversations with him during the summer about him possibly not being in center in the future. He's motivated, he wants to earn this thing back and prove his stuff, so that might be a fringe benefit out of this."
Sheffield's arrival was far less controversial than Lofton's, as the seven-time All-Star fills a hole that has been present since Paul O'Neill retired after the 2001 season. Sheffield, who finished third in the National League MVP voting last season, batted .330 with 39 homers and 132 RBIs for Atlanta.
"This is a player we've talked about long before this year," said Torre, who attended the press conference. "He's been highly thought of. He's a big player."
No matter who ends up where, the Yankees' powerful lineup will include eight former All-Stars.
"This is probably one of the best lineups I've ever been a part of," said Sheffield, who played with All-Stars Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Marcus Giles, Rafael Furcal and Javy Lopez last season. "The guys hitting seventh, eighth and ninth would be hitting third or fourth on normal teams. We have to feel good going into Spring Training."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.